Japan Times on how divorce and child custody in Japan is not a fair fight


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Custody battles: an unfair fight

Japan Times Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2008



“Sport at its best obliterates divisions between peoples, such as ostentatious flag-waving and exaggerated national sentiment.” New York Times senior writer Howard W. French — who has covered China for the past five years, was Tokyo bureau chief from 1999 to 2003, and has lived overseas for all but 3 1/2 years since 1979 — made this astute observation last month after staying up most of the night in Shanghai to watch the remarkable five-set Wimbledon final between Spain’s Rafael Nadal and Switzerland’s Roger Federer.

News photo

Only four days into the long-awaited Beijing Olympics, we can only lament the regression that has taken place after only a month and will most certainly intensify over the next 12 days, in what media often infuses into our very beings as “us vs. them.” Unfortunately, here in Japan, it is not only the media that eagerly participates in this engine of propaganda — it’s the education system itself.

As many may know, in response to new curriculum guidelines introduced in the 2002 school year that included the fostering of “feelings of love for one’s country” as an objective for sixth-grade social studies, students at a number of public elementary schools around the nation have since been subjected to evaluations on their love for Japan. Moreover, in December 2006 this country’s basso ostinato of excessive pride bordering on jingoistic fanaticism ground on as the ruling bloc in the Diet forced through revisions to the Fundamental Law of Education by removing a reference to “respecting the value of the individual” and instead calling on schools to cultivate in students a “love of the national homeland.”

But what impact does this have on families here in which one parent is Japanese and the other is not? A relationship between individuals from different countries will generally experience great friction when one or both of the partners remain more committed to their nationality than they do to their spouse — in other words, when they are more married to their country than they are to each other. And this can become exacerbated when children are encouraged to side with one country or the other. Or, in Japan’s case, taught to love Nippon and then graded on patriotism.

One year ago, The Japan Times (Zeit Gist, Aug. 7) printed some findings of mine that showed that there is a 21.1-percent likelihood that a man who marries a Japanese national will do the following: create at least one child with his spouse (85.2 percent probability), then divorce within the first 20 years of marriage (31 percent), and subsequently lose custody of any children (80 percent). And in a country such as Japan — one that has no visitation rights and neither statutes nor judicial precedents providing for joint custody — loss of custody often translates into complete loss of contact, depending on the desire of the mother.

And if this figure is not startling enough, this year’s calculation using more current data would leave us with an even higher likelihood: 22 percent. Having this information, we must now ask a question that most of us would dread presenting to a friend in a fog of engagement glee: Is it the behavior of a wise man to pursue a course of action that has such a high probability of leaving your future children without any contact with their own father?

Most of us enter a marriage with the realization that divorce is a possibility. Of course, we don’t hope for a breakup, but we accept that unions do occasionally dissolve, and heartbreak — usually temporary — will often result. However, do we ever enter marriage thinking beyond our own selves to the realization that there is a substantial likelihood that our own children — our personal flesh and blood — will be ripped from our lives? Doubtful. But in this country, this loss happens to one in every four fathers. Does it happen more to non-Japanese men? Most likely not. The divorce-to-marriage ratio for relationships between Japanese women and foreign men was nearly 39 percent in 2006. For the entire nation it was 41 percent.

And non-Japanese women married to Japanese men should not rest too comfortably either. Their divorce-to-marriage ratio was over 38 percent in 2006. And even though mothers are usually awarded custody of children, it has been widely reported that foreign parents here in Japan are almost never successful in custody claims, and even if the foreign parent is lucky enough to eventually be granted custody, effecting such a court order may prove very difficult because law enforcement generally prefers to remain uninvolved in these complicated, emotion-filled cases. According to Colin P. A. Jones, a professor at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto, “family courts will usually do what is easy, and giving custody to the Japanese parent is usually going to be easier.”

David Hearn, director of “From the Shadows” (www.fromtheshadowsmovie.com ), a documentary in production about child abduction by parents and relatives in Japan, says that he has so far come across only two cases in which non-Japanese had physical custody going into divorce proceedings and received custody at the ruling. And in one of these two cases, the Japanese parent did not put up much of a fight for the children.

