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Home > Special Topics > Social Trends Last Updated: 15:18 03/09/2007
Social Trends #:6 September 9, 2002

Japanese Child Support Payments in 2002

J. Sean Curtin (Professor, Japanese Red Cross University)

A full list of articles in this series can be found here.

Since the nineties, the number of Japanese children living in families headed by divorced, separated, widowed or unmarried mothers has been on a sharp upward trajectory. The 1998 lone-mother national survey recorded 954,900 such families, representing a 20.9% increase from the previous 1993 survey.* The ranks of such families continue to grow with the divorce rate hitting a record 2.27 per thousand people in 2001. In a comparison with European countries, this figure places Japan in the middle band of divorce rates. However, unlike most European countries, Japan has no system for the collection of child support (maintenance) payments from non-compliant fathers. This unsatisfactory situation is causing very serious hardship for many Japanese mother-headed families and puts Japan behind in this very important area of social legislation.

European and Japanese Divorce Rates Per Thousand People
CountryYearDivorce Rate per 1000 people
Source: Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, 2002

Non-payment of child support (Youikuhi in Japanese) by absent fathers is one of the three primary causes of child poverty in Japan. The other two are low wages and inadequate social transfers. According to the Citizen's Basic Living Survey (Kokumin seikatsu kiso chosa) released in August 2002, lone-mother families are now some of the poorest in Japan. Their average annual income was just 2.52 million yen compared with the average household of about 6.17 million yen.**

Japan is deficient in several areas of child support (Youikuhi), most importantly having no mechanism in place for enforcing payment or collecting arrears. There is also no system for tracking down non-compliant fathers, no requirement to conduct DNA-paternity tests and no means for deducing money from the delinquent father's salary. The courts normally do not take action if a spouse does not meet their obligations. To make matters worse, the legal framework for solving child support disputes is totally inadequate and requires an inordinate amount of time and money.

Considering the high cost of raising a child in Japan, child support (maintenance) payments are relatively low. This is even the case if such payments are awarded by the family court. In normal divorce proceedings, the level of child support is usually mutually agreed. However, if a husband reneges on the agreement, the wife can do little unless she has the financial resources to pursue the matter legally. Even then, she will not be able to obtain full redress.

For example, a couple sign an official divorce arbitration document in which the husband agrees to pays 20,000 yen in child support per month. If he subsequently doesn't pay, the wife only has the option of taking the matter to the courts. However, even if she eventually wins, the husband can only be forced to pay up to a quarter of the agreed monthly amount. This makes the entire exercise rather fruitless. Furthermore, the legal option takes between six months and two years and is an expense process. Compounding the problem is the acute shortage of lawyers in many prefectures, which makes a legal solution even more unrealistic. Since the overwhelming majority of lone-mothers do not have the financial resources required to go to court, they just have to accept non-payment when it occurs. Additionally, it is very difficult to repeatedly go to court with children, especially if the mother is working. The few women who take the legal avenue complain that nearly all the judges and lawyers are men and the entire process is conducted from a male's perspective.

Attempts to amend the law have been made, but conservative lawmakers have always managed to derail or castrate enforcement measures. For example, a 1985 amendment to the child maintenance law had a provision that legally required fathers who could pay to pay. However, when this item came before the Diet, the concrete measures required to implement the policy were deleted from the final draft. This rendered the legislation next to worthless as a father was merely obliged rather than forced to pay child support. Some conservative lawmakers argued that making men liable to pay for divorced children would go against Japanese traditions. The extremely low number of female politicians may also be a factor in the inability of Japanese lawmakers to pass meaningful legislation.

In comparison to other countries, Japan has been very slow to respond to the changes in family structures. Despite the dramatic increase in mother-headed families, the only policy the government has consistently pursued is to reduce the welfare budget for such families.

At present, government policy only stipulates that divorced fathers have an obligation to contribute to the cost of raising their children, but there are still no legal measures to make them do so. This ineffectual policy was reaffirmed by the Koizumi Cabinet in June 2002. Currently, there are no plans on the horizon to introduce a law to force delinquent fathers to pay child support.***

Non-payment or the failure to pay the correct amount of child maintenance has been, and is, a major problem in most OECD countries. Research indicates that when a father is not legally obliged to pay child support, default of these payments is very common. For example, most American fathers did not comply with child support orders in the early eighties. For this reason, the US passed a series of laws starting in 1984 to increase the amount of compliance. A similar pattern occurred in most European countries. In 1993, Ontario introduced a scheme for deducting maintenance payments directly from a father's salary. At the same time, a similar arrangement was also functioning in Australia and Wisconsin State. In 1993, the British government set up the Child Support Agency to collect support payments from absent fathers. Germany, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Norway all took varying approaches to ensure that non-compliant fathers paid child support. Only Japanese fathers have been able to escape their obligations with impunity.

Consequently, in the nineties various surveys showed that only between 10% to 20% of father paid the correct level of child support. There was a great deal of regional variation with a 1999 Okinawa survey showing only 10% of fathers there paid child support.

It can be seen that child support legislation is an area where Japan is completely out of sync with other industrially advanced nations. The present payment system is unsatisfactory for a number of reasons. Primarily, many fathers simply do not pay, even if they are high income earners. Unlike in most other developed nations, the law has not been amended to take into account the rise in the divorce rate and the increase in the number of children living in single-parent families.

One of the primary reasons for lone-mother poverty in Japan is that fathers do not financially support their children. Research conducted in other countries clearly shows that this is largely due the lack of an adequate system for the collection of child support payments from non-compliant fathers. Since the number of divorces continues to climb, there is a pressing need for lawmakers to overhaul the current system. Without adequate provision, both Japanese mothers and children will continue to suffer. Despite this critical situation, legislators still appear to be reluctant to act.


* Zenkoku Boshikateitou chosa (Japanese)
[National Survey on Lone Mothers Household and Others]

** Kokumin seikatsu kiso chosa (Japanese)
[Citizen's Basic Living Survey]

Poorest Japanese Families Getting Poorer
J. Sean Curtin, GLOCOM Platform, 28 August 2002

*** Government may slash child-care allowances
The Japan Times, 8 February 2002

State targets single moms in bid to fight divorce rate
The Japan Times, 8 June 2002

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