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Foreigners warned about Japanese ‘divorce by agreement’

Foreigners married to Japanese citizens have been warned that they could be divorced without their consent.

A group of lawyers, university lecturers and cultural organisations called Rikon Alert has published a leaflet in 11 languages explaining the unique nature of the Japanese divorce system. It warns foreigners who are married to Japanese people but who do not speak the language fluently to not sign any paperwork they cannot read themselves.

Japan operates a system which translates into English as ‘divorce by agreement’. This accounts for around 90 per cent of all divorce across the Asian nation and is a simple bureaucratic exercise: unhappy couples can initiate a split by simply submitting a notice signed by both parties to the local council. The form specifies important matters such as who will have primary care of any children.

The catch is that the authorities usually make no effort to validate the signatures on the form and this has led to multiple cases of Japanese people married to foreigners forging their signatures or tricking them into signing forms they did not understand, thereby divorcing them without their knowledge and even cutting them off from their children.

As this system is unique to Japan, many foreign residents are unaware of the implications, Rikon Alert campaigners say, and do not realise they could be divorced without their consent. Foreign citizens who find themselves in this situation may even lose their residency visas. They then have had to return to their home countries, further isolating them from their children.

Rikon Alert has spent two years researching the issue following multiple complaints from foreign spouses, most of them women, who have been catapulted into this situation.

The leaflet explains how to block a divorce notice if the spouse becomes aware of one by issuing a legal petition called a rikon fujuri moshide. But once a notice of ‘divorce by agreement’ has been approved, even a fraudulent one, the only way to counter it is further legal action and this can be a difficult challenge for foreigners who do not speak fluent Japanese. It also very difficult under Japanese law to win back care of children once they have begun living with the other spouse.

Family law professor Shuhei Ninomiya told The Mainichi newspaper:

“Japan’s ‘divorce by agreement’ is a unique system that makes one-sided divorce possible, and is found nowhere else in the world. The central government must take responsibility for offering information in multiple languages and handling consultations to prevent children from being disadvantaged.”

Thirty thousand copies of the leaflet have been distributed, in English, Korean, Tagalog (also known as Filipino), Indonesian, Vietnamese, Thai, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian and Japanese.

Read more here. The Rikon Alert English language Facebook page can also be found here.

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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