Government shows awareness of something called ‘child support’
Divorce in Japan can be ridiculously easy. If the two parties are in agreement about breaking up, all they have to do is go down to their local government office, fill out a rikon todoke (divorce notification) and give it to the Man. No fuss, no muss, no grounds. In fact, both parties don’t even have to be present, as long as their seals are affixed to the document. About 90 percent of all divorces are carried out in this “mutual consent” (kyogi-teki) way.
Starting this spring, however, the notification form has a new box in the lower, right-hand corner. The box concerns “minor offspring.” If the couple has a child under the age of 20, they are required to check this box, though if they don’t nothing will happen. The divorce will still go through. According to a recent article in the Tokyo Shimbun, when someone goes into his or her city hall and asks for the divorce notification form, the clerk is supposed to explain the purpose of this new box and encourage the person to check the appropriate statements if he or she has children, but in principle such disclosure is voluntary.
The purpose of the new box is to promote greater awareness of children’s position in a divorce with regard to visitation and child support. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has said that children’s welfare should be prioritized by parents who are divorcing, and the box is a nudge to get them to at least think about visitation and child support before they finalize their divorce.
As it stands, both concepts are still very weak in Japan. In a 2006 survey conducted by the ministry, only 34 percent of single parents who went through mutually agreed upon divorces (meaning no lawyers, mediation or courts) said they had made verbal agreements with their ex-spouses to the effect that the latter would pay something in the way of child support. However, in reality, less than 19 percent actually paid, and 60 percent of all divorced custodial parents have never received any assistance from their ex-partners at all.
In the United States it’s the opposite: 60 percent of custodial parents receive child support from the non-custodial parent. In 2005, the average amount of this support was $6,200 a year, regardless of how many children are being supported. In Japan, the average child support payment among non-custodial parents who actually do pay is ¥42,000 a month, which works out to be about the same. According to research carried out by the Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training, in the U.S. when custodial parents don’t demand child support it’s usually because they don’t need it; while in Japan a custodial parent usually doesn’t demand it because she doesn’t think her ex-partner can pay. In such situations, they don’t even think about alimony.
Though some may believe there is a culture gap here, the real reason more non-custodial parents contribute to child support in the U.S. than do their counterparts in Japan is legal in nature. Custody and child support agreements are integral to divorce settlements in the U.S., whereas in Japan there is no “settlement” unless the spouses for whatever reason execute their divorce through family court or with the assistance of an arbitrator. Legal means tend to be sought only when one of the spouses doesn’t want a divorce, so the one who does has to force the matter. This is another reason why few non-custodial parents pay child support.
In the vast majority of divorce cases, the mother takes custody of the child, and if she is the party suing for divorce, it will be easier for the husband to cut a deal that does not include child support. If the divorce was the husband’s idea, that it is more likely he will be willing to pay. In any event, without legal enforcement, the custodial spouse can’t compel the non-custodial spouse to pay. The new box will not compel anyone to do anything, either. In a way, it’s simply a reminder, but once the notification is filed, checked boxes or no checked boxes, the divorce is final.
If a couple did settle the matter of child support through a court or mediation and the non-custodial spouse does not pay what he’s supposed to pay, the custodial spouse can file a complaint and the court can attach the scofflaw parent’s wages, take money out of his savings or put a lien on his property. Another way the custodial parent can legally compel child support is by having the non-custodial parent declare in writing that he will pay child support and then having the document notarized.
A representative of a single parent support organization told Tokyo Shimbun that couples seeking divorce should understand that verbal agreements on visitation and child support cannot be enforced, which is why the center is urging local governments to explain this to potential divorcees when pointing out the existence of the new box. (When we went to pick up a form at our own local office, they were simply sitting in a tray on a counter. The clerk said cheerfully, “Feel free to take one.”)
They should actually tell the applicant that child support can only be binding if it is authorized through a judge, mediation or notary public. Of the 400 cases the organization handled in 2011, there were 120 that involved custodial parents seeking child support from ex-spouses. Often, a couple is so desperate to get the divorce that they never think through such matters carefully, and later, when the cost of raising a child becomes too burdensome, the custodial parent has nowhere to turn.
In fact, a custodial parent can go to court after a divorce and ask for child support from his or her ex-spouse, but it’s much easier if it’s done before the divorce is finalized. Child support is becoming more of a public issue since almost 50 percent of single mothers, most of whom are divorced, now live below the official poverty line. Granted, the government will pay an allowance to these mothers, so maybe the new box is merely a means to a very different end: relieving some of the financial burden on the public sector. (Until 2010 single fathers could not receive this allowance.) In any case, the new box is really nothing more than a token acknowledgement of the situation, but at least it’s something.