Divorce with Kids in Japan: The Stress of No Joint Child Custody

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Advice, resources and why one writer wishes he would have prepared for the worst after divorce.

This is Part 2 of a narrative about getting divorced in Japan with children. To catch up, read Randy’s personal story in Part 1 first.


I married my Japanese wife in 2009 in Japan and we had a daughter together in 2010. After living in Osaka together for seven years, my wife asked for a divorce and throughout 2016 we went through a 10-month separation period before negotiating a divorce agreement and finally submitting the documents to formalize our split.

Within negotiating the divorce with my now ex-wife, I learned a lot of hard lessons and there are certain things I wish I had been more aware of. The reality is that divorce with kids in Japan is messy and can come with harsh realities.

Randy, who is from Canada, and his daughter.

One reality, for me, is that because of many complications with my divorce, it has kept me from seeing my daughter because her mother has sole custody. The last time I saw or spoke to my daughter was Nov. 29, 2017, despite many attempts to communicate since then. We went out for donuts and planned our Christmas together, but that Christmas never came.

I have very little legal rights to see my daughter and I have been denied any involvement in her life since then. Like so many other parents, something that was once unimaginable has become my darkest reality. This is the second part of my story — one that I hope can serve as a reality check for other parents who may end up in a similar situation.

How does child custody after divorce work in Japan?

Each year, around 150,000 children in Japan lose access to one of their parents after a divorce. 

Yet my story is just one of many. Parents who are part of a Japanese divorce have little legal recourse to appeal decisions. Since 1991, it is estimated that 3 million children have lost access to one of their parents after a divorce, according to a 2017 article in the Japan Times. That estimate comes from John Gomez at Kizuna Child-Parent Reunion, a Japan-based NPO (for more information on Kizuna CPR, see the list of resources below).

GaijinPot reached out to Gomez to get a fuller look at the situation.

“The abduction issue affects mothers and fathers alike, Japanese and non-Japanese alike,” said Gomez. “…The parent who abducts first virtually always wins the legal struggle in Japan because of the way rulings are made by judges in the Japanese Family Court, High Court, and Supreme Court.”

He added, “The judges rule according to the “continuity principle” either explicitly or in a manner that is concealed by rhetoric in the ruling. In effect, the continuity principle is the jurisprudence that the abducted child(ren) are to continue to live with their abducting parent either for in-country cases or cross-border cases.”

Why you should go into divorce in Japan with realistic expectations

Randy is struggling to see his daughter after a divorce from his Japanese wife.

As things began to progress, I was left with very few options. Should I hold on to the marriage long enough to help raise my daughter to the age of adulthood (she was 6 years old at the time), which meant that I would be living a lie? I couldn’t do that.

The option I chose at the time was ultimately to negotiate an agreement with my ex-wife to amicably divorce and to have as much visitation with my daughter as possible. I believed that it was in my daughter’s best interest to have relationships with both parents after the divorce.

However, I learned that this “decision” I thought we made together did not help me later when it was not upheld in court— resulting in my being kept away from my daughter.

I was denied visitation, phone calls — and a relationship with my daughter. I felt helpless not being a part of my own daughter’s upbringing, which is still true to this day.

The law was not on my side. And I am paying the price for it.

For me, “joint custody” was common sense. But as I found out, especially as a father from a foreign country, you have very little rights in a custody battle with a Japanese mother.

One reason is that Japanese law does not allow for joint custody, which affects matters like who will raise the child, who the child will live with, child support payments and even if a child who is taken over international borders should be returned. That’s according to an article by Colin P.A. Jones, a professor at Doshisha University Law School, on the U.S. Embassy in Japan website.

According to the article, “… parents simply make a notation on the divorce form as to which parent will retain parental authority over which children after divorce. One significant limitation, however, is that Japanese law does not allow for the formal continuation of joint parental authority after divorce even if both parents agree to it.”

Getting divorce counseling in Japan

The law was not on my side. And I am paying the price for it.

