Everything You Need to Know About Divorce in Japan

By Justin | September 10th, 2021

Divorce is never an easy topic to handle and Divorce in Japan is no exception. We know that the process can appear super complicated to a foreigner, which is why we’ve created this comprehensive guide to divorce in Japan. In the article below, we’ll take you through all the relevant information about getting divorced in Japan, whether you’re trying to get separated from a fellow foreigner, or from a Japanese native. We’ll take a look at the legal process surrounding divorce, as well as run you through some of the requirements, and ultimately give you a better idea of what you can expect.

This ultimate guide on Everything You Need to Know About Divorce in Japan is a part of our series on life in Tokyo. Learn more on making your life more convenient at BFF Tokyo.

What are the different types of divorce in Japan?

For Japanese courts, it is crucial that the two parties of the divorce reach an agreement, both about the separation itself, as well as the division of assets. As you might expect, the more items the two spouses can agree on, the easier the court’s job becomes. Unfortunately, not all divorces are the result of mutual agreement, and even when the spouses agree they’d be better off alone, conflict might still occur over the division of assets.

So there are multiple types of divorce in Japan, depending on the level of agreement between the two parties.

Note: Even before deciding to get a divorce, it can be useful to meet with a lawyer if you are contemplating separation from your spouse. They can take you through the options at your disposal, help assess your personal situation, and give you an idea of what each process is like.

1. Divorce by Agreement

Divorce by agreement (also known as rikon, in Japanese) is by far the most common type of separation in the country, with most divorces never even reaching court (much to everyone’s relief). As the name suggests, divorce by agreement takes place when both spouses agree that it is in their best interest to get a divorce, and can have a constructive discussion about the division of assets, custody, and other such pertinent matters.

Divorce by agreement also takes place the quickest, since it doesn’t involve Japanese courts, and so, isn’t determined by third-party involvement.

In a divorce by agreement situation, the two spouses will both sign the notice for divorce (known as the rikon todoke) which they will then submit to a local government office. Since both partners are in agreement over the divorce itself and agree to reach a peaceable, satisfying conclusion for all involved, there is no need to involve a judge, or drag out the situation in legal court.

However, it’s still a good idea to hire a lawyer to ensure you’re getting all you want from your divorce, and that both parties are satisfied. Since negotiations can become heated or emotional, the presence of lawyers can help tone down the situation, and reach a satisfying conclusion. Lawyers will help the two spouses settle on their differences and negotiate delicate matters, such as custody, child support, and the division of assets.

Divorce in Japan

Why do you need a lawyer at all?

If the whole point of divorce by agreement is that the spouses are in agreement, then what is the purpose of a lawyer, at all? Well, while you and your significant other might agree now that the best course of action is to get separated, issues may arise in the future.

For example, when there are children involved, there will need to be a plan in place for child support. In the interest of making sure child support is paid according to this initial agreement, lawyers can help draw up a legally binding document that is then notarized. This can come in handy should conflict arise between you and your ex in the future.

Another benefit of hiring a divorce lawyer is that, while not impartial, they won’t be as temperamental or emotional as the spouses themselves. This will allow for better, smoother negotiations, and in the end, lead to a happy settlement for all involved.

Lastly, lawyers can give you an idea of what constitutes fair child support, and which demands are outrageous, so you can be sure you’re getting a fair deal in your divorce.

Obviously, divorce by agreement is tricky since, in many cases, both parties will have a hard time agreeing over these delicate matters. However, if you and your spouse both wish for a divorce and are ready to settle things peacefully, then a divorce by agreement is the best option, as it will save you both a lot of time and money.

Note: Keep in mind that some states or countries don’t recognize a divorce by agreement, so if you’re a foreigner concerned about the legality of your divorce back home, you might be better off going through the family courts, instead.

2. Divorce by Conciliation

Above, we’ve talked about what happens when both spouses agree on getting a divorce. But what about when they don’t? That is when divorce by conciliation is typically sought.

Divorce by conciliation (chotei rikon) is initiated by filing a mandatory application for divorce by conciliation, which will then be taken to family court. The application can be requested by either of the two parties, and will be completed by a lawyer on their behalf.

As we’ve seen above, divorces in Japan go more smoothly when both spouses are in agreement with one another. That’s the ultimate goal of divorce by conciliation, to get the two parties to agree on important matters (the divorce itself, division of assets, child custody, and so on), so that the divorce procedure can then take place.

Obviously, if you’re seeking divorce by conciliation, you will need to meet with a lawyer to walk you through the steps of filing the application, and also to prepare you for the conciliatory proceedings.

