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Duped into divorce: Foreign nationals plead for help in Japan

Many unwittingly divorced under "easy" system

Around 11,000 marriages between Japanese people and foreign nationals ended in divorce in 2018, according to Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare statistics. 

TOKYO -- The plight of foreign nationals in Japan who have been divorced against their wishes is being exposed as the country opens up to more immigration, and the justice ministry is reaching out to help.

A recent move to provide English translations and outlines of relevant laws came amid reports from organizations providing consultation services that they receive regular complaints from non-Japanese residents.

In many cases, Japanese nationals are accused of submitting divorce papers to local governments without the consent of their foreign spouses by using forged signatures, or getting them to sign papers under false pretenses. In some cases, foreign nationals also lose access to their children as a result of their unexpected divorces.

In Japan, people simply need to submit divorce papers to legally dissolve their marriages in a system unlike those in most other countries. Groups supporting foreign nationals who have become embroiled in divorce-related disputes are urging caution from the Japanese authorities when handling such cases.

"I did not do anything wrong. Why can't I live with my child?," said a non-Japanese woman in her 40s living in Hyogo Prefecture, western Japan.

A few years ago, when the woman's relationship with her Japanese husband was deteriorating, he forged her signature and submitted divorce papers to a local government office without her knowledge.

The husband also wrote in the divorce papers that he had custody of their child. Since the wife began to live separately from him, she has been unable to gain access to the child.

She filed a lawsuit seeking to have the divorce declared invalid, among other things. In a ruling handed down in November, a family court recognized that her husband had forged her signature and declared the divorce notice null and void.

But the family court did not allow their child to be handed over to her, attaching importance to the fact that the child had lived with the father for the past several years.

The increasing number of foreign nationals working or living in Japan leaves many vulnerable to consequences of being unfamiliar with aspects of the law, including divorce law.

According to Kaori Yoshijima, a counselor at the Association for Toyonaka Multicultural Symbiosis in Toyonaka City, Osaka Prefecture, adjacent to Hyogo, the association alone annually receives inquiries from more than 10 people whose spouses have unilaterally submitted divorce papers.

There are also cases in which Japanese nationals have duped their foreign spouses into signing divorce papers by pretending they were documents to be submitted to their children's schools, Yoshijima said.

If divorce papers are submitted to local governments, foreign nationals may lose their residence status as Japanese nationals' spouses and can be deported.

According to Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare statistics, the number of divorces between Japanese and foreign nationals stood at about 11,000 in 2018.

"I often hear about people whose spouses submitted divorce papers without their consent," said Toshiteru Shibaike, a lawyer at Kotonoha Sogo Law Office in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward, which handles many troubles related to international marriages and divorces.

But there are many foreign nationals who lack Japanese proficiency and hesitate to take their cases to court. "Most of them seem to be just putting up with their difficult situation," Shibaike said.

Lying behind the frequent occurrence of such troubles is Japan's system that recognizes a divorce if divorce papers bearing the signatures of both the husband and the wife are submitted to a local government.

In other countries, it is usual for a husband and wife to have to visit a court or a local government office to be granted a divorce, according to Shuhei Ninomiya, a Ritsumeikan University professor specializing in family law.

However, despite the ease of getting a divorce in Japan, the country does have a system designed to prevent a divorce from going through without the consent of both husband and wife.

Under the "fujuri moshide (nonacceptance request)" system, if either a husband or a wife visits a local municipal office and submits a necessary document, divorce papers will not be accepted, even if their spouse has unilaterally submitted them.

But Ninomiya said that many people don't know how the system works, including some Japanese and most foreign nationals.

Support groups, lawyers and researchers established Rikon Alert, the action group for divorce by mutual agreement, in 2015. Rikon is the Japanese word for divorce. Rikon Alert compiled a video and leaflet in many languages explaining Japan's divorce system.

In September, Rikon Alert published a guide for affected parties titled "mudan rikon taio manual (manual to respond to divorces without the consent of both parties)."

The manual explains things such as the procedures for "fujuri moshide" and how to proceed with mediation and litigation. A symposium was also held in Toyonaka City on Dec. 7 to mark its publication.

Meanwhile, the Justice Ministry has started to translate the outlines of newly enacted or revised Japanese laws into English and provide the English outlines to foreign nationals, starting with a revised law related to an international treaty to protect children's rights.

The revised Act for Implementation of the (Hague) Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction was enacted in Japan's parliament in May during its last session.

The Justice Ministry's move came in response to an increase in the number of foreign nationals working or living in Japan.

The number of foreign residents was almost 2.83 million by the end of June, a 3.6% increase from six months earlier. Of those, 115,545 are married to Japanese nationals.

The revised Hague convention-related law sets rules that make it possible for one parent to quickly bring their child back to the country of their usual residence if the other parent takes them back to their home country following the breakup of an international marriage.

The English outline of the revised law, which will make it easier for foreign nationals to acquire necessary legal knowledge, is now available on the Justice Ministry website.

The ministry started translating the texts of Japanese laws into English about 10 years ago, but so far only 10% have been completed.

It is said that the full text of a law takes an average of more than three years to translate into English after the law's enactment or revision.

The ministry has decided that it is more effective to quickly provide the outlines of newly enacted or revised laws in English than to provide the full texts of such laws in English.

Priority will be given to the English translation of explanatory materials about bills that are released by government ministries and agencies, the ministry said, and it will provide those outlines before newly enacted or revised laws take effect.

A panel of experts from the public and private sectors was also set up by the ministry on Dec. 4 to promote the English translation of Japanese laws.

The panel will identity law information needed by many foreign nationals and work out a strategy concerning how to provide such information in English, among other things.

The panel will also move ahead with a study on the use of artificial intelligence to enhance the speed and accuracy of translation.

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