According to Hearn, “Whoever has the children when proceedings begin gets sole custody of the children in virtually every case. It’s then easy to understand why parents do such cruel things to each other, and the kids, to get physical custody before divorce is petitioned for and custody is decided in family court.”

Now, when criticism of Japan or the Japanese system is presented, two forms of rebuttal are common: 1) It’s just as bad or worse elsewhere (as if this somehow justifies poor conditions here); or 2) It has never happened to me (as if a pattern can’t exist unless that particular person is part of it).

When it comes to comparisons of countries, the United States is generally one that is used as a benchmark. And the likelihood of the above progression — from marriage to parenthood to divorce to loss of custody — is slightly greater, at 25.9 percent, in the United States. However, joint custody has become an integral part of U.S. society, and even though 68 percent of mothers receive both sole legal and physical custody in a U.S. divorce, a man who truly desires custody and makes the effort to obtain such is usually going to be accorded some form of it.

As for the second type of criticism — it has never happened to me — well, good for you! Me neither.

So, what is a foreigner deeply in love with a Japanese national and eager to make little Himes and Taros to do? Residing outside Japan is probably the best option. Japan has yet to sign the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, but is reportedly planning to do so by 2010. For the most part, overseas courts would accord greater protection of custodial rights for both parents. And we can only hope that changes that will need to be made to comply with this treaty will encourage alterations to law that will encourage the introduction of joint custody here in Japan.

But as we continue through this Olympic week and into the next — weeks that are sure to be filled with intense, core-emanating, possibly desperate cries for the success of ‘ol “NI-PPON,” followed by tears that deprive one of breath, or jubilation that rivals life’s greatest climaxes — perhaps we should review the intended purpose of these games, as exemplified in the Olympic Creed: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

This creed could also apply to marriage, parenthood and divorce. There is a reason why pride is one of the seven deadly sins: When winning takes precedence in any of these joint endeavors, a great mess is usually left by the one who has triumphed and conquered, and the remaining institution is left blackened. Those in mixed marriages would be wise to tread carefully during these Olympic weeks. Or better yet, cheer for Iceland!

Send comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp

7 comments on “Japan Times on how divorce and child custody in Japan is not a fair fight

  • This is a real issue and should never be snuffed at.
    I have been through a divorce here. My Ex-wife has custody of my son, to which I agreed on the condition that I would see him every week.
    Since she found out I recently got married again and had another son, she has tried on many seperate occasions to threaten me with the line “If blah blah blah, you will never see him again”
    I have used my come back only once and recommend it as a way to put some light on to the concequenses of that action if she actually did stop me seeing Him.
    “When he is 18,I will come and find him, be waiting for him and tell him only one thing… “I have always loved you” then leave the choice of whether to see me again upto him.
    SHe has since not threatened me again so I hope this put some clarity onthe situation for her.
    Now of course this may not work, he is only 5 yrs old now, and she has years to corrupt his thinking, but it did make her stop and think. ( also keeping all the threatening e-mail helps)

    I would like to make sure that no one forgets that it is not just in international marriages that this happens, I had a student tell me that his wife was expecting their first child, when I said how do you feel about becoming a father, was he worried about it( cause as many will know it is a daunting thing) he said “No.”
    He then proceeded to break down into tears. I was sat there thinking OMG I am going to lose my job, but after he calmed down he told me that he did have a daughter who was 8 yrs old that day, but he had not seen her in 7 and a half years, even though the courts had awarded him visitation rights.
    I told him I was in a similar situation, and to remember that one day she may turn up on his doorstep saying “hello” or when she was 18 he could send her a letter.
    Since this incident, I have found a few more Japanese nationals and NJ in the same situation, and my reply is always, “this is my wild card, use it only once” as the title says, it is not a fair fight. (but always keep the kids out of the fight! at least on your side of things)

    My ways are often different from others ways, they work for me, though I know many may not agree with how I handled the situation. I do still see my son every monday, I make sure never to bad mouth his mother and try to make every monday as fun as possible and always tell him how important he is to me.
    Good luck to all those with a loved one out there, remeber the wild card.
    Thats me done for now, feeling a little emotional.

