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From Sole to Shared: Unpacking Japan's Exclusive Custody Laws and the Emerging Shift Towards Joint Custody

Written By: Elysia Tang

Edited By: Nadia Ho

The Washington Post

Japan’s Exclusive Sole Custody Laws

In contrast to many other nations, Japan maintains a distinct legal approach with its exclusive sole custody laws, wherein only one parent retains legal parental responsibility following a divorce. Under this framework, the non-custodial parent forfeits all rights concerning the child, save for an exceedingly limited visitation right. Japanese courts rigorously uphold this mandatory rule without exercising discretion, reflecting the intricate dynamics of parental responsibility in the country's legal landscape.

Intertwinement of Traditional Japanese Customs and its Custodial Laws

In Japan, the nexus between traditional customs and custodial laws shapes the post-divorce familial dynamics. Rooted in the Japanese ethos, children are regarded as belonging to a single family, registered on the official koseki, limiting the concept of shared parental responsibility post-divorce.

The cultural milieu dictates that it is inappropriate for non-custodial parents to demand substantial involvement in their child's life post-divorce–aligning with the emphasis on maintaining family harmony. This ethos is further reinforced by the prevalence of sole custodianship, where approximately 90% of women assume sole custody post-divorce, with 70% of the non-custodial parents not engaging in visitations post-divorce, fostering a practice of minimal to zero interaction which has not changed since 1946.

Moreover, entrenched within Japan's legal framework is a system that provides judges with extensive discretion in awarding custody and overseeing visitation rights and broader parent-child interactions. This discretion is underpinned by the principle of 'continuity' in divorce cases, where judges are urged to prioritise stability, the primary caregiver's role, and the child's settled status in one household. Consequently, this often results in custody being granted to the parent most recently involved in the child's care. Some have gone as far as to criticise the system for favouring custody to the ‘parent that has taken care of the child most recently.’ This emphasis on continuity underscores the complexities and nuances inherent in Japan's custody adjudication process, shaping outcomes that may sometimes seem at odds with broader principles of fairness and equity.

Unintended Consequences: How Japan's Sole Custody Laws Foster Child Abduction

Japan's exclusive sole custody laws are intertwined with its legislation on child abduction, creating a complex legal landscape with significant implications for parental rights and the welfare of children. Article 224 of the Japanese Penal Code criminalises child abduction, applying uniformly to all potential offenders, including parents. Consequently, child abduction laws are wielded as a means to enforce separation between non-custodial parents and their children.

However, a critical examination reveals a paradoxical aspect to this legal framework. While ostensibly designed to prevent child abduction, Japan's exclusive sole custody laws may inadvertently incentivise such actions. Parents who anticipate losing custody of their children under these laws may resort to abduction as a means to maintain contact. Moreover, the efficacy of the system in preventing child abduction is undermined by documented instances of ignored complaints.

A seminal case shedding light on these issues is that of Vincent Fichot. Despite holding full parental authority, Fichot's child abduction complaints were disregarded for four years after his wife took their children. Shockingly, Fichot faced the threat of prosecution under child abduction laws if he attempted to recover his children from his wife. Only with the intervention of INTERPOL and the issuance of an arrest warrant did Fichot gain momentum in his pursuit for justice. In response, Japanese authorities intensified the monitoring of child abduction complaints and heightened awareness among law enforcement agencies, underscoring the systemic challenges and risks inherent in the existing legal framework.

Critics argue that Japanese law inadequately addresses ‘parental abduction,’ adopting a stance reminiscent of ‘whoever has them, will get them.’ Furthermore, if the abducting parent can demonstrate the child's well-being at the time of custody hearings, they are likely to retain full custody. Consequently, many observers, particularly from international quarters, contend that Japan's legal system prioritises neither the welfare of children nor the rights of parents, inadvertently fostering an environment where child abduction by parents is tacitly condoned.

In conclusion, the interplay between Japan's exclusive sole custody laws and child abduction legislation reveals a complex and contentious legal landscape. While ostensibly aimed at preserving family stability, these laws raise critical questions about parental rights, child welfare, and the efficacy of legal mechanisms in safeguarding against abduction. 

The International Impact of the Sole Custody Laws relating to Child Abduction

Whilst Japan does consider parental abduction as kidnapping if it disrupts a child’s residence or relationship with the primary caregiver–demonstrating a degree of protection against parental abduction–their system remains arguably flawed, particularly regarding cases involving a foreign national parent. In cases where a foreign national parent tries to re-abduct their children in Japan by force, they may face arrest and possible criminal prosecution irrespective of their custodial status in the children's home country. Moreover, a foreign parent trying to abduct children by force to another country would face the extra charge of ‘kidnapping for the purpose of transporting the kidnapped person to a foreign country’ (Article 226(1) of the Penal Code), which carries the penalty of imprisonment with labour for a limited period of not less than two years.

Consequently, countries such as the UK, US, and Australia, which are Treaty Partners under the 1980 Hague Convention caution their citizens regarding the abduction of a child by a parent is not in itself a criminal offence in Japan. Furthermore, whilst the Hague Convention seeks to protect children from the harmful effects of abduction and has a procedure for prompt returns, it cannot be used retrospectively. This means that if children with dual nationalities were kidnapped and taken to Japan for 12 months or longer and subsequently ‘adapted’ to their new environment, any requests for the return of the child might be rejected.

