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.