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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:31 03/09/2007
Debate: Comment

On Divorces Involving a Non-Japanese Spouse

J. Sean Curtin (Professor, Japanese Red Cross University)

This comment originally appeared in the "Japan-U.S. Discussion Fourm" (http://lists.nbr.org/japanforum) on March 14, 2002: posted here with the authorís permission.


The sharp increase in the number of marriages involving a Japanese citizen and a non-Japanese national have also led to increases in divorces amongst such couples. While many international marriages are happy unions, those that end in divorce represent a very different set of challenges from divorces in which both parties are Japanese. Divorce law in such cases is sometimes vague and many problematic areas exist.

In many divorce cases involving Japanese couples, the husband refuses to pay any form of maintenance. The courts are ineffectual and there is no mechanism for making a former spouse pay. This partially explains the terrible poverty levels of many Japanese divorced mothers. The situation is often worse in divorce cases involving wives from neighbouring Asian countries. Some men seem to think that if they divorce an Asian woman, they will not have to pay anything as the wife will simply return to her native country. In many cases, this is exactly what happens.

In the last decade, some progress as been achieved. In January 1996, the Akita branch of the Sendai High Court overturned a ruling by a lower court on alimony payments for a Chinese divorcee. The lower court had ruled that the former husband could pay his ex-wife less money because she had returned to China and the cost of living there was lower. However, the high court ruled that the settlement should be the same for all divorcees regardless of where they are residing. This was a significant ruling since if Asian women received less money, then it was legally cheaper to divorce spouses from neighbouring countries. This was in fact the case before the ruling, but even now the situation is not exactly clear.

Research at centres for battered women indicates that Asian women face many barriers, which inhibit them from divorcing an abusive husband. For example, a marital visa is often only renewable if the woman is still married to her Japanese partner. Once it expires, the woman may have to return to her home country.

The situation is further complicated if children are involved. The wife often fears being separated from her child if she divorces. Even when non-Japanese mothers remain in Japan, they face severe economic circumstances as most lack the family support network that many Japanese divorced mothers rely on. Family support is vital as welfare assistance is minimal.

Foreign divorcees also have more difficulty than Japanese women negotiating the Japanese legal system, which is notoriously slow and costly. Despite a few cases brought before the family courts, most foreign wives are unable to seek legal redress because of visa or financial problems.

The government should legislate to improve the situation for all women who divorce and acknowledge the special difficulties foreign wives face. Making the status of non-Japanese wives more secure will help to end the current situation in which some brides from Asian countries are treated more like commodities than human beings.

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