In essence, the ramifications of Japan's sole custody laws extend beyond domestic concerns and significantly impacts families involving Japanese and foreign parents. There is a history of unresolved cases demonstrating this international issue. As of 2007 in Australia, there were at least 13 cases; as of 2008, in Canada, there were 29; in France, since 2009, 35 cases; and from 2003 to 2009 alone, the UK had a total of 37 cases of British nationals being abducted to Japan by a parent–all remain unresolved. 

Therefore, in the realm of international parental child abduction, foreign parents find themselves at a disadvantage in Japanese courts, both in obtaining the return of children to their home country, and in achieving enforceable visitation rights in Japan. 

Consequential Scrutiny from the International Community

In 2019, leaders from Germany, France, and Italy joined voices in condemnation of Japan's stance (Yakimova, 2020).  Simultaneously, the United Nations Human Rights Council filed a formal complaint, accusing Japan of breaching international laws, including the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and the Hague Convention.

Addressing the alarming frequency of parental child abductions by Japanese nationals, the European Parliament passed a resolution in 2020 with an overwhelming majority of 688 votes in favour and only one against. The resolution urged the Japanese government to enact measures preventing the unilateral removal of children from EU member states to Japan.

In a significant development, the Legislative Council of the Ministry of Justice was established in March 2021. After extensive deliberations, a draft outline for amending the law emerged in August 2023. However, scrutiny of the proposed amendments raised concerns about potential loopholes. Critics fear that the bill could effectively segregate parental and custodial rights, permitting only narrowly defined parental rights such as property management and legal representation to be joint. If passed, there are apprehensions that the amendments could perpetuate parent-child disconnection after divorce, impose excessive restrictions on interactions, and facilitate the unauthorised removal of children by parents.

Despite the strong international criticism, in a case challenging the unconstitutionality of the removal of children by their parents in September 2023, the Tokyo high Court stated that it had ‘no strong criticism of the current family court.’ 

Moving Forward

While both domestic and international efforts have been initiated to reform Japan's exclusive sole custody laws, the country continues to grapple with fundamental questions surrounding its policies and legal framework. What is evident is that Japan must prioritise the best interests of the child and uphold the rights of parents to ensure a fair and equitable system. Furthermore, the impact of Japan's sole custody laws on the proliferation of domestic and international child abduction underscores the urgency for reform.

Efforts must focus on enforcing international provisions and adhering to the implementation requirements outlined in the Hague Convention. It is imperative to prevent situations where children with dual nationality face obstacles in accessing both parents and to ensure that the process of choosing one nationality by the age of 22 does not disrupt their relationship with either parent. Additionally, Japan must develop and implement better transnational and cross-border systems within its child protection frameworks. This entails providing foreign jurisdictions with comprehensive information on Japan's child protection systems and ensuring that parents, particularly those with foreign nationality, are not disadvantaged when disputing children who have been parentally abducted to Japan.

The existing laws pertaining to the 12-month rule concerning parentally abducted children's adaptation to Japan demand reconsideration. A more realistic approach, taking into account the child's age and preferences regarding their sense of home, is essential for ensuring fairness and what’s best for the child. 


In conclusion, while the trajectory of Japan's family law courts remains uncertain, there is optimism for change amidst increasing exposure and mounting pressure from the international community. As stakeholders continue to advocate for reform, there exists an opportunity for Japan to realign its legal framework with international standards and uphold the rights and welfare of children and parents alike, paving the way for a more equitable family law system that reflects the evolving needs of families in Japan.


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[2] Hurights Osaka. (2022, June). “Black hole of the child abduction.” Retrieved from Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Centre

[3] Bagshaw, E. (2021, August 14). “Their children were taken. Now they fight Japanese laws to get them back.” Retrieved from The Sydney Morning Herald

[4] Hurights Osaka, 'Black hole of the child abduction' (June 2022) accessed 18 February 2024.

[5] Reuters, 'Frenchman seeks Macron’s help over ‘abduction’ of his children' (July 23 2021) accessed 15 February 2024.

[6] Margaret Conley (13 October 2009). "Parents Fight Losing Custody Battle in Japan". ABC.

[7] Kyung Lah; Aaron Cooper; Saeed Ahmed; Carolina Sanchez (29 September 2009). "American jailed in Japan for trying to reclaim his children". CNN. Retrieved 23 October 2009. Our two nations approach divorce and child-rearing differently. Parental child abduction is not considered a crime in Japan.

[9] "Rapid Increase in Child Abductions to Japan". Embassy of the United States, Japan. U.S. Department of State. Winter 2010. Archived from the original on 22 November 2010.

[10] Lou Robson (6 January 2007). "Wedding spelt the end". The Courier-Mail. Queensland Newspapers.

[11] Justin McCurry (27 October 2009). "Savoie's choice: abduct or fight?". GlobalPost

[12] Justin McCurry (27 October 2009). "Savoie's choice: abduct or fight?". GlobalPost

[13] "International parental child abduction". Working with Japan. Foreign & Commonwealth Office. 2009. Archived from the original on 17 November 2009.

[14] Yakimova, Y. (2020, July 8). “Parliament sounds alarm over children in Japan taken from EU parents.” Retrieved from European Parliament News, accessed 18 February 2024

[15] Centre for Male Psychology, 'The Winner Takes it All: Japan's Controversial Sole Custody System' (Centre for Male Psychology) accessed 18 February 2024.

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