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By Arudou Debito, Sapporo, Japan
Excerpted and adapted from upcoming book, "HANDBOOK FOR NEWCOMERS, MIGRANTS, AND IMMIGRANTS:  Setting Down Roots in Japan" (published March 2008).
Published by Success Stories Japan, a newsletter for corporate executives, issue dated June 2006.
(Referential Links for claims made within the article appear at the very bottom.)
For many readers of Success Stories, understanding the demographics of the Japanese market is essential to your business.  This essay will deal with one fundamental facet, which affects consumer preferences, disposable income, and the stability of the oldest business proposition in existence:  Marriage and the Family Unit.
Given the strong image of "docile Japanese wives" and "Japan's selfless corporate workers", many readers might be envisioning Japan as a homogeneous land of stable families and low divorce rates.  But let's look at the figures:
According to Japan's Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare, there have been fewer marriages between Japanese in recent years:  weddings steadily dropped from 764,161 in 1995 to 680,906 in 2004, an 11% decrease.
In the same time period, international marriages, where one partner is Japanese, have jumped from 27,727 to 39,551 couples, or a 43% increase.  (And let's answer the inevitable question of  "Who's marrying whom?":  Perhaps counterintuitively (but not so when you consider how many farmers import brides), overwhelmingly more Japanese men marry foreigners than the other way around--at a ratio of nearly eight to two, and growing!)
However, perhaps because people prefer to leave the altar with smiles and hope for happy endings, less attention is paid to divorce figures.  Between 1995 and 2004, broken unions in Japan also increased nearly without pause:  from 199,016 to 270,804 divorces, a 36% increase.  Of those, however, divorces between Japanese have plateaued, even decreased, in recent years.  International divorces, however, have increased steadily, nearly doubling within the same time period (for Japanese men-Foreign women:  from 6,153 to 12,071 divorces; for Japanese women-Foreign men:  from 1,839 to 3,228 divorces).
This essay chooses not to speculate on the possible "cultural" or "sociological" reasons behind these numbers (since it is difficult to even accurately calculate a "divorce rate").  Suffice it to say that marriage in any society to anyone is risky.
However, marriage within the Japanese system is especially risky, because if it goes sour, people regardless of nationality can lose big.  Enforcement of laws connected to alimony, child support, visitation rights, court orders, and custody in Japan is very weak.  If you marry a Japanese, have children, and then get a divorce, you--and especially you as a foreign parent--could lose custody and all access to them.  This may affect not only your bottom lines, but also your future personal plans in Japan.
Divorce in Japan, like marriage, is easy if both parties agree to it.  All you have to do is head for the Ward Office and fill out a Divorce Form (rikon todoke--essentially the opposite procedure for getting married using a kekkon todoke).  Spouses put their inkan stamp on the todoke (signatures are not valid), and file it with the Ward Office.  That is all.  They are divorced.  This is called kyougi rikon, or  "divorce by mutual consent", which happens, estimates a lawyer friend who specializes in these cases, in about 80% of divorces.  Assets, possessions, or property are divided up either informally or through the legal community, and you make a clean sweep of it and get on with your lives.
However, if both parties do not agree to divorce, things can get very messy.  According to Japan Civil Code Article 770, there are five grounds for unilateral divorce:
1) infidelity

2) malicious desertion (which for foreign spouses can include being deported)

3) uncertainty whether or not the spouse is dead or alive for three years or more,

4) serious mental disease without hope of recovery, or

5) a "grave reason" which makes continuing the marriage impossible.
What is considered a "grave reason" is unclear, and at the discretion of a judge if things go to court.  One reason can be the wife refusing the husband sexual relations for a long period of time (a reason only men can claim).  Another can be the husband refusing the family unit his financial support (which only women can claim).  However, the simple fact that you do not like each other anymore, i.e. a matter of "irreconcilable differences" (seishin teki kutsuu), is not, according to lawyer Mizunuma Isao of IGM Law Offices, Sapporo, considered to be sufficient grounds.