Divorce by conciliation is conducted in a formal setting, and before a Conciliation Committee (made up of both a male and a female conciliator) and a judge. The main benefit of getting a divorce by conciliation is that you won’t have to come into contact with your spouse. Rather, either spouse will have to appear before the Conciliation Committee, which will then act as a go-between, and negotiate peaceful terms for a divorce. They will be the ones who will help you and your spouse reach settlements over the division of assets, custody rights, and other important matters. They will also negotiate the divorce itself, if one partner is unwilling to get a divorce.

Conciliation, however, can succeed or fail. There is no guarantee that, if you apply for a divorce by conciliation, you will automatically get it. In fact, if conciliation fails, it’s quite likely that the divorce will be denied, and marital life will resume as normal. Should conciliation fail, the divorce process will then go on to the litigation stage, and if that fails also, then you may be denied a divorce. In rare instances, the court will issue a conclusion on your behalf, granting the divorce. However, this usually happens when both spouses agree to the divorce itself, as well as the major discussion points, but fail to agree on secondary topics. If one of the spouses is staunchly against the divorce or can’t reach an agreement over one of the major topics, it’s likely that the divorce will be denied.

If both parties reach an agreement during the conciliation, the Conciliation Committee will issue a written record that will be legally binding, and will ensure that both parties honor their promises.

3. Divorce by Judgment

Lastly, divorce by judgment (saiban rikon) is filed for if the spouses are unable to reach an agreement during conciliation. Bear in mind that conciliation is mandatory before you can file for divorce before a family court.

However, in Japan, divorces by judgment are quite rare, and can only be successful if the spouse filing for divorce cites a substantial reason for separation. Basically, these fall into five major categories:

a. Infidelity of your spouse;

b. Malicious abandonment (which implies your spouse left you without any just cause);

c. Uncertainty over whether your spouse is alive or dead (for example, if you haven’t seen or heard from your spouse in the past 3 years);

d. Grave mental illness of the spouse, where the recovery chances are slim to non-existent;

e. Serious grounds that make it impossible for the marriage to continue.

Still, even if you manage to file for a divorce by judgment, and the family court issues a judgment, you or your spouse still have 2 weeks at your disposal to contest this decision. And then, only if the time has passed without either party objecting to the court’s ruling, does the divorce become official.

Divorcing a Japanese National or a Foreigner

You must keep in mind that, even if both you and your spouse are of a different nationality, you will both have to abide by Japanese divorce laws, as long as the marriage took place in Japan. However, if that’s not the case, then Japanese law states that the divorce should follow the applicable laws of your home country. So, for example, if you are an American couple getting a divorce in Japan, you will follow American law and not Japanese law.

However, you will first need to prove that you would be legally able to get a divorce in your home country, in this case, the United States, and that the divorce legalities there are compatible with those in Japan. Generally, your Japanese divorce will remain legally binding once you’re back in the U.S., or pretty much any other country, provided that both you and your spouse were both present for the proceedings, at least one of you was a long-term resident of said country, and your divorce doesn’t go against a substantial public policy.

If you are a couple of foreigners looking to get divorced in Japan, we suggest that you check beforehand whether your Japanese divorce will be recognized in your home country, particularly if you’re planning to go back.

Also, bear in mind that Japanese courts will only allow you to file for divorce, provided that at least one of you is a long-term legal resident of Japan.

Divorcing a Japanese national

If you are seeking a divorce from a Japanese national, you will be eligible for a divorce by agreement, under Japanese law. As a foreigner, you won’t even be required to be present at the ward office (where your divorce will be registered), provided that you’ve signed all appropriate documents.

It is possible to deny your Japanese partner’s filing for divorce. If you, as a foreigner in Japan, are worried about your Japanese spouse filing for divorce, or seeking the sole custody of your child, it is possible to file a Petition for Non-Acceptance of Notice of Divorce with the local authorities where your Japanese partner/ex-partner resides. This will legally stop any attempts on the part of your Japanese partner to assume sole custody of your child.

Sharing custody with your Japanese spouse/ex-spouse can become a tricky matter, legally speaking. While the Japanese legal system recognizes foreign custody orders, it may not award them the same binding power they have in your home country. So, for example, if you were divorced from your partner in your country, your custodial rights may not carry the same weight in Japan.

Divorce often turns messy, particularly when there are children involved. This is why issues often arise between foreigners and their Japanese partners. If you have a legal custody order from your home country, for example, you will be able to file for enforcement in Japan, and Japanese courts can rule that your foreign custodial rights are effective in Japan also. However, bear in mind that a foreign custody order will not automatically become effective in Japan. So, for instance, even if you have sole custody of your child in your home country, and your Japanese spouse/ex-spouse refuses to return them to you (kidnapping), the Japanese courts will take time to enforce this ruling, if they decide to do so, at all.

