In Japan, you can be divorced without your consent, losing your right to reside in the country and access to your children.
International marriages can be challenging at the best of times, but in Japan the odds are stacked against foreigners, with several idiosyncrasies unique to the Japanese legal system often leading to confusion and much emotional distress. Approximately 90 per cent of divorces in Japan are “divorces of agreement” involving both spouses signing a form known as a rikon-todoke (divorce notice) which is then submitted to their city or ward office. Since Japan does not recognize joint custody, the form also allows the pair to legally decide which parent will gain custody of the children (shinken).
Recently, there have been cases where foreign nationals residing in Japan who are married to Japanese nationals have been the victim of what’s known as “divorce without consent” wherein the Japanese spouse forges their foreign spouse’s signature, or otherwise tricks them into signing a form they cannot read or fully understand, and submits the form behind their spouse’s back.
Since the Japanese authorities don’t investigate claims of forged signatures or signing under deception, the divorce is therefore final. A foreign national divorced in secret by a Japanese spouse can then find themselves suddenly losing their right to reside in the country as divorce automatically cancels spouse visas. This leaves the foreign national with 6 months in which to acquire another form of visa before facing deportation. Also, many who are divorced in this way find that their spouse has designated themself as having sole custody of the children, leaving the foreign national with zero legal access.
In response to the rising number of divorces of foreign nationals without their knowledge or consent, an awareness raising campaign has been started by Rikon Alert (Research Center for Issues on Divorce), involving the distribution of pamphlets and the construction of a website offering legal advice in 11 languages. An informational video uploaded to the Rikon Alert YouTube channel shows how a theoretical “divorce without consent” can play out:
Since the overwhelming majority of international marriages in Japan involve a Japanese man and a non-Japanese woman (primarily from China and the Philippines), this issue heavily affects women, particularly mothers. Those who are unfamiliar with the Japanese language are often not equipped to handle a lengthy legal battle to contest a “divorce by agreement” and are often left with nowhere to turn. Hopefully, the campaign will help to educate those at risk.
It’s always important to familiarise yourself with the Japanese legal system if you are considering marriage in Japan as a foreigner. One possible way to protect yourself in advance is to submit a document known as a rikon fujuri moushidesho (non-acceptance of divorce motion) which will block any rikon-todoke submissions until such time as the motion is personally cancelled. Examples of both forms can be found on the Rikon Alert website.