While the Japanese police do publish data on missing people, they do not publish data specific to children. The country also does not share any official statistics on parental abduction, whether domestically or internationally. However, on March 24th, 2020 Kada Yukiko, Ph.D. Member of House of Councillors, the National Diet of Japan, and former governor of Shiga Prefecture mentioned that 210,000 children are deprived of one parent a year in Japan.
The non-profit Kizuna Child-Parent Reunion estimates every year an additional 150,000 – 200,000 Japanese children are denied access to a parent because of parental abduction and alienation. The same NGO estimates that since 1991, at least 3 million children have lost access to a parent. This number does not include children who are now over the age of 20 years old, which are no longer considered children. The actual number may be even higher as the Japanese consider family issues to be highly private and usually do not share such information. These children may not be missing in the traditional sense, however, they lack access to a parent and often both sets of extended families. You can read the stories of some of these families here.
The two parents could even be living in the same city, but because of a legal system that fails to protect the child’s rights, Japanese children often do not see both their parents after divorce and sometimes even their own siblings. Even divorce among the Japanese elite shows how broken the system is. When former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi divorced his wife, he took full custody of their two sons while his ex-wife kept custody of their unborn child. Their children were never given access to see the non-custodial parent or even see their own brother(s).
Several legal actions against the state of Japan by Japanese parents and also by foreign parents are underway. One of the first legal action rulings however, came out as follows “on Nov. 22, 2019, Tokyo High Court ruled against divorced parents seeking access to children claiming that: the UN treaty was “merely an agreement to respect those rights’ but had no binding power – Tokyo District Court presiding judge Tatsuro Maezawa.”
You can stand up for these children and demand reform from the Japanese government by signing this petition.
Laws must be put in place to protect the best interest of a child in Japan. Currently, the country runs in a lawless state of disorder when it comes to family law. Japan must adopt and follow clearly defined guidelines on the best interest of a child. These guidelines must include a proper professional evaluation of the child’s and parents’ emotional, mental, and physical state.
Proceedings should be quick and children should have access to both parents throughout. Domestic violence claims must be properly investigated before being considered. Custody and child support arrangements should be enforced and non-complying parents punished. This all must change legally to ensure the well-being of Japanese children.
Parents need support from all levels of society and the Japanese need to stand up for the rights of their children and refuse to accept the norm of single-parenting.
If Japan wants to address the fact that 56% of children in working single-parent households live in poverty, it must reform its antiquated sole custody laws. Joint custody would mean fathers take a larger part in the upbringing of the children, including financially. Most importantly, it would mean children grow up with the love and care of both parents.
Any financial incentive for separating children from their parents must be eliminated. Government officials, domestic violence centers, family law courts, and lawyers should not profit from divorce and sole custody,
We need your help. We want you to know the true facts of Japan and share them among your network all over the world. Family courts in Japan are very old and outdated. Please push them to consider the problem seriously. Many parents never see their children not even once a year. Please, share the topic and raise it as a severe problem. This problem sometimes occurs in marriages between people from Japan and people from other countries, too. French President Macron recently raised the issue with the Japanese Prime Minister. However, it has not been broadcast in Japanese media.
When a child is born out of wedlock in Japan, custody is automatically granted to the mother only. And when a marriage ends in divorce, the parents are tasked with finding an agreeable solution to custody. When that is not possible, the court grants the parent with whom the child lives full parental authority and custody. It is usually the mother as the child often stays with her at home when the parents decide to separate.
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 – often the father – 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. In fact, there have been cases where parents are arrested for attempting to visit their children.
Parents in Japan know that the court will rule in favor of the parent who “holds” the child at the time of the court verdict. Courts will basically say that the child belongs where he or she currently is, ignoring the fact that the child was taken from his or her home. And so when a couple starts discussing divorce, it is not unusual for one to flee with the children because they know they will be protected by the courts. The other parent suddenly loses all contact with that child, and cannot even approach the child at school or get any information about their child from schools. The child’s medical records are also not shared with that parent and that parent is not allowed to make any decisions about education, healthcare or anything else about their own child. If that parent tries to contact the child, it will be considered trespassing and he or she could get arrested or go to jail. Even texting the other parent to show the child would be treated as “stalking” and could be subject to arrest and sent to jail.
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.
If the non-custodial parent wants to remain in contact with the child(ren), he or she can make a request with the Family Court. The court will, in turn, conduct an investigation and make a decision. If the custodial parent does not comply with the court’s decision, the court can demand that parent pay monetary compensation until he or she complies with the decision. It is unclear how often a solution is found for such cases. And for many more, courts do not allow the non-custodial parent any right to his or her children.
