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JAPAN: Left-Behind Parents Want End to Single Child Custody System

Suvendrini Kakuchi

TOKYO, Jun 22 2010 (IPS) - Masako Suzuki, 50, has been fighting tooth and nail for the last six years just to gain equal custody of her son, who lives with her estranged husband.

“I’m still fighting, taking on not just my ex-husband but also the Japanese administration, and in many ways also the whole social system that does not recognise the rights of a child to both parents after a divorce,” says Suzuki.

Suzuki says she has seen her son – now 15 years old – only three times in the past five years. Even then they could only spend less than two hours together during these meetings permitted by her ex-husband.

Apart from seeking child custody rights, Suzuki has also sued the Japanese justice minister and also the Setagaya Ward Office in Tokyo – which is tasked with local administrative functions – a drastic step that she says she took because she could no longer bear the injustice that has been inflicted on her.

“When I finally learned that my son was attending school in Setagaya ward, I went to see him,” she says. But the school principal, citing the father’s sole custody rights, refused to let her see her son. “I was devastated,” she says.

Suzuki and her family had been living in Canada when the divorce happened. Under the Canadian legal system, she says, she and her former husband were granted joint custody of their son, including visitation rights.

But the trouble began when her ex-husband suddenly left for Japan, bringing their son with him. In Japan, he won an order from the family court granting him sole custody of their son.

“Japanese divorce laws do not allow dual custody, because they are based on an old system where the family is treated as a single unit, with usually the father as the head,” Fujiko Goto, a divorce expert and Suzuki’s counsel, tells IPS.

The family courts – specialised courts for family affairs and juvenile delinquency cases – often determine who should gain custody of the children of divorced parents.

In over 80 percent of divorce cases in Japan, child custody goes to the mothers, especially if the children are still young. Fathers are given custody of older children based on their financial capability to raise their offspring, says Goto.

“The judges are mostly men who rely on old-fashioned notions of gender roles,” she says.

An official at the Justice Ministry, who declined to be named, says that the single custody system helps ensure that children are kept in a safe environment, away from harm such as in cases of domestic violence.

But Goto and other advocates of dual custody believe such reasoning smacks of ‘old school’ thinking.

Japan’s stubborn refusal to change its old systems has led to enormous suffering among estranged families, says Goto. With single child custody as the norm in Japan and visitation rights at the mercy of the father or mother who gains sole custody of the children, the spouse who ends up on the losing end of the custody battle often feels helpless.

U.S. broadcasting network National Broadcasting Company earlier reported that an estimated 60 percent of divorces filed in Japan each year include children who live with only a single parent. Based on government data obtained by IPS, some 250,000 divorces were filed in Japan in 2008.

Divorce lawyers and parents seeking equal custody of their children are waging a campaign demanding a change to what they call Japan’s archaic laws.

The group, called ‘Left-behind Parents’, which Suzuki heads, wants Japan to shift to the joint custody system to allow children to have access to both parents.

Kozue Sugano, 48, who was once married to a Bangladeshi national, belongs to the group. She says her ex-husband took her three-year old son to his country without her permission. “That was when I lost him,” she says as she wipes away her tears.

Her experience has taught her that even if Japan shifts to a dual custody system, more efforts will still be needed to ensure that estranged spouses enjoy joint custody of their children.

Thus, Sugano, alongside Suzuki and hundreds of other divorced parents in Japan, is also lobbying fiercely for Japan to become a signatory to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, a multilateral treaty that facilitates the return of a child taken from one member nation to another.

Sugano sees the Convention as her last vestige of hope in her custody fight.

Japan is the only country in the Group of Eight (an intergovernmental forum that also consists of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Russia and Italy) that has not signed the Convention.

Pressure from the international community has been building up on Japan to accede to the treaty.

In January, the embassies of Australia, the United States, Britain, New Zealand and France issued a joint statement urging the Japanese government to sign the Convention to pave the way for children of divorced parents, including those of their citizens who had separated from their Japanese spouses, to have access to their fathers and mothers.

Based on data released by these embassies, there were 38 requests for custody help by British nationals, 35 from French citizens, and 88 by Americans, who had not seen their children since their divorce.

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