DID JUSTICE MINISTRY LEAK INFORMATION TO SAFEGUARD SOLE CUSTODY?
No matter how I read it, there was something odd about the lead article in the June 20th edition of The Mainichi Shimbun. Treated as a scoop, the piece covered a proposed legal reform for child custody in divorce cases but distorted the situation by omitting key facts. We can reach one of two conclusions; either: a) the journalist took the information given him at its face value; or b) the journalist wrote the misleading piece, knowing exactly what he was doing all along.
Either way, I seriously question the quality of The Mainichi’s coverage. As regards case a), the journalist may have failed to come to grips with the true nature of the information made available to him. With case b), he failed to precisely deliver the essence of the information to the reader, neglecting his journalistic responsibility to provide his reader a full picture of the situation.
In Japan today, one out of every three marriages ends in divorce. Under our civil code, custody is granted to only one parent—the mother in most cases. In almost all developed nations, including the US, the common practice is joint custody, which enables both parents to cooperate in the care of their children.
Under Japan’s abnormal sole custody system, a monopoly of the children by one parent is taken for granted, with the other parent suffering the tragedy of being robbed of their children and barred from seeing them. An overwhelming percentage of mothers are granted child custody in Japan—especially single mothers, for whom the government guarantees a good deal of protection and support measures.
As I wrote in this column just two weeks ago, there are cases in Japan one after another in which a wife takes her children and leaves home while her husband is away, wresting the children away from him through a divorce given primarily on the basis of domestic violence he purportedly has committed. The international community views Japan as a “nation that ‘legalizes’ child abducting” by allowing mothers to rob their husbands of their children and subsequently granting them sole custody.
Under normal circumstances, children should be raised and cherished by their parents in a loving environment. So, the fact that the court separates them from one parent under the sole custody system itself is ridiculous and abnormal. The Family Law Subcommittee (the Subcommittee hereafter) of the Legal Council (an advisory body to the minister of justice, hereafter the Council), which has been preparing to revise our family law with these problems in mind, is slated to finalize an interim report by the end of August. The Mainichi report was based on its contents, which were obviously leaked.
Breaking Families Apart
The crucial question at this juncture is whether Japan will adjust its family law on the basic principle of joint custody. Japanese fathers—and a small number of mothers—are compelled to lose their children because of the sole custody system—a system that has attracted worldwide criticism. These parents have desperately turned to the Justice Ministry as their last resort. But the real problem lies with the Council, which is committed to sole custody.
Ordinarily, the Justice Ministry is expected to fulfill its responsibility in providing measures to secure the happiness of families, which constitutes the foundation of the nation and society. But that is far from reality in Japan. Instead, discussions held so far at the Council and the legal reform it supposedly aims to implement will further break Japanese families apart.
The expected revision of the family law must rectify the defects I have pointed out. The crucial point is how manifestly the interim report will advocate shared parental rights, i.e., to what extent and how strictly it is committed to eliminating sole custody.
How did The Mainichi report on these aspects of the proposed legislation in its article? The headline read: “Toward Joint Custody after Divorce.” In the body of the article, it stated: “A government body has agreed on the policy of introducing ‘joint custody in divorce cases.’” This way, the reader cannot but get the impression that the Council, after having so long adhered to sole custody, has finally awakened to the importance of shared custody—the norm of the international community.
Further reading the piece, however, the reader is puzzled by the assertion that “the ministry intends to allow parents to choose joint custody on the basis of consultations and a decision by the family court.” More concretely, the piece states that “the children’s schooling and treatment plans for their illnesses” will be determined “by both parents based on joint custody.”
In other words, joint custody as the Council sees it only covers such a narrow range as when children’s schools are chosen and what treatment plans would suit them best when they fall ill.
The fundamental principle of joint custody calls for opportunities to be provided a divorced couple so that they will be able to cooperate in the care of their children and interact with them regularly. Parents ought to be able to spend time together with their children as often as possible, cherishing, teaching, encouraging, scolding, giving advice, and guiding them as they see fit. Joint custody is an opportunity for both divorced parents to give their love to their children in every way possible. From the children’s standpoint, that also represents their rights to receive their parents’ love to the fullest. Restricting their rights only to decision-making concerning schools and therapeutic plans can hardly be called “joint custody.” Isn’t the government merely playing with words while it in fact is plotting to deceive the Japanese public and the international community concerning its true position on joint custody?
Proposal of Government Party Makes Eminent Sense
Ignoring these points altogether, The Mainichi noted: “The Council’s interim draft is expected to include two principles—one advocating joint custody and the other sole custody.”
The Council’s attachment to sole custody is manifest in the passage which stated that, in view of couples which often see domestic violence and are constantly at each other’s throats, “a plan to maintain the current system of sole custody is being discussed on the understanding that family values are diverse.”
Alarmed by the Council’s thinking, the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP) has formed a project team, coming up with a proposal fundamentally different from the Council that aims to enable the state to protect our families more securely. Representing the team, five LDP law makers—Miki Yamada, Hiromichi Kumada, Hidehiro Mitani, Masahiko Shibayama, and Tomu Tanigawa—submitted a proposal to Justice Minister Yoshihisa Furukawa on June 21.
The party’s proposal boils down to: 1) Ensuring consistency with the 1980 Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction and the 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child, the government must review the incumbent domestic law pertaining to sole custody; and 2) Joint custody must be implemented, as both parents are held accountable for continuing to raise their children even after divorce.
As for past cases in which many fathers (and a small number of mothers) were compelled to be robbed of and lost contact with their children, the LDP stresses the need for a remedy to be provided to enable a restoration of their parental authority.
I firmly believe that the LDP proposal advocating joint custody makes eminent sense. Coincidentally, the campaign season for the July 10 Upper House election has just been officially announced, with our politicians going all out to secure seats in the Diet. Someone must have leaked the information on the Council’s draft in an attempt to catch both politicians and eligible voters off their guard, hoping The Mainichi article would create the impression that the Council will come up with a policy that includes meaningful joint custody.
There is no doubt that someone on the Council’s side must have leaked the information. Obviously, it is wary of the LDP’s proposal for joint custody. I suspect the Council is trying to implement the family law reform based on sole custody before most of our politicians get wind of it when the election is over and our political world is buzzing with news and rumors of new personnel appointments. The government would do well to protect families centering on a joint custody system as manifested in the LDP-proposed plan.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 1,005 in the June 23, 2022 issue of The Weekly Shincho)