The title of this node might seem in jest, but the subject matter is dead serious. As you might know, I work in a law firm in Tokyo. Most of what we do is commercial in nature, but every now and then one of the lawyers gets an e-mail from a client or colleague overseas that goes something like this:

Dear (Mr./Ms.) (Tanaka/Suzuki),

(I/My brother/My secretary/My best friend's former roommate) (is/am) married to a Japanese (man/woman). The (man/woman) just (divorced her without her knowledge and took all of her stuff/plucked the kids, got on an airplane and vanished without a trace). What are we supposed to do?!

These jobs always get sent to me, because I'm the lowest-paid guy in the office, and the answer is always the sort of answer a lawyer doesn't want to have to give... something along the lines of: "Sheeeeeit." At that stage, there isn't much that can be done. It's like being a doctor and encountering a patient who has a brain tumor growing out of their nose.

Now, I've met a lot of foreigners who are happily married to Japanese people. But a lot of relationships break down, no matter what nationalities are involved. Getting divorced in any country sucks--but a divorce or a marriage gone bad is several times more dangerous if one of the spouses happens to be Japanese.

The best thing you can do if you're in a relationship is to know what's up, and take appropriate measures to cover your ass in case the relationship goes south.

Please take heed: This is no substitute for talking to a lawyer. No matter what you're doing in life, you should get advice from a lawyer as often as you can afford to. Make friends with one. Buy them a beer once in a while. They're all drunks anyway; they'll appreciate it. But by all means, talk to a lawyer before you marry someone, divorce someone, or de-abduct your children. It's better for you, it's better for me, and it's better for the kittens. And in Japan it costs 5,000 yen for a consultation at the local bar association building, which is damn cheap.

Step 1: Know before you go

After spending hours buried in books and web sites devoted to the subject, I have come to a fairly simple conclusion: international marriages do not work under Japanese law. Even if you take every precaution possible, your foreignness will constantly leave a back door open to getting divorced without knowing it, losing your kids forever, or any number of unsavory outcomes.

One solution is naturalization, but that's pretty extreme. You certainly shouldn't naturalize because of your relationship with one person.

The best thing you can do--and this applies to any marriage, whether Japan is involved or not--is to know who you're marrying. Your partner has to be someone you would trust with your life, liberty and property. After all, once you're hitched, they can basically take any or all of it at any time.

(And for God's sake, don't marry someone because they're a hot piece of ass. In 20 years, they will be old and baggy and you will probably hate each other. Not to say that you shouldn't marry a hot piece of ass: just make sure that's not all they have going on.)

After the honeymoon

Once you get married, you should get your marriage evidenced in Japan. To do this, you want to get your name on a document called a koseki or a "family register." The koseki is kept at city hall wherever your Japanese partner has their permanent residence (if you live outside Japan, this is usually their parents' house).

Outside Japan, the easy way to do this is to get a form from your nearest Japanese embassy or consulate. Your Japanese partner will have to get a copy of her parents' koseki from city hall back home: you'll attach a copy of your local marriage certificate and send everything back to the consular office to be processed. If you're in Japan, the koseki will be processed directly through city hall.

Even though this is pretty easy to do, people who marry Japanese nationals overseas usually don't do it... probably because the procedure is not made clear to non-Japanese people. If you go to the website of any embassy or consulate, you'll find nothing in English about registration: citizen services information is always in Japanese only.

Anyway, once you do this, city hall in Japan will prepare a new koseki sheet for your partner, with a line of text declaring that your partner "married Joe Blow, a citizen of the United States of America, on August 31, 2006" or something like that. You won't technically be listed as their spouse--nobody is exactly sure why--but at least you'll get honorable mention. (One of those issues that can only be solved through naturalization.)

This isn't quite the end of the registration process. You will also want to get your name on your partner's juminhyo, or residency certificate. Although foreigners are routinely listed in the koseki (albeit in a roundabout manner), foreigners are rarely listed in the juminhyo, and in fact many local authorities will claim that you can't get your name on the juminhyo because your name should be in the alien registration system instead. They're just ignorant of the rules: you can get your name on the juminhyo as a comment, and if you're a man married to a Japanese woman, you can request to be listed as "de facto head of household" (jijitsu-jô no setai-nushi). If city hall gives you crap about it, ask them to look up Cabinet Order No. 292 of 1967.

Once everything is registered, you should get copies of the koseki and juminhyo, as well as the certificate you receive upon registration of the marriage, and keep everything in a safe place--meaning someplace even your spouse can't get to.

How to not get divorced

Now that you're married in Japan, you should know how a divorce works in Japan.

Basically, it works like this: Husband and wife get a divorce application from city hall. They both put their registered seals (inkan) on the form. They turn the form in. City hall processes their divorce and makes appropriate amendments to their personal records. The end. There are court-mediated divorces in some nastier cases, but most of the time, it's done voluntarily and a judge is not involved.

Which brings us to a problem: Joe Blow in Kentucky does not have a registered seal. What happens then? Well, something like this:

YOKO: Hi. I'm divorcing my foreign bastard of a husband. Here's the form.
GUY AT DESK: Is that his signature?
YOKO: Ummmmmm, (looks at feet) yes.
GUY AT DESK: ... Okay. (takes form) So you're divorced. Uh... what do you say we go to my place later on?

