Japan to allow divorced parents to share child’s custody

In a historic move, Japan’s parliament has voted to amend its custody laws, which previously mandated sole custody arrangements following divorce. This reform will allow divorced couples to negotiate joint custody of their children for the first time, aligning Japan with the custody policies of other G7 nations.

Under the existing provisions of Japan’s civil code, divorcing couples must choose which parent will retain custody of the children, a stipulation that has faced criticism for its potential psychological impact on children and for marginalizing the non-custodial parent. Critics argue that this model disrupts the child’s ability to maintain a balanced relationship with both parents post-divorce.

The push for legal reform was led by the Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner Komeito and received backing from the major opposition parties. The amendment aims to address the shortcomings of the sole custody system by introducing the possibility of shared parental responsibilities after a divorce.

Despite the progress, the proposal has faced opposition from those concerned that joint custody could endanger children in cases where abuse was a factor in the divorce. To mitigate these concerns, the legislation stipulates that custody will remain with one parent if there is suspicion of abuse by the other.

The bill successfully passed the powerful lower house and is anticipated to clear the upper house before the conclusion of the current parliamentary session on June 23, as reported by Kyodo news agency.

The justice minister, Ryuji Koizumi, emphasized the importance of both parents remaining actively involved in their children’s lives post-divorce. The new custody law, which marks the first significant update in over seventy years, is expected to be implemented by 2026 and will apply retroactively to already divorced couples.

This change is part of a broader shift in family dynamics in Japan, where societal resistance still exists against policies like allowing married couples to retain separate surnames, viewed by some as undermining traditional values.

Annually, around 200,000 children are affected by divorce—a figure that has doubled over the past fifty years despite a declining birth rate. A government survey in 2021 highlighted the significant issue of children losing contact with their non-custodial parent, with one in three children reporting such a loss.

The reformed law ensures that if parents cannot agree on custody, family courts will intervene to determine arrangements that best serve the child’s interests, according to the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper. This legislative update represents a significant development in Japan’s approach to family law, aiming to better serve the interests of children and improve the equity of parental involvement post-divorce.

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