Right now, my daughter should be in the second grade of elementary school. But she is not attending school. My now ex-wife refuses to answer questions about my daughter’s education and well being. Legally, she doesn’t have to.

My daughter has attended very few days in the past two years. I don’t agree with the way her mother is raising her, but I don’t have a say right now. I really want to see her and just hope these issues will not have long term consequences for her life.

Before it got to this point, we did at least attempt to work it out. I would like to offer my experience and some advice related to this stage.

At my ex-wife’s suggestion, we called in a bilingual marriage counselor. This is an option that many foreigners in Japan might take, but although it seemed promising, ultimately in many ways it gave me a beacon of false hope.

The counselor was a Japanese national, who was educated in the U.S. He specialized in marriage counseling and childhood educational issues, including ADHD. My ex and I both met with him individually, before we met with him together.

In the beginning, he was helpful in arranging visitation between my daughter and myself. Shortly after we saw the counselor, my wife refused to return to our apartment and instead took our daughter and moved in with her parents. Visitation has since stopped, despite my constant protests to the contrary.

In addition to marriage counseling, my daughter was also being counseled by them to help her cope with the difficult process of our separation and divorce. At the beginning of the separation, my ex-wife’s parents were paying for his services, which were approximately ¥10,000 (US$95) per hour. This is on the cheaper side of a typical out-of-pocket price for about an hour of counseling in Japan.

After the separation and divorce, I hired the same counselor to attempt to get visitation back on track, to no avail. In my case, although he was mildly helpful in the beginning, it was ultimately unproductive in finding an amicable long-term solution.

Still, if you are going through marital troubles and require a counselor or mental health professional, I advise you to reach out to a professional. There are services in English and other foreign languages in major urban areas that can provide counseling and therapy. (See a list of resources at the end of this article.)

Paying attention to your own mental health

While dealing with such a big life issue, especially for those of us in a foreign country away from most immediate family, it’s important not to lose sight of your own mental health. I took steps to make sure I didn’t end up falling victim to pitfalls such as alcoholism, depression and other difficulties that often accompany divorce.

I sat down with a friend here in Japan, a foreign co-worker who sees me five days a week. He is in his 60s and was a social worker in his home country before becoming a teacher in Japan. I told him what was happening and about some of my concerns.

Essentially, I asked him to monitor my mental health and signs of depression, outbursts, alcoholism and other traps that foreigners often fall into as they go through the process of ending their marriage here.

He checked in often, but thankfully, he didn’t have to intervene in any way other than keeping on me about gaining a bit of weight. My only overt signs of the mounting stress was the sleeplessness. I would lie in bed for hours tossing and turning, chatting on the phone with friends and family in Canada and Japan and totally unable to get adequate sleep.

What I learned about divorce with kids in Japan

Randy, who is from Canada, reads a book to his daughter before the divorce.

I want to spend time with my daughter, take her to museums, read books with her, help her with her homework, go hiking together, cook with her and, of course, just be with her.

Today, the reality is that my ex-wife retains most of the control to deny visitation — with currently few options for recourse available. The biggest lesson I learned over the past two and a half years is that you have to plan for the worst, even if you’re expecting the best, especially in international marriages. Also that I was both hopeful and naive. It boils down to three things:

  • I was raised in a society that believes that it’s best for children to have both parents in their lives, even after divorce. Legally, this is not the case in Japan.
  • I was hopeful in believing that I could negotiate a divorce agreement that would be adhered to. I was naive to believe that without legally binding ramifications.
  • I was hopeful that my ex-partner would be reasonable in divorce and would honor an agreement. I was hopeful that I could strike a balance and continue to be a good father for my daughter, post-divorce. I was naive to believe that these circumstances wouldn’t change.

In sharing my on-going story, I hope that others can try to avoid being in this impossible position.

Setting up your support system after divorce in Japan

Find support with a foreign friend

When it comes to divorce in a foreign country, friends are important — provided they are the right type of friend. If you are going through marital troubles, avoid the “let’s meet at the pub” friends, avoid the negativity that comes with overly hostile friends and surround yourself with active and confident friends.