When government officials, domestic violence centers, family law courts, and lawyers profit from divorce and sole custody, it is not surprising that they resist change. It is not uncommon for the wife to be told by her lawyer to claim domestic violence to have the upper hand in the divorce proceedings. Domestic violence centers – which are supposed to be helping women really in need – are paid by the government per individual they serve. Since these centers have a vested interest in a higher inflow of victims, they do not usually investigate claims of domestic violence. In Japan, there is no such thing as domestic violence against a man.
Lawyers also gain additional compensation as a certain percentage of the money earned for marriage expenses, property divisions associated with divorces, and child support payments.
It is not uncommon for lawyers to recommend that parents abduct the children “first.” Conflicts between parents are boosted even in case there are possibilities to make amends again. Children are disconnected from their parents who have no problems. These parents are not punished because of the country’s sole custody law.
These parents are very negative about “visitations” that provide opportunities for parents and children who can not see each other to meet. They decide on the low frequency of visitation. No punishment is enforced if the parent who robbed does not keep the visitation promise.
This is a big reason why the number of single-mother households has nearly doubled to 712,000 from 1992 to 2016. Japan has the highest share of children living in poverty for working single-parent households among OECD countries at 56% compared to 32% in the US. Of the 3.5 million children living under the poverty line, only 200,000 receive child support.
With the majority of the country’s single mothers living in poverty, children pay the price twice. They lose out on the physical and emotional presence of their fathers but also are, on average, poorer and less educated, meaning fewer opportunities in their futures. With its declining population, Japan cannot afford to lose a significant chunk of its future workforce to poverty and limited opportunities.
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. This is why every year at least 210,000 Japanese children lose access to a parent. That is the loss of half of their extended family, half of their identity, and a lot of their well-being and future. If a parent is successfully able to fight for visitation, which is rare, he or she will be granted one hour a month or even one hour a year!
Even more alarming is that when the parent with whom the child lives remarry, the new spouse can adopt that child without even notifying or getting approval from the child’s biological parent.
Foreign spouses are discriminated against when it comes to child custody. Non-Japanese cannot be registered as the head of the family (hittousya) in the ‘koseki’ system, and upon divorce, a foreign spouse cannot have their own entry there. This makes it very easy for Japanese parents to kidnap their child from a foreign ex-spouse. In some cases, Japanese grandparents have even been able to kidnap their grandchild after the death of the Japanese parent. Ultimately, it is the some 22,000 children in Japan with a foreign parent who pay the price for this discrimination against non-Japanese parents.
Although Japan has signed the Hague Convention, the country rarely returns a child abducted to Japan – making the Convention completely useless to children growing up without a parent. It would not be surprising if parents with a child abducted to Japan do not even consider applying through the Hague given its ineffectiveness.
In the United State’s 2020 Hague Report, there were 13 open cases involving 19 American children abducted to Japan. 5 cases involving 9 children from 2019 remain open in addition to 13 pre-condition cases that are unresolved. Although foreign governments, such as the United States, can impose sanctions on countries that do not return abducted children, the US Secretary of State has never done so for Japan.
Parental abduction is not criminalized in Japan for both domestic and international cases. In general, the Japanese government views this as a ‘family matter’ that is private and which they should not interfere in. Given that child custody is granted to the parent with whom the child lives at the time of divorce proceedings, it is not uncommon for the Japanese to abduct their child prior to the proceedings.
Under Japanese law, parental abduction is illegal and the country has committed to the expeditious return of children internationally abducted by a parent as a signatory of the Hague Convention. However, Japan has been highly criticized for failing to adhere to the Convention. Japan only signed the Convention in 2014 after intense foreign pressure and has remained skeptical of it. Loopholes in the implementing legislation of the Convention are often used, including an exception for cases in which allegations of abuse are made. The issue remains that these allegations are rarely investigated properly. Unfortunately, the Convention cannot be used retrospectively so parents of children abducted to Japan prior to 1 April 2014, cannot apply to have their child returned using the Hague Convention.
While Japan continues to fail to return abducted children, the country is adamant about prosecuting foreign parents who try to re-access or re-abduct their children out of Japan regardless of the child’s custodial status in his or her home country.
In recent years, numerous foreign governments have put pressure on Japan to comply with its commitments under the Hague Convention. In July 2020, after much campaigning from European parents with children abducted in Japan, the European Parliament passes a resolution expressing its concerns regarding the well-being of the children abducted in Japan and calling on Japan to enforce its international commitment to protect children and ultimately reform its family law system to allow shared custody.
