An estimated 150,000 to 200,000 Japanese children lose access to a parent every year because of parental abduction and alienation. Since 1991, that is a total of 3 million children who have lost access to a parent or 20% of children in Japan. Though international parental abduction of Japanese children born to a Japanese and foreign parent is most shown in the media, the reality is that the vast majority of these 3 million children are born to two Japanese parents.
Ultimately, it is the children who suffer the most from Japan’s single custody laws. The socio-economic and psychological effects this has on these children are significant and often follow them for the rest of their lives.
Japan's single custody law violates the fundamental human rights of Japanese children and is contrary to the best interests of a child.
There is no such thing as joint custody in Japan unless parents agree to it on their own. So, for nearly all divorces, one parent gains full custody and the other parent can only see the children with the custodial parent’s agreement.
The other parent – which is the father 80% of the time – has no legal right to contact or visit the child. It is not uncommon for the other parent to never see his or her child again. The custodial parent has full control of custody decisions and can agree to co-parenting but is not required to by any means. This makes it very easy for the custodial parent to completely erase the other parent out of the child’s life. And the courts will do absolutely nothing.
In fact, only 31% of children living with their single mothers are in contact with their fathers and 48% living with single fathers are in contact with their mothers. And that is just ‘in contact,' and not measuring the frequency of contact.
Japanese Family courts – wrongly so – assume that it is in the child’s best interest to remain in their current environment or home. It does not at all consider the importance of a child seeing both his or her parents. Because fathers often leave the house after a divorce and mothers remain in the family home, mothers are almost always granted full custody.
Even more alarming is that when the parent with whom the child lives remarries, the new spouse can adopt that child without even notifying or getting approval from the child’s biological parent.
Children or Nearly 20% of children denied access to a parent
child poverty rate for single-parent households
children died by suicide in 2020 (Suicide leading cause of death among children)
minors victims of child abuse (Another appalling record set in 2020)
There is a strong connection between Japan’s single custody law and child poverty. 56% of children living in single-parent households live under the poverty line in Japan. This is the highest rate among all OECD countries. These children are living on an income of around $900 per month in a country with one of the highest costs of living in the world. What does it mean for a child to live in poverty? It means children not being able to eat enough, not being able to go to the doctor when needed, perhaps being forced to work to provide for the family, not being able to access good schools or academic support and in the long-term children not being able to escape poverty.
How is it that the world’s third-largest economy and one of the largest donor countries allows its own children to grow up in such appalling conditions?
The effects of growing up without a parent go beyond the house with Japanese children paying the price at school and ultimately for their entire lives. Academic studies have shown that children of single mothers perform significantly worse at school than those living with married mothers.
This is not surprising as single mothers earn less and thus are less able to afford high-quality schools and so-called cram schools than married mothers. And in a country where the non-custodial parent has zero right to his or her children, it is hard to convince that parent to pay child support. This ultimately means the child falls behind at school.
How will this inequality in education affect these Japanese children as they grow up and enter the workforce?
Similarly to academic performance, the overall well-being and health of children of single-parent households are worse. This was confirmed by single mothers who participated in an academic study and were asked to report the health of their children.
The stress of being a single mother leads to significantly lower levels of happiness, self-rated health, and emotional well-being among single mothers. This, in turn, impacts parenting and can result in children having a lower level of well-being. These single mothers must work endlessly to provide for their children and given the intensity of Japan’s work culture, they must spend most of the day outside the house at work. This means these children are left home, alone, in darkness. Without both parents and without both parents' love.
2020 witnessed another appalling record set in Japan - the highest number of children subjected to abuse. And these are only reported figures. 2,172 children were abused in 2020 alone and the number of children referred to child welfare centers jumped 21% percent from 2019. This is just another indication of how the Japanese government fails to protect its most vulnerable citizens - its own children.
The perpetrators of this abuse are almost always parents - either biological parents, step-parents, or adoptive parents. The country’s single custody law is partly to blame for this as when children are granted the right to two parents in their lives, there is accountability and checks for both parents. This would make it much harder for children to be abused. But when one parent has sole custody of a child, that child has limited people to reach out for help.
Losing a parent is like losing half of one’s entire identity. These children lose a set of grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins and for no good reason. When the child is eventually - if he or she is - reunited with the left-behind parent, it is not a given that their relationship will be normal. It can take years to re-establish bonds and sometimes they are just never re-established, even when the child has become an adult, leaving the child forever without a second parent.
Suicide is the leading cause of death among children in Japan and in 2020 school-age suicide hit a record high with nearly 500 children taking their own lives. Family issues and being reprimanded by parents are the most common known reasons for child suicide indicating the potentially fatal effect single custody has on children’s lives.
Left behind parents also suffer greatly from depression and even suicide after their children are kidnapped. Akio Yokota sadly took his own life after his wife was granted sole custody of their young son after a divorce. The mere one hour per month he was allowed to see his son was not enough and caused him to suffer from depression.