Introduction of Joint Custody in Japan Complicated by Domestic Violence; Lawmakers Call for Expansion of Family Court System

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
The Tokyo Family Court in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo

One of the focal points of the Diet deliberations over the introduction of joint custody was whether family courts could properly identify domestic violence, which would cause a ruling of sole custody.

Domestic violence includes both physical and psychological violence including verbal abuse, as well as economic abuse, such as withholding finances. Victims of domestic violence and support groups strongly opposed the proposed revision of the law, saying that there is a risk that family courts will not recognize abuse and will force joint custody.

“In many cases of domestic violence that occur behind closed doors, there are no recordings or documentation to serve as evidence, and some people blame themselves. And some do not realize they are victims,” said Setsuo Shimosaka, 73, a former family court investigator and deputy director of the Tokyo-based Family Problems Information Center. “Often the abuser is not even aware of the domestic violence.”

To determine who gains child custody, the family court hears the arguments of both parties, and, if necessary, a family court investigator visits the home to examine the situation. However, there may be cases in which the family court will have difficulty in determining whether domestic violence is occurring. The proposed revision of the law will allow the family court to make many of the final decisions in cases of disagreement between parents, making it imperative to improve the family court system.

According to the Supreme Court, there were 44,163 petitions for trials and arbitration concerning child custody in 2022, including requests for child support, an increase of about 10% from 10 years ago. The average length of proceedings per case increased to 8.5 months, 3.3 months longer than 10 years ago.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The number of cases handled by the family court will likely increase after the law comes into effect. The committees on judicial affairs of the House of Councillors and the House of Representatives passed a supplemental resolution calling for expanding the system, including an increase in the number of judges and family court investigators.

“We must avoid situations where as a result of prolonged court proceedings, children have to endure an unstable environment for a long period of time and suffer damage to their mental wellbeing,” a veteran judge said. Measures are reportedly being considered within the courts, such as reassigning civil judges to domestic cases and using online meetings to expedite trials.