The Savvy Tokyo Guide to Divorce in Japan

When It's Time to Untangle the Knot

By Hilary Keyes
January 13, 2023

Your step-by-step guide to getting divorced in Japan.

When a marriage is over, whether you live in your home country or in Japan, divorce is the only option. But how do you go about getting one? What steps are there? Where do you even start? Hopefully, the Savvy Tokyo Guide to Divorce in Japan will make the process somewhat easier for you.

So you’re ready to get divorced

The Savvy Tokyo Guide to Divorce in Japan© Photo by iStock: takasuu

Divorce is a fact of life, like it or not. Just as there is myriad reasons to get married to someone, there are just as many reasons to end the relationship. Whatever your or your partner’s reason may be, you’ll want to go through the process as thoroughly as possible to minimize any complications further down the line.

Who is getting divorced?

If you are both foreign nationals you will need to consult with your individual embassy/embassies as well as your local ward office in order to learn the full procedure for a divorce. It varies greatly by country and can require some degree of legal assistance. 

The following information is based on a marriage between a Japanese person and a foreign national.

What are your options? How do they work?

The Savvy Tokyo Guide to Divorce in Japan© Photo by iStock: yamasan

There are four types of divorce in Japan. For more information on the Japanese family court system and helpful FAQs, please check out this link.

1. Divorce by Agreement (協議離婚 Kyogi Rikon)

Over 90% of divorces in Japan are settled via agreement. So long as a couple can agree to divorce as well as on the division of property, child custody, alimony/support and so on, the couple doesn’t have to go through the family court or even have divorce lawyers involved. This is the most straightforward, “least messy” option.

How? Both partners simply fill out and submit a designated divorce form (離婚届 rikon todoke) at their local ward office. Both must sign and seal the form for it to be official. Witnesses will also be required to sign the paperwork before it is submitted. Technically both partners do not need to be present to submit the form so long as it’s been signed. Please note that not all countries recognize divorce by agreement so consult with your embassy/consulate beforehand in order to make sure you are legally divorced.

2. Divorce by Mediation (調停離婚 Chotei Rikon)

If both partners cannot come to an agreement, can no longer communicate (calmly/rationally), or the cause of the divorce is not legally recognized (based on the Japanese Civil Code; irreconcilable differences for example), you and your partner will need to speak with family/divorce lawyers.

How? You will need to consult with a lawyer that specializes in divorce, ideally one that speaks your native language. A quick Google search can bring up several suitable law firms, but asking at your ward office can also be useful. Some have mediation services on hand, which may mean spending less money in order to obtain a divorce.

Once you and your partner and lawyers have discussed the circumstances of the divorce and reached a decision, the decision will be officially reported in a record of mediation (which is as enforceable as a court judgment). Then you have 10 days to file the rikon todoke along with the divorce mediation documents with your ward office.

3. Divorce by Family Court Decision (審判離婚 Shinpan Rikon)

One of the less common types of divorce in Japan, divorce by family court ruling occurs when the couple agrees to a divorce but cannot agree on the conditions of the divorce. For example child custody matters, division of property, et cetera.

How? Both parties will have to get their own divorce lawyers and take the matter before a Japanese family/divorce court. In this type of divorce, the decisions are left to the court itself to decide and are legally binding. Both parties can of course object to decisions within two weeks of them being made. This system is the most similar to a North American style divorce.

4. Divorce by Litigation (裁判離婚 Saiban Rikon)

Similar to a family court divorce, divorce by litigation involves having a legal reason to divorce your partner and is typically used when one partner wishes to divorce and the other doesn’t, or if the conditions of the divorce are contentious.

How? To qualify for divorce by litigation, your situation must fall within the following conditions of Article 770.1 of the Japanese Civil Code:

  • Infidelity of a spouse
  • Malicious abandonment by a spouse
  • Uncertainty as to whether a spouse is alive or not (for more than three years)
  • Serious mental illness of a spouse with no possibility for reasonable recovery
  • Grave grounds in which the continuation of marriage is unlikely (domestic violence, substance abuse, et cetera)

You will need to show proof/have evidence of any infidelity, abuse, or documentation to support the mental health diagnosis of your partner in order to proceed with your litigation. Any and all paperwork may be handled by your lawyer, although this may depend on the circumstances or ultimate decision after the divorce proceedings.

What do you need to get divorced?

