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Japan has changed its controversial parental custody laws

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Japanese Parliament has passed laws that will allow divorced parents to share custody of their children for the first time.
Japanese Parliament has passed laws that will allow divorced parents to share custody of their children for the first time.

Japanese Parliament has passed laws that will allow divorced parents to share custody of their children for the first time.

It replaces old measures that allowed one parent to claim sole legal custody over a child. Critics of the laws argued they allowed parents to be cut off from their children and (in some instances) facilitated child abductions.

New custody measures will come into effect in 2026.

Here’s what you need to know.

Japan’s custody laws

Under current legislation in Japan, joint custody of a child is only awarded to married couples. If a child’s parents aren’t married when they are born, the mother is given sole custody. Divorced parents aren’t allowed to share custody.

Custody disputes can be settled through the courts, which generally award caregiving responsibilities to the parent who has taken care of the child most recently.

This framework has allowed some parents to prevent the other from seeing their child.

Child abductions

In 2019, the UN Children’s Rights Committee found Japan’s custody laws were “of concern”.

Following this finding, the European Union voiced formal concerns over child abduction cases by Japanese parents from their non-Japanese partners.

In 2020, it said Japan’s custody laws paved the way for one parent to take their child away from the other with no legal ramifications.

It’s estimated hundreds of children have been abducted under these laws.

Law change

Last week, the Japanese Parliament passed laws to allow joint custody between divorced parents. The reforms will come into effect in 2026.

Under the new laws, parents can determine custody arrangements together, or through the courts if an agreement can’t be reached.

The reforms also include measures to restrict abusive or violent parents from being awarded custody.

Australians

The law changes were criticised by Australian Katherine Henderson, who told the ABC she lives in Japan but hasn’t seen her children since 2019 due to the custody laws.

Henderson called the new laws a “bare-bones, minimum change”, saying that joint custody would be helpful in low-conflict divorces, but wouldn’t prevent abductions or false claims by parents to gain sole custody.

The laws will be reviewed in 2031, five years after they come into effect.

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