SUCCESS STORIES: Article on Divorce in Japan


Hi All. Arudou Debito here. What follows is a version of an essay recently published by executive newsletter Success Stories (, and is written with that audience in mind.

Excerpted and adapted from our upcoming book, “Guidebook for Newcomers: Setting Down Roots in Japan” (working title), to be published in early 2007. I’d like to say “enjoy” as usual, but it’s not that kind of topic. Be advised, however, that the information within is very important to those hoping to stay and and create firmer roots in Japan. Because if a marriage with a Japanese goes sour, the system is not designed to protect both parents, and you as a foreigner could really lose big. FYI. Arudou Debito in Sapporo


By Arudou Debito, Sapporo, Japan,
(All substantiation for claims made within can be found in the Referential Links section 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”, 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.

[1] Interview, Canadian Broadcasting Company, March 31, 2006,

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

About the author of this article:

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 the Guidebook. The author may be reached at and

June 20, 2006



Hello All. Arudou Debito here. Contents of this week’s newsletter:



June 17, 2006 Freely Forwardable


Last report, I told you about the “emergency publication” of a book designed to scupper any prospects of a law safeguarding human rights in Japan (particularly the Jinken Yougo Houan, currently under consideration by the Diet). I mentioned a manga within which illustrated the “abuses” of such a law, like denying obdurate landlords the “right” to refuse narrow-eyed Chinese tenants, denying employers the “right” to refuse to hire or fire lazy darkie women foreigners, etc.

Well, no need to leave people out of the party. Friend and fellow naturalized Japanese MIKI Kaoru (ne Coal Restall) has kindly translated the manga into English with verve and flair. See them with comments on his blog at

Or see them side by side in English and Japanese at



Alert commuter Steven H. spotted this: The return of the “BEWARE OF FOREIGNERS” type of signs paid for with our tax monies.

In Shinagawa Station, one of Japan’s biggest, there is a stadium-size banner reading:


on the obverse, and
on the reverse.
Sponsored specifically in name by your friendly Ministry of Justice, Tokyo Immigration Bureau. See photos and commentary at
Photos again courtesy Kaoru.

Sheesh. This isn’t even the first time this banner has appeared. Last time (June 2004) the Japan Times even put it on their Community Page, with an indictment of Japan’s emerging draconian Immigration policies.
Guess by recycling they’re getting our money’s worth.

These sorts of activities, especially when sponsored by the government, have been roundly condemned by the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur Mr. Doudou Diene as encouraging racism and xenophobia. See what I mean at

Segueing nicely from official meanspiritedness into local government benevolence:



Why am I bringing this to your attention? Because Mayor Kitawaki presided over one of the more progressive policy drives towards foreigners in Japan’s history.

After Japan’s first court victory citing international treaty in a racial discrimination case (Ana Bortz vs. Seibido Trading, 1999), which just happened to take place in his city, Mayor Kitawaki in October 2001 convened a meeting of 13 cities from six prefectures with high foreign worker populations. Issuing a historical document entitled the “Hamamatsu Sengen” (Hamamatsu Declaration), these government heads demanded the national government create policy guaranteeing foreigners the modicum of social welfare entitled to every worker and resident of Japan. (At the time even the regional government, Shizuoka Prefecture, refused to grant National Health Insurance (Kokumin Kenkou Hoken) to foreigners–because, they argued, they weren’t nationals!) Kitawaki and company submitted this proposal to Tokyo Mandarinland Kasumigaseki in November 2001, where it was duly ignored.

