Japan Passes Law Permitting Joint Custody for Divorced Parents with Minor Children

Legislation has been passed by Japan’s House of Councillors to introduce joint custody as an option for divorced parents with minor children. This would be a significant departure from the current system, which always awards parental authority to one parent, usually the mother. In almost 90% of cases, this is the parent who continues to look after the child after separation. Japan witnessed 179,099 divorces in 2022, and 94,565 of these involved minor children. This meant 161,902 children saw their parents break up. It is thought the new law paves the way for a new recognition that both parents should be involved in parenting, even if they no longer live together.

The move has been welcomed by social workers. Satoko Shibahashi, aged 50 and head of Rimusubi, an organisation that supports divorced mothers and fathers raising children, told The Yomiuri Shimbun: “The social preconceived notion that there’s a single parent after a divorce is being swept away. This could be an opportunity for society to more widely recognise that both parents should raise a child, even if they split up.” However, there are concerns about potential confusion over roles and responsibilities. For instance, it remains unclear how parents will decide on what a “normal activity in daily life” will involve. Moreover, there are particular anxieties in medical circles. In situations where a child needs urgent medical attention, it may be uncertain whether consent from one parent will be enough for a hospital to carry out a vital operation.

The new law gives parents the power to decide whether they prefer joint custody or sole custody after divorce. Should they be unable to make a decision, a family court will decide whether they should work together or if just one parent should be responsible. “The interests of the child” will be taken into account in this decision-making process, especially in circumstances where one parent has been abusive or violent.

The current sole custody system has been criticised for creating an unbalanced division of labour, with one parent left out of the process of raising children. This can make it difficult for the noncustodial parent to see their child, and it places the burden of childcare on one parent alone. Researchers have argued that it can also result in a lack of financial support if the noncustodial parent fails to pay maintenance fees.

Joint custody is a common practice in Europe and America, so many observers are pleased to see Japan moving in the same direction. However, the system being introduced in Japan is not simple. The law acknowledges that the mother and father will “basically” be living apart, so one parent will be granted responsibility for “normal activities in daily life” or for certain emergencies. But what constitutes “normal activities” has yet to be defined, and there are also many questions surrounding medical emergencies.

As such, guidelines will need to be drawn up to cover any grey areas in the legislation. Medical professionals, in particular, will need to update their procedures to cope with this change. The Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology, for example, will review its policies regarding which medical treatments require the approval of both parents and which do not. Similarly, the government is working to clarify what constitutes a “pressing” circumstance to make sure that parents’ opinions do not block vital medical treatments or the educational choices of their children.

Despite these uncertainties, the new legislation is seen as a step in the right direction for Japan. As families change and evolve, it is important to create a system of laws that reflects the real needs of parents and children. Ultimately, many hope that joint custody will help reduce conflict between divorced parents and promote cooperation and communication, which are vital for the healthy development of children

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