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Surprise divorces affecting foreigners spur multilingual leaflets

Rikon Alert's leaflet in 11 languages explaining the Japanese "divorce by agreement" system are pictured here, along with a page from the Rikon Alert website on a screen in the background in this photo taken in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, on March 31, 2017. (Mainichi)

Japan's "divorce by agreement" -- which does not exactly reflect the reality of the system -- is a rare specimen worldwide. And many foreign spouses have learned that the hard way.

    "One piece of paper changed my whole life," laments a 30-something non-Japanese woman living in western Japan.

    The woman married a Japanese man in 2005, and gave birth to two children. Her husband gradually stopped working and began verbally abusing her. The woman sought divorce mediation in 2010, but her husband did not appear on the date of the arbitration. Instead, she was informed by the mediator that the divorce had already been finalized. She scrambled to obtain a copy of the family register, and discovered that her husband had submitted divorce papers in which he designated himself as having sole parental custody over their children.

    When the woman returned home, an argument escalated into the woman's now ex-husband using brute physical force against her, and the police were called. The woman was taken to a shelter, but her claim that her ex-husband had gone through with the divorce without her consent went unaddressed by the authorities. Her children were placed under the protection of a child guidance center, after which they were handed over to their father.

    The woman filed for arbitration to have her divorce annulled, but because her ex-husband told her he would let her see her children if she retracted her motion for arbitration, she did. However, she has not been able to see her children for a month now.

    Of all divorces in Japan, some 90 percent are "divorce by agreement," in which a divorce is finalized simply by submitting a divorce notice filled out by both spouses to the local city hall. The catch here is that the authorities make no attempts to ensure that the signatures do, in fact, belong to the people that they appear to be representing.

    This means that a spouse can forge a signature and fill out the form with information, including who will take custody of the couple's children, unbeknownst to their spouse. Since the system is not seen anywhere else in the world, many foreign nationals do not know that they can be divorced without their agreement and left without their children or the visa status they had held. Thus, organizations and experts that have received complaint after complaint that their Japanese spouses divorced them without their consent have produced a leaflet in multiple languages offering information about the Japanese divorce system and warning foreign nationals to be wary about signing paperwork they can't read or aren't sure about.

    The leaflet was created by Rikon Alert, a group comprising attorneys, university professors, and seven organizations in the Kansai region including the Association for Toyonaka Multicultural Symbiosis (ATOMS). For the past two years, the group has been studying actual cases of "divorce by agreement" that were actually without agreement, and deliberating preventative measures.

    The overwhelming majority of foreign nationals who have consulted experts or support organizations have been women. They include cases in which women's signatures were forged by their husbands on divorce papers and were then submitted to city hall, women being tricked into signing documents that they were told were for insurance or other purposes, and women signing divorce notices without knowing that custody of their children would be dictated by those same papers.

    It is necessary to go through the courts in order to nullify a divorce notice that has already been submitted, even if it was without a spouse's consent, and this poses a huge burden for foreign nationals who are not fluent in Japanese.

    Among foreign women whose former husbands used the Japanese divorce system against them, there are those who have been unable to see their children after their ex-husbands took custody, as well as those who lost their visa status and had no choice but to return to their home countries.

    "It is outrageous to one-sidedly burden the person who was divorced without full consent," says Kaori Yoshijima, a consultant who handled 109 divorce-without-consent cases in fiscal 2016. "The rights of the children are not being protected, either."

    The leaflet also provides information on petitions to block divorce notices from being accepted -- called "rikon fujuri moshide" -- that must be submitted to city hall to prevent a divorce from going through without the consent of both parties.

    Rikon Alert made 30,000 copies of the leaflet, which are available in Japanese, English, Chinese, Korean, Tagalog, Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesia, Russian, Spanish and Portuguese.

    Shuhei Ninomiya, a professor of family law at Ritsumeikan University, says, "Japan's 'divorce by agreement' is a unique system that makes one-sided divorce possible, and is found nowhere else in the world. The central government must take responsibility for offering information in multiple languages and handling consultations to prevent children from being disadvantaged."

    For information included in the leaflet, and tips for those supporting foreign nationals in similar circumstances, visit the Rikon Alert website at https://atoms9.wixsite.com/rikon-alert. The site's pages are available in the aforementioned 11 languages.

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