WHAT TO DO IF…you want to get a divorce

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Be careful when you marry a Japanese. Be sure the relationship will last. Divorce laws in Japan have not changed for over a hundred years, meaning they establish marriage as a more ironclad bond to keep families stable as a business. Divorce remains very difficult to achieve unilaterally unless one party has committed a crime (theft, embezzlement, what have you). A more complex matter of “irreconcilable differences” is not considered adequate grounds. Thus unless you both agree to put your inkan stamp on a divorce form (rikon todoke) at the Ward Office, you will not be able to get divorced and start a new life. Even legal separations require at least 5 years (used to be 10 years) before annulment will be considered by Family Court (katei saibansho).

Requiring “mutual consent” for a divorce may sound like a nice system, but in fact it has fostered a culture of severed ties and hard bargains driven. It’s pretty tough to have an amicable settlement, and if you have to negotiate before third parties, you will have to portray your former partner in public as an enemy in order to convince anyone that you really deserve a divorce.

If you have no children, there is less fallout. But if you do, you (as the foreigner, particularly the male) will probably lose custody of them. And possibly all contact with them. Japanese law, and judicial enforcement of court decisions, do not adequately ensure access to children. Stories of deadbeat dads and fortress moms are Legion, as, again, the expectation in Japan is that the noncustody parent will just disappear. Even Prime Minister Koizumi has that history.

Moreover, if your relationship is intercontinental, and if your kids get kidnapped from overseas and brought to Japan, you will lose them. Period. Japan has not signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and no police force in Japan will help you search and extradite, even if there is an overseas court order demanding it.

Get the lowdown at The Children’s Rights Network Japan at:

Consider the following before marriage:

A primer on the problems with divorce law in Japan:

A first-hand experience of divorce from the author of this site:

This is not to deter you from marrying a Japanese–it’s very easy to do, and there are plenty of happy unions out there. Just do your best to be sure this marriage is going to last. Because legally you will lose big if there are kids involved.

Finally, remember that if you want to start a new life with a new partner, Japanese law allows men to remarry immediately, but women must wait six months (due to possible pregnancy from the previous partner) before registering a new mate at the Ward Office.