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Story Publication logo May 23, 2024

Landmark Bill Marks Changes for Japan’s Child Custody Decisions

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Image by Alexandra Nakamitsu. Japan, 2023.

Sitting in a cafe next to one of Tokyo’s busiest train stations, Naoto Matsumura recounts one of the most difficult experiences of his life: the moment he realized he all but lost his daughter.

His social media bio describes him as many things, a freelance IT technician, an entrepreneurship coach—and a representative for the joint custody movement in Japan.

In 2018, Matsumura and his ex-wife filed for divorce. After a bitter custody battle, he was given just 48 hours of visitation per month by the Japanese family courts for his two children. He considers himself lucky, as that number can be as low as one to two hours per month, according to Matsumura. Japanese civil codes do not have a formalized system for enforcing visitation, making it challenging for parents to see their children and exercise their visitation rights.


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“I spoke to child counseling centers, lawyers, and police, but they all did nothing. I soon realized this was how it's going to be, and there's nothing I can do,” Matsumura said.

Matsumura’s ex-wife still has custody of their child today. His experience with the Japanese family court led him on a mission to advocate for dual custody, citing it as being a fundamental right for children of divorce.

“The root of the problem in Japan is that when two people get divorced, sole custody is the obvious choice; a child never seeing one of their parents is the natural way things go,” Matsumura said, describing the status quo.

In fact, Japan was unique among most developed countries (the only one among the G7) because it did not recognize dual custody whatsoever, receiving international criticism particularly in cases involving a foreign parent.

This however, is all set to change. In March 2024, the government approved a bill that introduces dual custody and change the decades-old practice of sole custody. Proponents of the bill are hopeful that it will be fully enacted and implemented by 2026.

The bill marks a landmark change to Japan's family court system, allowing parents the ability to choose between sole or joint custody.

The bill states that if a mutual decision about a child's custody cannot be reached by the parents, the family court will weigh different factors to make a decision in the best interest of the child. It also states that the court will make exceptions and enforce sole custody in instances of domestic abuse. It also plans to strengthen the statutory child support laws, something which both sides say need improvement. 

Some experts say that the former long-standing sole custody system stemmed from Japan's traditional family and gender dynamics, deeply rooted in the nation's culture. According to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, it is estimated that Japanese women do roughly 80% of housework chores, reflecting a deep seated notion that they are the ones responsible for childcare and housework. In 2022, 90% of divorcing mothers won full custody of their children.

Critics and supporters alike, including lawyers and divorcing parents, have taken to social media to voice their opinions.

Proponents of the bill, such as Matsumura, say that it will strengthen family bonds and improve the wellbeing of children. Critics such as lawyers and NGOs who support single mothers argue that joint custody will open the door for domestic abuse, and for unfit parents to gain access to their children.

“The rates of single mothers actually receiving child support payments are extremely low, about 24%,” says Kidsdoor founder Yumiko Watabane, in response to changes in child support laws. Kidsdoor is an NGO that supports children in crisis, facing issues such as poverty, domestic abuse, and bullying. Many of the children she supports live in single-parent households, the vast majority of them headed by single mothers.

Watabane, however, remains skeptical of dual custody. She believes that the government's top priority should be to support single parents who already face disproportionately higher rates of poverty. According to a study conducted by the Japanese welfare ministry in 2021, 44.5% of single parent households in Japan are below the poverty line, though this figure is declining. Watanabe points out that this is a gendered issue, as the majority of these parents are single mothers.

“Those who don’t pay child support face no penalties from society or from the law,” Watanabe says. “We have all of these issues, but now they want dual custody and the right to make all these decisions about the child.”

This sentiment is shared by others who oppose dual custody, pointing out the irony of demanding parental rights when many cannot fulfill paying child support..

Critics of dual custody also say that this bill will have detrimental effects on parents and children who are victims of domestic abuse.

Harumi Okamura is a lawyer who is a member of the Association of Lawyers Seeking to Provide Accurate Information about Joint Custody, made up of 423 legal professionals advocating against dual custody. She believes that the introduction of dual custody in Japan will increase the rates of domestic abuse and make protecting victims even harder.

“Even in instances of abuse, courts still grant visitation. If we then allow dual custody, we are giving power to abusive parents to make decisions about their children,” Okamura said.

She is deeply concerned that dual custody will be granted to the potentially unfit parents, continuing cycles of financial exploitation and abuse against children.

“I can foresee a situation where victims of spousal abuse are forced to pay their ex-spouses money to allow certain decisions to be made about their children,” she says. 

Although the bill states that dual custody will only be granted through mutual agreement between the parents, critics fear that victims can be coerced and threatened into agreeing to share custody.

In 2018, roughly 31% of women and 19% of men reported experiencing intimate partner violence, with this figure rising sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts also believe intense stigma surrounding reporting domestic abuse leaves many victims to suffer in silence.

Most proponents of the bill do not deny this. They say however, that there is still a place for dual custody in Japanese society. Mori Meguri, an activist for dual custody and single mother herself, believes that having a pathway for shared custody in place is imperative for the wellbeing of children. Meeting her in a local community building in the center of Tokyo, you can sense her tenacity and ambition.

Her beliefs surrounding the benefits of dual custody have a distinctly conservative undertone, making points about men’s rights and family values. Most politicians and organizations supporting dual custody are aligned with the right wing bloc.

“The courts, faced with a couple who fight with each other, will simply give one parent full custody, saying it's in the best interest of the child,” she says, exasperated. “We’re not giving the child the opportunity to learn and become stronger from these hardships, instead we just restrict them from seeing one of their parents. I do not see this as being in the best interest of the child.”

She believes that the Japanese courts have been doing what's easiest for them to enforce, even in instances where both parents are fit to care for their children.

Meguri believes that another benefit of this bill would be that men would have to take responsibility for their children, easing the burden of household labor on women.

“I myself was a single mother. I was also a single mother who experienced poverty. When my daughter was 1, my then husband told me ‘I can’t imagine myself making you or our child happy, so please divorce me.’ Because Japan has sole custody, he was made free again, no longer a father, no longer a husband.”

Meguri also advocates for the parents who genuinely want to see and care for their children, but cannot under Japan’s current system. She wants people on the other side to recognize those who divorce amicably and are willing to share custody of their children. She, like Matsumura, notes how current visitation policies remain far too lacking.

Others make the argument that the lack of dual custody up until now has been a violation of international human rights law. John Gomez is the head of Kizuna Child-Parent Reunion, an NGO that promotes children's rights and the importance of maintaining good relationships with both parents.

He is mainly concerned about how the former family law system essentially allowed parental child abductions, and appealed to international bodies to put pressure on the Japanese government. Parental child abductions have garnered the most international media scrutiny when a foreign parent is involved, as navigating Japanese courts as a foreigner can be especially difficult.

He cites the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, a treaty that Japan is a signatory of. The 1983 treaty lays out a set of rules that aims to prevent child abduction, by parents or otherwise, across international borders. Gomez believes that the current system of Japan violates this treaty.

Across both sides of this issue, critics and proponents alike can agree on one thing: The system before this bill has been lacking. Few believed that the courts have the child's best interest in mind.

Custody battles can often get bitter and heated, often tearing families apart. Many, like Meguri, want to emphasize that in the middle of these disputes, there are vulnerable children whose well-being could be jeopardized.

“If we carry on with this system of sole custody, thousands of children won’t be able to see their parents. I’d like the other side to tell me how these countless children will be able to see their families.”

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