System should Facilitate Parental Responsibility toward Children

When conflict deepens between divorcing couples, it is often their children who bear the heaviest burden. It is hoped that the government will thoroughly debate how to protect children’s quality of life.

A subcommittee of the Justice Ministry’s Legislative Council has agreed to hold discussions on introducing a “joint custody system” for divorced parents to share parental authority. The subcommittee intends to discuss the specifics of the system design hereafter.

There are about 200,000 divorces each year in Japan, and around 60% of such couples have minor children. The current Civil Code stipulates “sole custody,” in which one of the divorcing spouses takes sole guardianship of the children. This has led to criticism that parents without custody cannot be involved in child-rearing.

Custody involves the care, education and asset management of minor children; it is both a parental right and an obligation. Both parents should be responsible for child-rearing, even after a couple go their separate ways.

In other countries, joint custody is the mainstream approach. Cases of foreign nationals claiming that their Japanese spouse has taken their children away following the breakdown of their marriage have become an issue. Overseas public opinion takes a strongly negative view of Japan’s sole-custody stance.

It is hoped that the introduction of a joint custody system will enhance momentum for divorced couples to become more involved in raising their children together. For kids, too, it will be significant to have continued contact with both parents and grow up feeling their love.

However, many issues need to be addressed. The majority of children with divorced parents live with their mothers, but 60% of single-mother families reportedly have never received child support payments from the fathers. And visitations, or contacts between parents and children who live apart from each other, are not fully implemented.

Even if a joint custody system is introduced, the reality is that children will live with just one of their parents. The need for in-depth discussions on child-rearing at the time of divorce will remain unchanged.

In Japan, the majority of divorces are mutually agreed through negotiations among the parties involved, and in many cases, no third party, such as a court, is involved. But it is difficult to say that sufficient advance arrangements for child support payments and parent-child visitations are being made.

Some foreign countries have established a system in which divorcing parents detail child support payments and parent-child visitations in written form, then gain approval from social welfare offices. It is hoped this example can be used as a reference in Japan.

Domestic violence and child abuse can cause divorce. The new system will require flexibility, such as denying custody to the perpetrator of such acts.

When marital relations turn sour, it is likely difficult to feel like paying child support to the divorced partner. It must be reiterated that child support payments and parent-child visitations are for the benefit of children.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, May 12, 2023)