The Latest from Japan, Courtesy of the Washington Post

November 2, 2020 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors


The movement toward shared parenting in Japan may be gaining steam, albeit slowly (Washington Post, 10/18/20).  Interestingly, that’s true more due to international pressure than support for reform inside Japan.

Now, the linked-to article is from the Washington Post.  That of course means that the spin given to the movement toward shared parenting suggests that the current system in Japan particularly benefits fathers and harms mothers.  So we’re treated to iterations like this:

When Izumi finally tired of her husband’s affairs, she decided it was time to separate and made plans to take their three young children with her.

But her husband was one step ahead.  He prevented her from taking the children and soon denied her the right to even see them after the divorce.

Now, the reason Japan’s system is such a dysfunctional one is that it almost invariably grants sole custody to one parent or the other.  It does so on the basis of the principle of “continuity,” i.e. that the parent who’s been the primary caregiver up to the time of separation should be the parent with sole custody.  According to that theory, the children will be less stressed by the divorce because their care remains roughly the same as ever.

That of course is (a) pretty much the message delivered by the long-discredited book “Beyond the Best Interests of the Child,” by Goldstein, Solnit and Freud, (b) the de facto behavior of countless courts in the U.S. and the rest of the English-speaking world and (c) the exact opposite of what’s in children’s best interests.

But notice that, according to the Post, Izumi’s husband’s deed was a dastardly one, not because it harms the children (which it surely does), but because he prevented Izumi from doing exactly the same thing.

Throughout the article, it’s mothers who complain about the system (and we’re all glad they do), but, in reality, it’s overwhelmingly fathers who lose contact with their children.  In Japan, the overarching rule is that divorce causes kids to lose their fathers, not their mothers.  Nowhere is that simple fact acknowledged by the Post.

Indeed, the article doesn’t get around to acknowledging that some 90% of custodial parents in Japan are mothers.  And when it does, it strongly suggests the practice is a thing of the past.

In previous decades, men worked long hours and women looked after children.  Courts awarded custody to women in about 90 percent of cases. Today, more Japanese men are seeking custody after divorce — and more women are finding themselves denied access to their children.

It would have been more accurate to say that, although work/parenting time ratios may have changed, Japanese courts are still extremely biased in favor of maternal custody, it’s mostly fathers who lose contact with their kids and kids with their fathers.

Plus, the Post article compares Japan (mostly unfavorably) to other countries that, readers are told, have systems of joint parenting.  That of course is technically true.  Western nations mostly have laws that are written in scrupulously gender-neutral language, suggesting that fathers and mothers get equal treatment in family courts and kids maintain meaningful relationships with both parents following divorce. 

The reality is quite different.  Yes, according to court orders governing their cases, children generally have the right to see both parents post-divorce, but in fact, those courts typically fail to enforce orders of visitation that, in any case, provide such limited time for the non-custodial parent to see his/her children as to negate any potential benefit to the kids.  The simple facts are that 80% of custodial parents in the U.S. are mothers, that most orders for visitation are for every other weekend, plus a couple of hours during the week, it’s extremely difficult to have those orders enforced and that a whopping one-third of the children of divorce have no contact with their fathers.

To the Washington Post, that’s something for which Japan should strive.  It’s not.

Of course, how the Washington Post chooses to express itself is important to public discourse around the issues of family courts and children’s well-being, but not very much so regarding what’s happening in Japan.  There, international pressure is, to a significant extent, responsible for the continuing attention paid to custody and parenting time reforms by the Japanese government.

For many years now (as reported by yours truly), Japan has made an international name for itself by protecting Japanese mothers who marry non-Japanese men abroad and later kidnap their children to Japan where they’re shielded from any form of responsibility by Japanese laws, customs and courts. 

Many of those fathers and the governments of their countries are now urging change in Japan.  Three years ago, the government appointed a commission to look into the matter.  No word on its findings or on the possibility of reform.

Still, the scent of change is on the breeze in Japan.  No one seriously expects radical change, but any at all would be an improvement and that seems likely to occur.

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