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Divorced without consent: System stacked against foreigners, support groups

Foreign women decrying "I was divorced without my permission by my Japanese spouse" continue flocking to support groups for advice. The Mainichi Shimbun investigated the background of these "surprise divorces" by interviewing victims and supporters in a bid to raise awareness and curb the phenomenon.

"I wish I had known earlier about the Japanese divorce system," said one such victim, 46-year-old Filipina Marietta, a resident of Osaka Prefecture. She came to Japan in the summer of 2000, and worked in a restaurant in Kumamoto Prefecture as a dancer. She married a man she met there the following year. The couple moved back and forth between the Philippines and Japan and had two sons together. However, Marietta's husband started to become violent toward her, and during her second pregnancy he returned to Japan and she lost all contact with him.

Marietta raised her sons in the Philippines, but began wanting them to have a Japanese education. So in 2011, she answered a staff recruitment call from a Japanese company operating a care facility and returned to Japan with her family. However, while going through the procedures to make the move, a staff member of the company who had checked the family registry for her children told her that she had been divorced.

"I was shocked how he could divorce me while I was in the Philippines," Marietta said. She had no memory of signing any documents, and it appears that her husband forged her signature on the divorce papers he submitted to the municipal government. The divorce had come into effect around the birth of her second son, and her ex-husband had married another Filipina not even a month after the divorce was finalized.

To make things worse, custody of their older son was listed as belonging to her ex-husband, who reportedly received child care allowances for a time. "It is the responsibility of a parent to protect the rights of the children (through things like paying child support after a divorce)," Marietta said. Doing part-time work to barely cover her family's day-to-day expenses, she lamented, "I want to help make my sons' dreams of becoming a pastry chef and an English teacher come true, but I don't have enough money to take my husband to court."

The foundation supporting Marietta, the Association for Toyonaka Multicultural Symbiosis (ATOMS) based in the city of Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, has heard many stories just like hers, and the numbers are rising. From fiscal 2010 to 2013, there were up to 20 cases of consultations about divorce without consent. However, in fiscal 2014, that number suddenly rose to 67 cases, with 110 in fiscal 2015 and 109 in fiscal 2016.

"Many of the people who come to ATOMS to seek advice have been the victims of a surprise divorce," said Kaori Yoshijima, a consultant for the foundation. In Japan's "divorce by agreement" system, a divorce and custodial rights can be finalized with the submission of just one document with the signatures and seals of the two spouses and two adult witnesses to a local city hall. There is no need for both spouses to be present, and while a notice is sent to the absent party, it is only issued in Japanese. Awareness of a petition to block divorce notices that can be submitted to city hall beforehand is also very low, and in order to annul a divorce, the case must be taken to court.

Calling on other support groups and lawyers, ATOMS organized the research group "Rikon (divorce) Alert" in 2015 to study cases of divorce without consent and come up with preventative measures. According to one group member, cases of divorce without consent can be divided into three large categories: cases where the signature of one spouse was forged; cases where a foreign spouse was tricked into signing the document by being told that it was for another purpose; and cases where a divorce form filled out previously was submitted without the consent of one spouse.

"There are a lot of cases where the victim is aware that the document has something to do with divorce when they sign, but have no idea that a single sheet of paper can finalize the divorce and decide custody of the couple's children," said Rikon Alert member and Tokyo lawyer Toshiteru Shibaike.

According to the 2015 Population Survey Report by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, there were 13,675 divorce cases where the spouse was not Japanese, roughly 1.7 times higher than 20 years ago. Of these, cases where the non-Japanese spouse was female were nearly 80 percent, with the spouse most commonly being from China, the Philippines, or North or South Korea, in that order.

The biggest problem for foreign victims of surprise divorce is the effect on their residency status. If they are in Japan on a spousal visa, there is a possibility of losing their visa and being forced to return to their country. If the spouse decides to stay in Japan to go through court proceedings to annul the divorce, they can change their status to "temporary visitor" or "designated activities," but neither of these statuses allows the holder to work, and the financial burden of living and court expenses is a heavy one.

The burden on the children is also large. "In cases where divorce papers have been submitted by the Japanese parent while the foreign parent is in their home country away from their children, it is particularly hard to change custodial rights because the court heavily weighs maintaining the child's environment," said Shibaike. He hopes Rikon Alert and its website will provide support groups with accurate information and the know-how needed to help affected spouses and children.

Rikon Alert will be offering a free divorce consultation hotline for foreign nationals at 06-6843-4425 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on May 27. Lawyers and other experts will offer counseling in English, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Thai, Spanish, Portuguese, Bahasa Indonesian, Vietnamese, Russian and Nepalese, and will also take calls from outside of Japan.

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