In November 2020, the US government held consultations with Japan to reaffirm the country’s commitment to resolving the many abduction cases involving American-Japanese children. The problem is that these lobbying efforts have had little to no effect on Japan and all children abducted in Japan, regardless of their nationality, are still suffering.
Parental alienation is not a crime in Japan and the current Japanese family law system enables parental alienation. If divorcing parents are unable to mutually agree on custody arrangements, they are referred to family court where only sole custody is granted. Sole custody usually goes to the parent with whom the child is residing at the time, who is most likely the mother. That often means that Japanese mothers with whom the child often lives – whether married to another Japanese citizen or a foreigner – control whether or not the father is able to see the child. In fact, according to 2004 data from the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, mothers are granted custody in 80 percent of divorces involving children, up from 50% in 1970.
At that point, the non-custodial parent has no legal right to communicate with or visit the children and not even to make decisions about his or her child’s life. It is up to the custodial parent to allow or not allow the above. And if that parent does not want the other parent to be part of the child’s life, there is little the non-custodial parent can do.
With 240,000 divorces happening each year in Japan, is it estimated that at least 150,000 children lose one parent per year.
What is worse is that Japanese society either does not openly talk about parental alienation or abduction or openly or even indirectly supports it as the norm. Family matters are highly personal and so parental alienation and its effects on children are not something openly discussed for most. There is also this belief that it is just ‘normal’ for the mother to have sole custody of the children and for the father to go on with his life without his children. This can be seen in all levels of society.
Illegally forging a signature and presenting false marriage dissolution papers to the municipal government is of course a criminal act, and if the forgery is documented, the divorce would not be valid. In reality, though, a divorce paper may be accepted even if one of the parties has not given consent and his/her signature has been counterfeited. Surprisingly, once the divorce has been accepted and documented in the household registry, to reverse it and gain back one‘s married status, a court would have to issue a revocation decision and the responsibility to start up legal measures lies with the victim. Therefore, if there is any reason to fear that a partner may falsify one‘s signature and submit a rikon todoke without one‘s knowledge, then one should consider sending in a fujuri todoke to obstruct it in advance.
A third, highly critical factor to consider is that the rikon todoke form has a segment where the couple decides who will possess shinken (parental authority) of any minor kids from the marriage. Under Japanese law, there is no system of joint parental custody, which means that either the father or mother gets full parental authority over any children after divorce. Unless the couple agrees on who will have parental authority, they cannot divorce by kyōgi rikon, as the decision regarding parental authority needs to be made at the time of divorce and noted on the rikon todoke.
It is known that some foreigners have agreed to divorce, signed the divorce paper but left the parental authority section blank, incorrectly believing that custody matters would be discussed later. Signing a divorce paper without recognizing the legal consequences in terms of parental authority might potentially deprive a parent of their rights in regards to their children, so the importance of this cannot be overemphasized.
Fujuri todoke forms can be found in the family registry area of any local city office. Unlike the kyōgi rikon papers, this document must be submitted in person, so make sure to take identification such as a passport with you to city hall. A family registry officer will help you complete the form. You should make a copy for your own records before submitting the document.
You should contact your Embassy immediately. They can share resources, including a list of attorneys, and liaise with the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Some Embassies, such as that of the US can attempt to conduct a visit with the child to verify his or her health and well-being.
In Japan, an abduction of a child by a parent is not always considered a crime. To understand the legal position of your case, it is best to see assistance from a Japanese lawyer who is supportive of joint custody, as many divorce lawyers would actually support single-custody law and the abduction of children. Also, contact Japanese NGOs that support joint custody to get more information, and mental support as you will need it.
The Japan Legal Support Centre (Ho Terasu) Tokyo office provides free legal counseling for some foreign nationals with low income. The Japan Federation of Bar Associations provides a link to legal counseling for foreign nationals by various bar associations. This is generally charged, but free counseling is provided for some individuals with low income.
While parents of a child abducted in Japan can submit an application for the return of a child through the Central Authority in their home country, Japan has never once returned a child through the Convention.
For children abducted from Japan to another country, a request for the return of the child can be requested through the Hague Central Authority:
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Hague Convention Division Foreign Policy Bureau
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Kasumigaseki 2-2-1 Chiyoda-ku Tokyo 100-8919
Tel: +81 (0)3 5501 8466
Thanks to Deanielle Dawra and Enrique Gutierrez for the contribution in producing this country page.