It should have ended there, but to his credit, Kitawaki cares–enough so that, like Diene, he’s doing a follow-up. Details as follows, courtesy of a reporter friend:

A Speech by Mayor Kitawaki

Non-journalists or non-diplomats, phone and ask if you can get in.
Press Center at 03-3501-3401

The full text of the “Hamamatsu Sengen”, with a brief in English, is available at:

More on the Ana Bortz Case (from the NY Times) and discrimination in the Shizuoka area at



After decades spent by domestic activists getting Japan to repeal fingerprinting for all foreign residents, the Japanese government last month reinstated them all over again–for all non-Zainichi foreigners entering and returning to Japan. On June 6, The Japan Times ran a debate on the pros and cons of fingerprinting as an anti-terrorist measure, with two friends from internet activist group The Community, Scott Hards and Matt Dioguardi, arguing pro and con respectively. Worth a look. See the articles (after free registration) at :



It caused enough of a furor that the JT ran a follow-up article on it one week later.
Community Page readers on Japan’s new immigration law

I think you can probably guess where I stand on this issue, but FYI:

This singling out of foreigners for special treatment, predicated on the need for, to quote the ministries, “control of infectious diseases and terrorism”, is flawed even before we get into the science. If you’re going to fingerprint people, do it universally, without the assumption that foreigners are a higher risk or are more likely to be a detriment to society. Of course, politically that’s not possible at the moment (the Japanese public wouldn’t stand for it), so do it to the disenfranchised first. My previous Japan Times columns on Japan’s anti-terrorist and immigration policies available at:

On “Gaijin Chips” (IC Cards) :
On “Gaijin Dragnets” (the NPA illegally deputizing hotels) :
On Policymaking Based upon Fear (the harbinger article for future anti-terrorist policies) :
On Overdoing Immigration Crackdowns:
On NPA “Gaijin Biota Fingerprinting” Research:
And more at
The Community info site at
Newest article first. Trace the arc.

Thus to me, reinstating fingerprinting was years in the making and an inevitable outcome, sadly. It’s a matter of CITYS (See, I Told You So)…

Fortunately, important people would agree this is part of a bad trend:



I mentioned last report about UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s press conference in Tokyo I had the privilege of attending, and a reporter friend asking about Japan’s new fingerprint policy:
Question: “Japan yesterday passed a law reinstating fingerprinting for foreigners ( Special Rapporteur Doudou Diene is also here investigating the situation of racism and xenophobia within Japan. Do you have any comment concerning Japan’s election to the Human Rights Council and its domestic situation vis-a-vis xenophobia?”

Annan’s answer: “I was unaware that Japan had passed this law. I am aware that Diene is here but we have not met to discuss his trip or findings. I am distressed that many countries worldwide are increasingly legislating xenophobic tendencies in the name of fighting terrorism, and I would hope that people will understand that legislating away civil liberties for peoples within its borders is not the proper path to take.”

Well, a friend dug up the text of the entire press conference.
Tokyo, Japan, 18 May 2006 – Secretary-General’s Press Conference at the National Press Club

The exact quote of the question and answer was:
Q: Today, here in Tokyo, Mr. Doudou Diene of the United Nations Commission of Human Rights said that Japan should take more steps in order to fight the discrimination against foreigners, and also regretted the fact that yesterday the Diet passed a new law to fingerprint every foreigner coming to Japan. Do you have a comment on that? We would discuss the report of Mr. Diene [Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance] generally. Thank you.

SG: No, I haven’t met [Doudou] Diene. I understand he’s here in Tokyo, and I have not discussed his report with him. And I’m not familiar with the new law that you referred to. But let me say this. On the issue of discrimination and xenophobia, I must say I’m getting worried. It’s increasing around the world in many societies and in many communities where politicians often use the presence of foreigners in their midst for political advantages. And when you look at the way migration is becoming a major issue around the world, and the way foreigners are being profiled, it is a very worrying situation. In fact, at the next General Assembly, one of the topics we will be talking about at a high-level dialogue will be migration so that all the leaders of the world will have a chance to discuss migration. I will be submitting a report to them. And so we need to not focus narrowly on this issue. Ever since terrorism reared its head since 9/11, and governments’ determination to protect themselves and to fight terrorism, I have noticed erosion of human rights and civil liberties. And I have had the chance to speak out on this and indicate that there should be no trade-off between effective action against terrorism and civil liberties and civil rights of individuals. And if we allow our civil liberties and our basic belief in rule of law to be eroded, because we are fighting the terrorists, then we are giving the terrorists a victory they could never have won on their own.

