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Japan considering joint custody of children for divorced parents

Japan could soon have a new joint custody legislation for divorced parents.

A commission set up by Japan’s Ministry of Justice has proposed ways to amend the Japanese Civil Code, which does not provide for joint custody after divorce.

While married couples exercise custody jointly, the law provides that only one parent takes care of children and acts as their legal guardian, manage their assets and make all day-to-day decisions concerning their health and education.

This system has been criticised for denying one parent responsibility in raising children, but some organisations for the protection of divorced mothers oppose the revision because it could perpetuate situations of domestic violence even after divorce.

The issue touches the lives of hundreds of thousands of families in Japan. According to the latest data, about 193,000 couples divorced in 2020, which is the equivalent of a third of those who married that year.

The matter became front-page news as a result of a recent case. Last year, just before the start of the Tokyo Olympics, a French man went on a hunger strike because his ex-wife’s denied him access to their children.

She disappeared in 2018, taking the two children, after accusing him of domestic abuse. In July, a court granted her sole custody but dismissed the charges of domestic violence, and so granted the father visitation rights.

The reform proposed by the Justice Ministry includes several options about joint custody, and so it is still unclear how it would work in practice.

The three options retained are joint custody by default with sole custody as the exception, sole custody by default with joint custody as the exception, or decisions on a case-by-case basis.

Even under joint custody, it would still be possible for one parent to retain greater authority.

One thing the new law could certainly improve is visitation rights and child support.

Because of a regulatory void, the ministry’s proposal would require parents to discuss and agree on these aspects at the time of divorce.

The Ministry of Justice now plans to ask the public for its opinions, starting in early December, with parliament expected to debate the issue early next year.

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