The issue with divorce in Japan (for foreigners married to Japanese nationals) is that the court system overwhelmingly favors Japanese nationals. This is an unfortunate fact.
When children are involved the difficulties mount, as children almost always go to the mother (if she is Japanese). It is an open secret that Japanese wives can easily abscond with the children overnight, and there is little-to-nothing you can do about it. This tactic is commonly known as parental kidnapping and is, sadly, a frequent enough practice that it has provoked the ire of Japan’s foreign trading partners. Although Japan is a signatory under the Hague Convention, foreign fathers are still in a delicate bind.
1. I have children; how do I not lose custody of them?
The best advice is to firmly hold onto your children’s passports.
Be aware of your partner’s actions and be conscious of new developments. Has he/she gotten a new job lately? Any recent plans to visit family or a friend?
Develop a relationship with someone who may be able to mediate, or settle a confrontation, between you and your partner to ensure that you’ll be able to see your children. As of right now, there is no joint-custody in Japan (this is specifically addressed in Article 819 of the Civil Code). However, as recently as 2018, the Japanese Government seems to be reconsidering its’ stance on child custody issues, as the number of victims here is alarming.
“Divorce by Agreement” constitutes the majority of divorces in Japan—this can be to your advantage if your partner is willing to settle for a certain amount of money or split something of value. Usually some kind of “sweetener” (like money, or property) is expected, regardless of whatever might be said to the contrary. This sweetener is also (almost always) the bargaining chip for seeing your children. If you do happen to be working on an agreement, the most important thing to remember is to sign with your inkan (official Japanese seal). In this way, these documents and agreements can be legally recognized in the Japanese court system (should it come to that).
Depending on your situation, you may want to submit the rikon-todoke (divorce application). You would also, ideally, execute an “agreement” that would guarantee seeing your children regularly…perhaps even gaining sole custody. Being as close as possible to your spouse’s family and siblings is very important—especially if they can witness the agreement and help ensure its’ stipulations will be followed.
2. Will I be kicked out of the country?
Potentially yes, depending on your visa situation. Is your status dependent upon being married to a Japanese national? If so, then take immediate measures to secure a visa status that accommodates living in Japan as a single individual. Luckily, the remainder of your spousal visa will keep you in the country up to the expiration date.
If your work visa or status is not dependent upon being married to a Japanese national, then you will not be kicked out of the country. Your visa still applies regardless of marriage or divorce.
If you are a U.S. citizen, some applicable information can be found here: https://jp.usembassy.gov/u-s-citizen-services/child-family-matters/divorce/
If you are a citizen of another foreign nation, most embassies have in-depth information posted on their websites. Here’s more details from the Nagoya International Center: http://www.nic-nagoya.or.jp/en/e/archives/5018
3. Can I move locations, or should I be wary of leaving the house?
Yes, you can live in another place, even move, if you are still married. However, there may be other things to consider before resorting to this option. For example, you must be prepared to support yourself and your spouse. You don’t want to be accused of “abandonment.” Also consider whether your visa status allows you to rent or buy an apartment/house on your own. In the meantime, be sure to continue paying bills for which you are legally responsible (this includes rent, electricity, gas, etc.).
There are cases of partners changing locks and isolating you overnight—so be mindful. More frequently, under the pretext of domestic violence, the police can be easily manipulated to get involved. Their first tactic to diffuse an explosive situation is to coax the male to leave the house “for the night.” This can sometimes lead to a situation where you cannot ever return.
Try not to flee, stay put if you can, but (if necessary) take precautions of having a backup place to stay.
4. Does Alimony apply here? What other fees could I be expected to pay?
Alimony does apply here in Japan; but there are some stipulations. You may have the right to sue your partner (or their lover) for “damages,” or be sued yourself, depending on the actions that lead to the altercation in the first place.
Spousal support post-divorce is sometimes required—this would only apply in cases where the amount initially distributed was not enough for a wife’s (or husband’s) “survival.” Alimony can be court ordered and paid as a lump sum, or automatically deducted from your paycheck. But, generally speaking, property is divided 50:50. Any disputes over alimony are handled in family court.
Be vigilant and take hold of your children’s passports; know the details of your visa status; don’t flee the situation; be aware of the potential for alimony. Divorce in any country can be a headache, and indeed devastating. But divorce can also be your opportunity for new beginnings. Hopefully, with these tips in mind, you can maneuver through this process more easily, put disagreements to rest, and move forward with a brighter future in mind.