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Parents separated from children urge courts to ensure visitations PDF Print E-mail
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Written by MDN Mainichi   

MATSUDO (Kyodo) -- A group of Japanese and non-Japanese parents separated from their children due to divorce or marital disputes urged courts this week to ensure, in light of a revision to the Civil Code in May, that non-custodial parents are able to see their children on a regular basis.

About a dozen parents submitted a petition Tuesday at the Matsudo branch of the Chiba Family Court to protest comments allegedly made by one of its judges, Tatsushige Wakabayashi, at a mediation session involving Japanese parents in a child custody dispute, which the petitioners said showed disregard for the recent amendment.

In Japan, the number of divorces has been rising steadily over more than two decades, to over 251,000 in 2010 from about 153,600 in 1988. Of the couples who divorced in 2010, about 60 percent had one or more children, government statistics show.

That has led to a three-and-half fold increase in the number of child custody cases brought to the nation's family courts over the past decade. The number of cases seeking court-brokered settlement of visitations jumped from 1,936 in 1999 to 6,924 in 2009, according to the Justice Ministry.

Following the revision in May, Article 766 of the Civil Code stipulates that parents should decide who will take custody of a child, as well as visitation arrangements and how costs of raising a child will be shared, when parents divorce by agreement.

The amendment was made to underline the need to decide on visitations and the sharing of expenses to bring up the children. The law was also revised to place priority on the child's interests in making decisions on custody matters.

Satsuki Eda, who served as justice minister when the change in the Civil Code was deliberated at the Diet, said in April in parliament that children should be guaranteed access to both parents after divorce. He also indicated he expected the nation's family courts to facilitate parent-child exchanges for the sake of child welfare.

A father in his 30s from Saitama Prefecture, who has not seen his 4-year-daughter for about 18 months as his wife took the child away without his consent, claims Wakabayashi told him during a closed mediation session at the Chiba court in May that what Eda said in Diet ''means nothing"to him.

The judge also said he has ''never referred to Diet deliberations"in making court judgments, according to the father.

Japan adopts the sole custody system and the country's courts tend to award mothers custody. Therefore, it is not unusual for children to stop seeing their fathers after their parents break up.

In presenting the petition to the family court, Mitsuru Munakata, a member of a group of Japanese separated parents who have been lobbying for a joint custody system, urged the judge to honor the spirit of the Civil Code revision. The group also demanded Wakabayashi's resignation over his remarks.

''Many parents separated from their children come to family courts as a last resort to seek remedial measures. But if a judge makes these kinds of judgments, we feel insecure at the court,"Munakata said.

Munakata's group handed a similar petition to the Supreme Court and the Chiba Family Court in July, asking the courts to make decisions based on the revised law and also questioning Wakabayashi's remarks.

But the Chiba court declined to comment on their request, saying each family court judge makes individual judgments based on the nature of the cases they handle, according to the group.

Takao Tanase, lawyer versed in family law and professor at the Chuo Law School, said legally speaking, Wakabayashi had the right not to take account of Eda's comments in the Diet because the minister's remarks were not legally binding.

He also said each judge is entitled to make decisions based on his or her own legal interpretations.

''Traditionally, Japanese judges have interpreted the child's best interest in custody cases as meaning that they should maintain the status quo, because children have often gotten accustomed to living in a single-parent family and dragging them into hostilities between their parents would have an adverse impact on them,"Tanase said.

As Japanese judges are reluctant to take the initiative in changing legal practice, the professor said it would be necessary for legislators to enact a special law to legally oblige parents and the family courts to ensure visitations.


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