Editorial: Prioritize youngsters’s happiness in discussing post-divorce custody in Japan

A working group of the Ministry of Justice’s Legislative Council has drawn up an interim draft report on the custody of children in Japan after their parents’ divorce. Careful discussions are called for to pursue the best system for children’s happiness.

Under the current system, Japan adopts sole custody, where either the mother or father has custody of their child. In addition to this, the draft proposal calls for the introduction of joint custody by both parents. The working group is set to further discuss the matter after soliciting public opinion.

Child custody encompasses parental rights and obligations to look after underage children, as well as to provide education to them and manage their assets. It also gives parents the right to decide on their child’s place to live, advancement to higher education, employment and medical care.

In 2020, Japan saw more than 110,000 couples with at least one child divorce. In 85% of these cases, the mother was granted parental authority.

Even after divorce, both parents have responsibility for their child’s bringing up. But less than 25% of single-mother households receive child support payments from the father.

Those who are advocating the introduction of joint custody claim that the scheme will boost divorced couples’ awareness as parents and help improve the current situation. They argue that it is also favorable for children to stay in touch with both parents, and that custody battles could be avoided.

There remain, however, lingering concerns over joint custody.

Opponents of the system point out that, if a couple divorced due to domestic violence or child abuse, joint custody could result in continued harm, as the estranged parent may approach their child under the pretext of exercising parental authority.

Under joint custody, both parents need to decide on matters related to their child, but there are many cases where the parents cannot even have talks due to their strained relationship.

According to a survey conducted by a support group for single mothers targeting over 2,500 single parents, a mere 10% of respondents said they were in favor of introducing joint custody.

There is a deep divide between those who are for and against joint custody, and the working group of the Legislative Council has not been able to find an ideal direction to follow.

During a meeting of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s Judicial Affairs Division, a legislator pushing for the introduction of joint custody made certain demands, resulting in the draft report’s compilation being temporarily pushed back, which is unusual.

While joint custody has become the mainstream in major countries abroad, many of them require the court’s involvement in divorce proceedings. This comes in contrast to Japan, where couples divorce by consent between them in most cases.

Another solution is prioritizing measures to address non-payment of child support. It is essential to exhaust discussions from the perspective of children of divorced couples.

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