And even if Joe Blow has a registered seal lying around somewhere, the guy at the desk sees a foreign name and a random signature and assumes everything's right with the world. (And woe betide Joe Blow if Yoko gets her hands on his seal and decides to sell his pimpin' keicar and give his condo to her parents. But you should keep your seal locked up anyway.)

So, if you're married to a Japanese person, the simple but sad fact is that you could be divorced under Japanese law, right now, and not even know about it. In the above example, Joe Blow wouldn't even get a postcard telling him he's divorced. Crazy, isn't it?

There's only one surefire way to prevent this. You have to file yet another form at city hall saying that you don't want to be divorced. This is called a fujuri môshide or "application for non-acceptance." Each application is valid for six months.

This is especially important if you have children, because if you're divorced in Japan, you will almost certainly end up with no custody rights to your children. Which means that if they're in Japan... well, let's slow down for a second.

When you have children

Your kids should be registered in Japan. The process is fairly similar to registering a marriage. If you're overseas, you call up the consulate and get a form, and mail the form back with a birth certificate. After some internal bureaucrat scrambling, your child will be recorded in your Japanese spouse's koseki, and--miracle of miracles!--you will actually be listed as a parent. Within Japan, you go directly to city hall to complete the registration.

Now that the kids are yours, you want to keep the kids yours. Under the Japanese Civil Code, both parents have the right to custody of their children at any time. In practice though, possession is at least nine-tenths of the law, rising to ten-tenths if you're divorced and living in different countries.

By that, I mean:

If your Japanese spouse leaves you, takes the kids and goes to Japan, your kids are probably gone. You may never see them again. End of parenthood, forever.

This happens all the time with Japanese women who have families overseas. The relationship goes sour and they decide to leave, so they bring the kids with them, and that's the end of that daddy's daddyhood. If the mother in question was in the US or Europe, it would be a simple matter of making a Hague Convention request to the authorities in that country, and the mother would be arrested for child abduction. But Japan is not a party to the Convention--apparently they thought it wouldn't jive with their arcane citizen registration systems. So that leaves the father with no recourse but to go to Japan and try to get the kids back.

Easier said than done, though. If you've taken all of the above precautions and created an ironclad paper trail, you may have some hope. But if you decide to abduct the kids back, Mommy Dearest can have the cops arrest you on charges of kidnapping right as you're going through immigration at Narita--and if you used any force at all to take the kids against their will, you're going to jail. (There is Supreme Court precedent from 2003 on this point. It happens.)

So you'll want to take the following preventive measures if you think your spouse poses a flight risk:

  1. Keep custody of your kids' passports.
  2. If you're divorced, make sure that the custody order prevents international travel, particularly to Japan. A divorce lawyer should be able to make the argument that there is a high risk of child abduction, since Japan's weird family laws are well-documented in foreign legal literature.
  3. If the spouse and kids suddenly disappear, put out an APB. There are only so many flights to Japan--hopefully you can figure out where they are before they leave your country.

Of course, unless you tell Homeland Security that Yoko was the 21st hijacker, there's probably not much you can do to stop her from getting on a plane, especially since it can happen with very little notice to you. So what should you do if you have to go to Japan?

  1. First, you'll want to have some idea of where the kids are. It will be a fruitless search if you just fly to Tokyo in the heat of the moment. Unless you find out exactly where your spouse is, get in touch with a private investigator in Japan who has the resources to figure this stuff out. (Japanese P.I.'s are like ninjas. They can do anything. You'll probably find that a P.I. is ten times as effective as a lawyer.)
  2. Once you know where you're going, call the nearest embassy or consulate in Japan, explain the situation, and ask them to prepare emergency travel documents for your kids. You want to have these on your person ASAP, because every minute will count once you have your kids with you (as taking them back will likely be construed as an illegal act).
  3. You should also have on your person all of the documents listed in this writeup: koseki, juminhyo, registration certificates, your foreign birth certificate and the kids' foreign birth certificates. The point is to make it as easy as possible to prove, at any point in this process, that you have a right to have custody of the kids.
  4. When you find your kids, do not take them by force. They have to come with you voluntarily, or else you're committing a crime under Japanese law. Keep physical contact to the minimum extent necessary, particularly in the presence of witnesses.
  5. Go directly to the airport. Get out of Japan as quickly as you possibly can. You want to minimize the possiblity of being stopped by anyone while you're in the country.

You'll also want to have kidnapping charges pressed against the spouse in absentia so that you can have them arrested if they come back to your country looking for the kids. Of course, the same thing will probably apply to you in Japan, so best enjoy your last trip to Tsukiji.

Parting words

Remember that the system in Japan is all but designed to screw you over. So if you decide to get married and start a family with a Japanese person, you'd better know them damn well, because by the time you reach the end of the above writeup, there's no going back.


The best online resources on these issues are the websites run by Debito Arudou <> and Mark Smith <>. Although neither are lawyers and their sites offer information on a scattershot array of issues (not to mention some near-fanatical opinions), they are treasure troves of information on how family law works for foreigners in Japan. So thanks, guys--your efforts are appreciated.

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