  • Always a fun statistic. Of course even in the US it was if not common than not uncommon even a few decades ago to have the custodial parent keep the non-custodial parent from having contact with the child. Only after some high profile cases and tough criminal penalties for people who violate custodial orders did things get better (not to mention the dead beat problem of those required to pay support and simply choosing not to – which again has thankfully gotten some teeth although plenty still find ways to avoid it and jail in the US).

    It is an interesting problem – the Japanese police seem very interested in keeping things from progressing to the “criminal” even going so far as to try to negotiate civil settlements between parties so they do not have to take down an official complaint. But when it comes to trying to settle a family court matter they have no interest and would rather keep out of it.

    While I can certainly understand (if I remember correctly a police officer is much more likely to be assaulted in a domestic issue than in a robbery) wanting to stay out of an emotionally charged problem, even if Japan signs up to the Hague convention the judiciary has no “teeth” to enforce it and no laws to support it. Even if a judge orders a child returned will the police step in and force the abducting parent to return the child? Will the abducting parent face criminal prosecution? Will the abducting parent’s family who most likely will take active steps to hide the child face criminal prosecution? Probably not – and the legislative branch will likely not take the unpopular steps to criminalize such actions even if Japan does sign up…

  • The original article says,
    “Moreover, in December 2006 this country’s basso ostinato of excessive pride bordering on jingoistic fanaticism ground on as the ruling bloc in the Diet forced through revisions to the Fundamental Law of Education by removing a reference to “respecting the value of the individual” and instead calling on schools to cultivate in students a “love of the national homeland.””

    I am afraid this is absolutely untrue. Following is what the revised law says. Anyone can see “respecting the value of the individual” was never dropped (see 2), or “love of the national homeland” is by no means based on jingoistic fanaticism. (see 5)

    第二条  教育は、その目的を実現するため、学問の自由を尊重しつつ、次に掲げる目標を達成するよう行われるものとする。
    一  幅広い知識と教養を身に付け、真理を求める態度を養い、豊かな情操と道徳心を培うとともに、健やかな身体を養うこと。
    二  個人の価値を尊重して、その能力を伸ばし、創造性を培い、自主及び自律の精神を養うとともに、職業及び生活との関連を重視し、勤労を重んずる態度を養うこと。
    三  正義と責任、男女の平等、自他の敬愛と協力を重んずるとともに、公共の精神に基づき、主体的に社会の形成に参画し、その発展に寄与する態度を養うこと。
    四  生命を尊び、自然を大切にし、環境の保全に寄与する態度を養うこと。
    五  伝統と文化を尊重し、それらをはぐくんできた我が国と郷土を愛するとともに、他国を尊重し、国際社会の平和と発展に寄与する態度を養うこと。

    Fundamental Law of Education
    Article 2. (Objectives of Education)
    To achieve its goals, while respecting academic freedom, education is to be conducted to attain following objectives.
    1. To obtain wide knowledge and culture, to develop an attitude to seek truth, to nurture rich aesthetic sentiments and moral, and to develop healthy body.
    2. To respect individual values, to enhance abilities, to nurture creativity, to develop a spirit of independence and autonomy, and to develop an attitude to respect labor while emphasizing its relation to occupation and everyday life.
    3. To respect justice and responsibility, equality of sexes, and friendship and co-operation of others and oneself, and to nurture an attitude to voluntarily participate in and contribute to the development of the society based on spirit of public.
    4. To nurture an attitude to respect life, to care the nature, and to contribute to the protection of the environment.
    5. To nurture an attitude to respect tradition and culture, to love our country and the hometown that developed them, to respect foreign countries, and to contribute to the peace and development of the international society.

  • Given the impact on kids of their parents divorcing, I’d think that marrying and having them would be an idiotic idea in any country. Have you run the numbers for the United States to see what percentage of children get tossed into a shitty situation because mom and dad were stupid enough to walk down the aisle and procreate?

  • Bottle Water says:

    Quite ironic for Japanese government which felt the pain of declining population while 邪魔 immigrations or international marriage that “might” help raise the birthrate.


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