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How Japan’s Family Law Reform Prioritizes Child Welfare


Japan’s Ministry of Justice has published an outline recommending several changes to its civil codes, focusing on issues related to children’s interests after divorce. The Family Law Subcommittee, formed in March 2021, has debated issues such as parental authority, adoption, and property distribution.

The proposed changes to Article 818 in Japan’s Civil Code, introduced in 1947, aim to address issues such as limited parental authority and child support payments. However, the amendment to Article 766(1) of the Civil Code in 2012 has not been effective in addressing these issues.

A national survey by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare in 2022 revealed that only 31.1% of children living with their mothers saw their fathers regularly and only 28.1% received child support.

Japan is grappling with increasing social concern over the welfare of children in divorced households. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has been concerned about the lack of clarity on key principles of family law reform. The issue of granting shared custody after a divorce has been a contentious point, with some arguing it could be harmful to mothers and children. The subcommittee presented two options, allowing parents to choose sole or joint parental authority.

The August 2023 proposal outlines custodial reform, allowing couples to choose between joint or sole custody in cases of mutual consent, accounting for 90% of divorces in Japan. If an agreement cannot be reached, Japan’s Family Court can adjudicate, handling the legal proceedings for the divorce.

The proposal aims to update the Civil Code to enshrine legal protections for children’s best interest after divorce, encouraging parents to reach an acceptable co-parenting arrangement. The proposal also clarifies new rules for parental visitation and child support, addressing the lack of facilitating agreed visitations and the high rate of neglect of child support payments.

The Japanese Civil Code faces challenges in addressing the legacy of normative family ideals, particularly in relation to changing parent-child relationships due to remarriage, stepfamilies, and cross-border families. A more effective code should prioritize children’s interests in changing parent-child relationships.

The growing social debate suggests that specific legal norms must be linked to broader and more effective policies. The family law subcommittee’s proposed changes to custody, visitation, and child support signal a recognition of changing family dynamics, triggering a broader conversation about the evolving needs and challenges families, particularly children, face in Japan.

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