The Savvy Tokyo Guide to Divorce in Japan© Photo by iStock: show999

First, you must determine whether or not a divorce by agreement is possible, as it is the least labor-intensive of the options. If you don’t own a home or vehicle, have any children, or have issues with dividing property (furniture, household items, et cetera) or shared bank accounts/finances (credit cards), and have been married for a relatively short period of time, then getting divorced will be comparatively straightforward.

If you and your partner are able to reach a divorce by agreement, then you will only need to present the fully filled out designated divorce form (離婚届 rikon todoke) to your ward office and have that approved. Once it is approved, you are legally divorced and may move on with your lives.

For couples that cannot come to an agreement, or those with minor children, speaking with both your embassy and a divorce lawyer is for your own protection. There are a number of matters to consider that may not be immediately clear. For example, if you have been a stay-at-home partner, then you may be eligible for part of your partner’s pension fund, however, this depends on the length of your marriage and your partner’s financial contributions.

Under Japanese law, if a spouse is directly responsible for a divorce (infidelity, abuse), then consolation money may be paid to the wronged individual. The maximum amount of compensation can vary widely but may be a lump sum payment rather than a monthly one, which is again a matter that a divorce lawyer will have more experience with.

Japanese civil law does not address issues of parental rights, visitation rights, or child support. Joint custody is not recognized either. Even if a couple lives abroad, if the Japanese partner returns to Japan and seeks a divorce here, and if there are children involved, Japanese law will be applied to the case. There are also numerous international cases of Japanese parents abducting their children and bringing them back to Japan to raise them. If you have minor children and are thinking of divorcing in Japan or overseas, speak with a qualified lawyer as soon as possible.

You can also talk to the staff at your local ward office, or check what services are available in your area via Legal Mall, a Japanese law service that provides free consultations and hosts articles on issues such as international divorce.

How do I change my name?

If you are a foreign national that was married to a Japanese national you do not have to do anything. Japanese courts cannot change the names of non-Japanese citizens regardless of marital status. If however, you have become a Japanese citizen, then you will need to follow the change of name procedures as outlined by your local ward office. These may or may not be available in other languages.

If you have legally changed your name in your home country, however, then you will need to follow any change of name/identity procedures in accordance with their rules and regulations.

If you have been using your married name as a registered alias (通称名; 通名, tsushomei; tsumei) instead of your maiden name for any services, or have any seals (印鑑 inkan) in your married name, you will need to change these as well. Unfortunately, and depending on the service, this may take some time to change or be impossible to register until a certain time post-divorce. You can also apply at your ward office to have a registered alias removed, although this again will take some time and may not be immediately applicable.

What about my visa status?

The Savvy Tokyo Guide to Divorce in Japan© Photo by iStock: AlxeyPnferov

If you are currently in Japan on a spouse visa/status of residence, then you must report your finalized divorce to your nearest Immigration office within two weeks. You will need to fill out a Notification of Relationship with Spouse form (either by hand or via the Ministry of Justice website).

Immigration will revoke your visa status within six months of your divorce unless, of course, you are also a permanent resident of Japan. In order to avoid potential deportation, you will need to file a petition for a change of residence status form during this six-month period. If you are employed full-time your employer may be able to provide you with a sponsored work visa, or you may need to change your work type/contract or even job.

Another option is to change your spousal visa to a Long Term Resident visa if you have lived in Japan for over five years and meet other requirements set out by Immigration. This may also be possible if you have a child of Japanese nationality that you are raising in Japan. Please note that in order to count for this visa type, the child must be a minor and you will need to be the primary/custodial parent.

It might be appropriate to consult with an immigration lawyer during this time as the visa procedures may vary depending on your type of divorce and the circumstances surrounding it (domestic violence for example).

Same-sex divorce/partnerships

The Savvy Tokyo Guide to Divorce in Japan© Photo by iStock: SDI Productions

As with same-sex marriage in Japan, same-sex divorce is an issue that is not widely discussed. Japan as a whole at the time of writing does not recognize same-sex marriage, so technically, there are no official legal requirements regarding divorce. That being said, if you and your partner have entered a civil partnership that was recognized by a municipality, you should visit that ward office for advice regarding ending the partnership.

You may also wish to consult with a lawyer in regard to any shared property or financial matters, although it will likely be treated as a civil court matter rather than a family court.

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