I was lucky to have an active friend who helped me talk through many strategies and issues on dozens of early morning runs around the temples and shrines of Kyoto.

Find an ally in a Japanese friend

Another step I took — and that I recommend to anyone going through this process — is to talk with a trusted Japanese acquaintance, be it a past boss, a business owner, a teacher or a friend with exemplary character and tell them everything.

Keep them fully informed of all aspects of the conflict, the divorce, communication, finances, meeting, counseling sessions and anything else that transpires. Even if it’s uncomfortable make sure they know your story inside and out. This personal relationship can provide insurmountable positive aspects to you through separation, divorce and post-divorce.

The Japanese divorce process is baffling in many ways, so having someone who is Japanese in your corner is essential to get an insider perspective.

They can later be a character witness, help you navigate an impossible legal system, offer advice and feedback from a Japanese perspective, help you make informed inquires and be there for you, as things get seemingly overwhelming. Through the final few years of my marriage and into the separation and ultimately the divorce I had the opportunity to have someone like this in my life naturally and she basically became a type of “mother in Japan” for me.

Advice from an expert in Japan: intercultural couples counseling

GaijinPot contacted Andrew Grimes, of the Tokyo Counseling Center, to give some additional insight on seeking support, specifically on some pointers about couples counseling.

Andrew Grimes and Tokyo Counseling Services team members.

Grimes recommends that couples who are having difficulties in communicating well with each other, especially about very differing cultural viewpoints on how to take care of and raise their children, should carefully search for a bilingual counselor who is “specialized and well experienced in working with couples whose relationships have deteriorated since getting married.”

“Sometimes our couples counseling specialist counselors find themselves working with tired and confused partners who have failed to understand each others ‘kangaekata‘ or cultural ‘ways of thinking’ and may misunderstand one another’s different cultural values and joushiki (“common sense”) that both partners conclude their partners to be ‘mentally ill,’” he said.

He went on to talk about two more important pointers:

“There are two points I wish more couples to consider both before getting married and also before starting a family. The first is to learn their partners language. Too often among couples who go for bilingual couples counseling at TCS we find that one or both partners do not speak their partner’s native language well enough to have a healthy communicative relationship and cannot support one another emotionally when difficulties or illnesses happen.

The fact is that ‘love conquers all’ is not always the case in reality.

“The second point is that too often couples leave it too long before going for marriage couples assistance in working through the difficulties they encounter when trying to understand the needs and values of each partner. When they do finally reach out for counseling assistance to work through their problems it can be the case that one partner has already “lost hope” (nozomi ga nai) of finding solutions and has already decided to divorce and only come for counseling reluctantly and with the intention of using the bilingual counselor to convince the one still in love to accept that there is no chance of reconciliation.

The fact is that ‘love conquers all’ is not always the case in reality and professional assistance can be useful before international marriages go beyond the point where trust in the relationship has gone beyond repair.”


Groups and organizations

Kizuna Child-Parent Reunion is an organization that promotes “the protection of the human rights of children, in a manner such that their good relationships with both parents.”

Left Behind Parents Japan is a MeetUp group which deals with Japan-related issues of parents being kept from their kids.

Counseling and mental support

Tokyo Counseling Services offers many types of counseling and therapy in Tokyo and the Kansai area, in English, French, German, Japanese, Korean and Portuguese.

TELL has offices in Tokyo, Yokohama, and Okinawa and offers a wide range of counseling and therapy face-to-face or by video call in English, Japanese, Spanish and Chinese.

English Counselling Kansai is another option for those in the Osaka/Kobe areas. Offered in English.

Japan Helpline is a non-profit organization that is a resource for people in Japan who need immediate support. You can get in touch with someone 24-hours a day, seven-days-a-week by going to their helpline page.

Do you or someone you know have experience with divorce in Japan? Let us know what resources were most helpful in the comments below.