Here things begin to pinch.  If one side refuses to agree to the divorce, you will have to negotiate until you do, which can take many years.  You can legally separate, but this is not a divorce, and you cannot remarry.  Moreover, if there is a secret relationship behind the breakup, a spouse in Japan can sue your new partner for damages, demanding both you and your partner pay consolation for wrecking the marriage!
If you after talking things out you still cannot agree to divorce, you go to Family Court.  The first step is called choutei (mediation), where you sit down with three representatives, i.e. two "upstanding members of the community" (who are generally not certified counselors) and one representative of the court.  This mediation system is designed to give disputing couples a forum for their grievances without snarling up the courts.  However, the role of the choutei is not to find fault on either side, rather to help both sides reach an agreement--i.e. reconcile or divorce.  Meetings take place around every month or two, generally in separate rooms for a few hours, and can continue for years.
If the couple cannot reach an agreement even after court mediation (which is estimated to happen in around 5% of all divorce cases), then the next step is a lawsuit in Family Court.  There, a judge will only rule that a contested divorce is legitimate if you can prove that the marriage has completely "collapsed" (hatan).
This is one of the reasons why divorces in Japan get messy.  Since judges hardly ever grant divorces to the person who did wrong, you must show that your partner was at fault.  In other words, you cannot separate amicably--you have to dredge something up.  This does not create a constructive atmosphere; it can cause even more feelings of ill-will and a future desire for revenge.  Also, since laws governing perjury in Japan are at best weakly enforced in civil cases, your spouse may make some exaggerated claims about your past in court with impunity.  If it goes to court, it will get very nasty.
After all that, if the judge does not rule the marriage has actually "collapsed", all you can do is wait.  Sometimes former couples still reside together yet live divorced lives (katei nai bekkyo) of no contact.  Separations of at least five years (ten to twenty years are not extraordinary in Japan) are necessary before a contested divorce may be granted by a court.  Meanwhile, if there are children who need feeding, child support will be assessed by looking at a fee schedule created by the Bar Association, which measures both parents' income and determines an appropriate monthly sum.
Divorce proceedings and the aftermath are tough on the kids in any society, but Japan further complicates things through legal negligence.  During separation, divorce court, and onwards, the parent who does not have custody may have problems meeting the children for more than a few hours a month, if at all.  Visitation rights are not granted before the divorce is complete, but even then, Japan has no legal mechanism to enforce visitation rights or other court-negotiated settlements afterwards.
Also, enforcement mechanisms for the payment of alimony or child support have loopholes.  For example, if your spouse owes you money but refuses to pay, you must know the home address, the workplace, and bank account details of your spouse in order to seek redress. However, if your spouse changes any of these things and happens not to notify you, you will have to track down those details yourself, which often requires hiring your own private detective.  The police or government officials will not get involved.
What makes this situation especially difficult for international, and especially intercontinental, divorces is that foreign partners have extreme difficulty being granted custody of children in Japan.   In a March 31, 2006 interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, lawyer Jeremy D. Morely, of the International Family Law Office in New York, stated:
"Children are not returned from Japan, period, and it is a situation that happens a lot with children of international marriages with kids who are over in Japan.  They do not get returned.  Usually, the parent who has kept a child is Japanese, and under the Japanese legal system they have a family registration system whereby every Japanese family has their own registration with a local ward office.  And the name of registration system is the koseki system.  So every Japanese person has their koseki, and a child is listed on the appropriate koseki.  Once a child is listed on the family register, the child belongs to that family.  Foreigners don't have a family register and so there is no way for them to actually have a child registered as belonging to them in Japan.  There is an international treaty called the Hague Convention on the civil aspects of international child abduction, and Japan is the only G7 country that is not a party to the Hague Convention."[1]
This means that if things go intercontinentally ballistic (say, a Japanese spouse abducts a foreigner's children back to Japan), the foreigner will lose all contact with them, according to the Children's Rights Network.
Even if the foreigner tries to go through proper domestic channels, he loses.  One clear example is the Murray Wood Case.  Wood, a resident of Canada, was awarded custody of his children in 2004 by Canadian courts.  Yet when his children were abducted to Japan by ex-wife Ayako Wood, he found himself powerless to enforce the court order.  Not only were the Canadian Government's demands to extradite Ayako ignored by the Japanese government, but also Japan's Saitama District and High Courts awarded custody to her, essentially declaring that "uprooting the children from the current stable household is not in the child's best interest".  What then?  If the foreigner takes the law into his own hands and abducts them back, he will be arrested for kidnapping by the Japanese police, as was witnessed in a recent case handled by the American Embassy.  Consequently, Japan has become a safe haven for international child abductions.
The author does not wish to give the impression that divorce is any more likely if the spouse is a Japanese.  "Any marriage," my lawyer sources dryly indicate, "is a gamble."  However, what raises the stakes of the transaction is the fact that Japan has weak-to-nonexistent recourse to prevent potential abuses.  According to Colin P.A. Jones J.D., Associate Professor at Doshisha University Law School, the system is geared to support the distaff side of the divorce.  The woman, as wife and mother, is given overwhelming priority in divorce cases, as opposed to viewing each divorce on a case-by-case basis (spawning a cottage industry of guidebooks on wringing the most out of your man).  Yes, weak-to-nonexistent enforcement of laws and court rulings mean that men in the Japanese system (as compared to, for example, the American) do not stand to lose enormously financially.  They will, however, lose their children.
Veterans of broken Japanese marriages very often lead separate lives without any connection to each other or the children for decades.  (Prime Minister Koizumi's nonexistent relationship with his youngest son Yoshinaga is a prime example.)  It is a system that encourages "fortress Moms", "deadbeat Dads", and "who dares, wins" custody battles.  With all this, it is no wonder why marriage is not an option for some people, and why Japanese divorce statistics may in fact be artificially low (although we should see a jump from 2007, due to a reform where wives will be able to claim part of their ex-husbands' pension).
In this era of modernity and more lifestyle choices, if Japan ever aspires to the ideals of "upholding the sanctity of marriage" and "strengthening the family unit", it will have to reform this system to make all parties more accountable for relationships gone sour.  Keep this information in mind if your business involves this sector of the Japanese market.
Referential Links:

Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare statistics on marriage and divorce in Japan:

Regarding Issues of Divorce and Child Custody in Japan:

The Children's Rights Network Japan

The International Family Law Office (Lawyer Jeremy D. Morely, Esq.):

Regarding PM Koizumi Junichiro's divorce--the perfect case study of nonaccountability:

The Murray Wood Case
AUTHOR BIO:  ARUDOU Debito, a naturalized Japanese citizen, is an Associate Professor at Hokkaido Information University, and a columnist for the Japan Times.  His books, 'JAPANESE ONLY'--The Otaru Hot Springs Case and Racial Discrimination in Japan (Akashi Shoten Inc., revised 2004 and 2006) are available in English and Japanese.  His latest book, "Guidebook for Newcomers:  Setting Down Roots in Japan" (working title), is being co-authored with a Japanese lawyer and will be available in early 2007.  This essay is an excerpt and adaptation from Chapter 4 of Guidebook.  The author may be reached at http://www.debito.org and debito@debito.org.
May 31, 2006

[1] Interview, Canadian Broadcasting Company, March 31, 2006, http://www.crnjapan.com/articles/2006/en/20060331-japanambassadorinterview.html

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Copyright 2006, Arudou Debito, Sapporo, Japan