I guess my memory wasn’t too rusty after all…

While we’re at it:



Listen up, Japan:

Historically, migration has improved the well-being not only of individual migrants but of humanity as a whole. And that is still true. In a report that I presented last week to the U.N. General Assembly, I summarize research showing that migration, at least in the best cases, benefits not only the migrants themselves but also the countries that receive them, and even the countries they have left… All in all, countries that welcome migrants and succeed in integrating them into their societies are among the most dynamic — economically, socially and culturally — in the world.
Rest of the article at

Finally, saving the best for last:



It took me some time to get to this academic paper, but once I’d finished it, I realized I had read–and I say this with no hyperbole–probably one of the best dissertations on Japan ever.

Entitled “‘Perversion de l’Histoire’: George Balandier, his disciples, and African History in Japan”, Dr Philips, of Hirosaki University in Aomori Prefecture, starts off talking about how Japan’s academia clings to a long-discredited school of thought (anthropologist Balandier, whose proponents, especially in Japan, ultimately argue that historical analysis only applies to societies with a surviving written account, not an oral one).

That should have made my eyes glaze over (I was unaware of, nor did I care much about, the tensions between historians and anthropologists). But Dr Philips goes far beyond that, expanding the noose while tightening it.

He describes the sad state of Japanese academia (the process of creating carbon-copy research for generations, installing kingpins of dogma who promote time capsules of outmoded and even misinterpreted ideology, little subjected to the Socratic or even scientific method), the effects on Japan’s attitude towards Africans (essentially that of illiterate uncivilized Blacks vs literate civilized non-Blacks–which pops up in Japan’s diplomatic statements to and dealings with the UN and UNESCO), the role of history and education in Japan as a matter of societal engineering, and how it all contributes to Japan’s political economy as a steadfast defender of monoculturalism.

My favorite paragraphs are in the conclusion:

When the relevant powers in Japan have decided a question, discussion of the subject is closed. For example, the debate about whether ethnic conflict is natural and primordial, or whether it is contingent and politically provoked, is not a debate. The existence of a debate is not even acknowledged… Japanese sources universally [hold] that racism had created slavery… This is the way ethnic conflict is conceptualized in Japan, as natural and primordial.

The result of accepting only such perspectives, and of unquestioned obedience to [established academic kingpins]… is apparent if we look carefully at a recent publication in English from Japan…

“What makes up history for people in an unlettered society is an accumulation of memories, an oral history that is indispensable to their perpetuation as a people. Each ethnic group has its own accumulation of memories, which is a representation of their culture and the source of their identity. Independent states in Africa are busy forcing ethnic groups to abandon their memories, considering them to be insignificant for the construction of a modern society, and to be interfering with modernization by preserving a tribal mentality.

Here we see compounded several different, unquestioned Japanese assumptions that have made it so hard for Japanese to understand the outside world. These are the assumptions that history is the official propaganda of nation states, that nations are, or should be, synonymous with ethnic groups, and that memories and traditions can never be held in common across ethnic boundaries, which assumptions are axiomatic in Japan. The ideas that oral traditions are somehow collective memories (instead of individual memories–there really being no such thing as a group mind) and that contemporary African nation states are trying to erase ethnicity (as opposed to tribalism) are flatly at odds with reality… [I]f Japan still has not learned, even 60 years after defeat and occupation by a multi-ethnic United States of America that Japanese leaders thought could never unite in face of an attack by Japan, that multi-ethnic and even multi-racial societies are possible, then Japan… should not be allowed to subvert the existing African states with the goal of replacing them with ethnically defined states.

The lessons of this article, twenty years in the making, reverberate for hours afterwards. You can purchase it at
However, since the copyright belongs to an academic society which charges extortionately in this age of open information ($25 bucks for 25 pages? So much for free academic discourse…), those with light pockets or without research budgets can contact Dr Philips directly at His website

But again, if you can get a copy of the article, do so. It’s really worth it. It’s even worth putting up on the bathroom wall for rereading at your leisure.


All for today. As always, thanks for reading!
Arudou Debito in Sapporo
June 17, 2006