Japan’s New Joint Custody Law Sparks Concerns Among Domestic Violence Victims and Support Groups

The Japanese government’s new law requiring joint custody in divorce cases has sparked concerns among domestic violence victims and support groups. The law, which came into effect on 1 April, allows family courts to force joint custody in divorce cases, which could potentially place victims and their children in harm’s way. The decision to grant sole custody previously depended on whether domestic violence was taking place in the household. However, identifying such violence can be challenging due to a lack of evidence and victims’ perceptions that they are to blame.

The revised law has caused an outcry from domestic violence victims and support groups, who fear that family courts will fail to recognise abuse. According to Setsuo Shimosaka, a former family court investigator and deputy director of the Tokyo-based Family Problems Information Center, some victims may not even realise that they are being abused. Some supporters of the law have called for improved procedures within the family court system, including assigning civil judges to domestic cases and using online meetings to expedite trials.

The number of cases relating to child custody has increased over the past decade, with 44,163 petitions for trials and arbitration filed in 2022, an increase of around 10% compared to 10 years ago. The average length of proceedings has also increased, now standing at 8.5 months, 3.3 months longer than a decade ago. The number of cases handled by the family court is expected to increase with the introduction of the new law.

The House of Councillors and the House of Representatives’ committees on judicial affairs have passed a supplemental resolution calling for an expansion of the family court system to ensure that children do not have to endure prolonged court proceedings, which could result in an unstable environment and harm their mental well-being. The resolution calls for an increase in the number of judges and family court investigators, among other measures.

Japan has been challenged by human rights advocates and women’s groups to prioritise efforts to decrease the rate of sexual and domestic violence. With weak laws on violence against women, Japan fell to 120th place out of 144 countries in the 2021 World Economic Forum’s gender gap report. Despite the establishment of more than 2,000 consultation centres since 2004, domestic violence remains underreported and hidden.

For such victims, the joint-custody law will only exacerbate the situation, placing victims in a potentially dangerous living environment with an abusive spouse. In contrast, advocates of the law, many of whom are fathers who have been granted limited custody of their children post-divorce, have argued that the law will promote gender equality.

Critics of the joint-custody mandate have argued that the decision to grant sole custody should still be based on individual cases and claims that joint custody could force victims to come into contact with their abusers or allow them to manipulate their children emotionally. In the US and Europe, advocates of women’s rights have been successful in preventing joint custody rulings in cases where domestic violence has taken place.

While the introduction of this law is certainly a precursor to the eventual introduction of stronger domestic violence laws, suicide and killings in Japan are already indications of the severity of the situation and the need for a comprehensive legal framework. It remains to be seen whether the country’s domestic violence laws will eventually live up to the international standards


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