Japan's House of Representatives on Tuesday cleared a bill to introduce joint custody after divorce, bringing the country closer to adopting a practice widely used in other nations.

Japan's current Civil Code only allows sole custody by one parent. The bill calls for allowing divorced parents to choose either sole custody or joint custody amid calls to recognize diversity in family relationships.

The House of Representatives clears a bill to introduce joint custody after divorce, during a plenary session in Tokyo on April 16, 2024. (Kyodo)

Proponents of the joint custody system say it allows both divorced parents to take part in child-rearing and that the new rules would bring Japan into line with other nations. Critics, however, have expressed concerns over the protection of victims of abuse or domestic violence.

The government-sponsored bill will now be sent to the House of Councillors, the upper chamber of parliament, setting the stage for its passage during the current Diet session through June. If enacted, the new legislation will take effect by 2026 and be applied retroactively to those who have already divorced.

Under the envisioned amendments to the civil law, a family court will intervene if there is a dispute in the parents' selection of custody arrangements.

In cases where child abuse or domestic violence by one of the parents is suspected, the new legislation will require the other parent to have sole custody.

The number of minors with divorced parents stood at around 180,000 in 2021, up from about 70,000 in 1960, according to Justice Ministry data.

Tokyo has faced criticism of its sole custody system, which poses challenges for foreign citizens seeking to maintain relationships with their children if their divorced partners return to Japan with them.

File photo taken in January 2024 shows domestic violence victims and their supporters protesting outside the Justice Ministry in Tokyo against introducing post-divorce joint custody. (Kyodo)

But domestic violence victims worry that the new system could hinder them from severing ties with their abusers, as it would maintain connections to their former spouses.

Some also fear such victims may not be able to negotiate single custody or joint custody on an equal footing.

To address such concerns, the bill was modified during parliamentary deliberations to add a clause that calls for considering measures to "confirm the true intention" of each parent.

Under joint custody, consensus between parents is unnecessary to make decisions on day-to-day matters, including what to feed children and whether to vaccinate them.

Parents must reach consensus on important matters, such as education and long-term medical treatment, but if they cannot do so in time in an urgent situation, one of the parents can decide on their own.

As it was unclear what would constitute an urgent situation, lawmakers urged the government to give examples in its guidelines.

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Japan government OKs bill to introduce joint custody after divorce

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