Since matters can easily turn tricky, this is why it’s advisable that you meet with a lawyer as soon as possible, and have someone who is familiar with all the legal complexities advise and support you through your divorce. Even if both you and your partner agree about getting the divorce, it’s important to have a lawyer present, to guard you against any potential legal issues in the future.

The Dangers of Divorce in Japan for Foreigners

As we’ve seen, it’s easy to get divorced in Japan, provided that you and your partner are in agreement and sign the divorce papers (e.g. divorce by agreement). However, in recent years, this has paved the way for numerous forgeries and scandals. By making divorce so easy to obtain, Japanese courts are rife with forged signatures, and lost custody trials.

In fact, many foreigners who have been married and then divorced from a Japanese national, now claim they were duped into the divorce, and that their Japanese spouse either forged their signature, or got them to sign off on their divorce papers under false pretenses.

As you can expect, this can have grave consequences, in the sense that it can rob you of any custodial rights over your offspring, or take away your possessions. This is why foreign residents are advised to be careful and not sign any documents without understanding and reading through them thoroughly. Furthermore, if you suspect that your Japanese partner is trying to divorce you or in any way trick you, we suggest that you immediately file for a Petition for Non-Acceptance of Notice of Divorce (Rikon-todoke fu juri mōshitatete, or 離婚届不受理申出 in Japanese), and contact a Japanese lawyer to walk you through the process and ensure that, in the case of separation, you are getting your legal due from your partner.

Okay, so we’ve talked about the divorce process, the different kinds of divorce available, and some of your options as a foreign resident in Japan. Speaking of which, we’ll now turn to your visa status once you get divorced in Japan.

What happens to your Japanese visa if you get divorced?

A common concern for foreigners when getting divorced in a foreign country is, what will happen to their visa? Since marrying a native from that country is a great way to secure a visa, divorcing one will understandably raise some concerns.

What happens to your visa and your residence status will depend, first of all, on the type of visa you currently have for staying in Japan. For example, if you’re the holder of a working visa in Japan, then you don’t need to worry. Whether or not you stay married to a Japanese national or a permanent resident will not affect the status of your visa. However, if you are currently living in Japan on a “Spouse of Japanese National” or Spouse of Permanent Resident” visa, then you will need to follow some legal steps to determine whether or not you can stay in the country after your divorce.

The first thing you need to do is inform the Immigration Office of your divorce. You can do this online, or by completing a form at your local Immigration Office branch. It is imperative that you inform them of your divorce within two weeks of its finalization.

You will then get to decide on the best approach for your particular situation. The Japanese Ministry of Justice will grant you an additional six months after your divorce is complete, as a grace period before you are legally required to leave Japan for good. In most cases, this will be ample time to get your affairs in order and tie up loose ends, should you decide to leave the country after your divorce.

If you are interested in staying in Japan even after your divorce, there are a number of options at your disposal. If you have lived in the country for a long time (usually at least 3, or in some cases, 5 years), you will be able to apply to have your current “Spouse of Japanese National/Permanent Resident” visa changed to a “Long-Term Resident” one. This is also an option if you have an underage child still living in the country, and can prove that you need to be in Japan to raise them. Beware that this will require you to have legal custodial rights over your child, for the “Long-Term Resident” visa to be issued.

Alternatively, if you are working with a Japanese company in the country, you can ask them to sponsor a working visa in your name. So basically, if you can prove that you have serious legal reasons to stay in Japan even after your divorce, the Ministry of Justice will usually grant you a visa to prolong your stay. However, if you are not bound to the country either by your job or your family, and if you can’t prove you’ve already been a long-term resident, then it’s unlikely to get a new visa.

If your visa expires, it’s imperative that you leave the country on time and do not overstay your welcome, since this can result in deportation and a ban from Japan for the next five years.

You may need to consult with a lawyer about the status of your visa, and your different staying options. But generally, as long as you can prove that you have valid reasons for staying in the country past the six months grace period, you’ll probably be granted a new visa.

Divorce in Japan

Divorce in Japan – better or worse than in other places?

While to some it may seem better that you can get divorced in Japan smoothly and without involving the courts, as we have seen above, that can give rise to its own set of problems.

To sum it all up, getting divorced in Japan, pretty much like anywhere else, can be a pain in the neck, and can create lots of legal issues for you, your spouse, and your children. Hopefully, though, with the help of our guide to divorces in Japan, things are a little bit clearer now, and your divorce process will go more smoothly. For more information you’ll find more information at registry of divorce lawyers in your specific region of Japan. Additionally, you can schedule a free legal consultation if you are a foreigner living in Japan.

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