. GLOCOM Platform
. . debates Media Reviews Tech Reviews Special Topics Books & Journals
. Newsletters
. Summary Page
Search with Google
Home > Special Topics > Social Trends Last Updated: 15:18 03/09/2007
Social Trends #10: October 7, 2002

The Current State of Divorce in Japan: A Record Number of Marital Dissolutions in 2001

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

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

Divorce rates are often calculated on the basis of the number of divorces per 1000 of population. This is known as the "crude divorce rate" and provides a relatively good guide to the level and pace of martial dissolution in a given country. In 2001, the Japanese divorce rate hit a modern day high of 2.27 per thousand people. In concrete terms, the 2.27 mark represented 285,917 marital dissolutions, which was also a record number. In 2000, the figure had been 264,246 couples and in 1999 it was 250,529. As the statistics below illustrate, since the nineties divorce has become relatively common in Japan. Research indicates that the upward trend is likely to continue, which will further swell the already sizable ranks of divorced people in the population.

Japanese Divorce Rate Per 1000 of Population 1990-2001
YearNumber of DivorcesDivorce Rate

Source: Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, 2002

Until the nineties, Japan was a country normally associated with relatively low divorce rates. Although the overall postwar trend had been upwards, the rate of increase was fairly modest in comparison to the United States.

Japanese and American Divorce Rate Per 1000 of Population 1950-2000
Japanese and American Divorce Rate Per 1000 of Population 1950-2000
Sources: U.S. Census Bureau and Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, 2002

Because a U.S.-Japan comparison formed the basis for the majority of divorce studies, the Japanese divorce rate appeared low. However, if Japan had been compared with Southern European countries like Spain, Greece, Portugal or Italy, its divorce rate would not have appeared particularly low.

By 2000, the Japanese divorce rate placed the nation somewhere in the middle band of European countries, but still very low in comparison to the United States. Even though the American divorce rate has been declining in recent years, it is still extremely high compared with all European countries as the table below clearly shows.

International Comparison of Divorce Rates Per Thousand of Population
CountryYearDivorce Rate per 1000 people
United States20004.1
Sources: European Commission 2001and Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (Japan), 2002

The nineties witnessed an upswing in the Japanese divorce rate which was still continuing in 2001. By recent historical measures, the current Japanese divorce rate is exceptionally high. The 2.27 level has not been recorded in Japan since the introduction of the Meiji Civil Code in 1898 when the divorce rate stood at 2.87. The Meiji Civil Code tightened up marriage and divorce practices, requiring people to officially register both. As a result people delayed or neglected registration and correspondingly the official divorce rate nosedived to 1.5 in 1899. Such a massive single-year drop in the divorce figures was artificial and the real divorce rate was probably quite high for a number of years as people adapted to the new regulations. Official rates remained below the 2.0 per 1000 of population mark for exactly 100 years. In 1999, the psychological 2.0 per 1000 of population level was breached. Even so, the 2.0 threshold is still extremely low in comparison to the United States. The last time the American divorce rate dipped to 2.0 was back in 1940, but this was a low for that decade. During the rest of the forties the American divorce rate was high with a decade peak of 4.3 being recorded in 1946.

As in other developed countries, the reasons why couples divorce are usually a complex combination of factors which vary from individual case and change over time. The most commonly cited reasons for Japanese divorce in the nineties were an extramarital affair, neglect of family, financial/economic problems, incompatibility, sexual problems, alcoholism, physical abuse and problems with in-laws. Some of the major social currents in the divorce equation were the changing concepts of marriage, a reluctance to have children, changing family structures, the emergence of more diverse family models, increased educational opportunities for women, enhanced female economic status, better career opportunities for women and positive media images of divorce, inter alia.

There were sharp variations in regional divorce rates across the country. In general, urbanized areas have a higher incidence of divorce than rural regions. Thus, Tokyo and Osaka have some of the highest frequencies of marital breakup, while most prefectures with agrarian based economies are firmly anchored at the bottom end of the divorce league. Both Niigata and Shimane prefectures are examples of rural regions with low divorce rates. There are a few exceptions to the overall trend, most noticeably Okinawa and Hokkaido which both dominate the top end of the divorce table. These two territories are relatively underdeveloped with the weakest regional economies in the country. Poor financial conditions combined with special regional circumstances help to account for the high divorce rankings of these two areas.

Isolating the exact mix of underlying causes for the increase in divorces is an extremely difficult and complex task. Not surprisingly, there exist a host of competing explanatory theories. For example, some scholars attribute the relatively low Japanese divorce rate of the early postwar decades to what are termed traditional "Japanese/Asian family values." This argument states that Japanese married couples were less individualistic and attached more importance to familial duty and social appearance than Americans and Europeans. However, an alternative hypothesis points out that during the same period Japanese women incurred much greater economic losses as a result of divorce than their counterparts in other industrially advanced countries. Additionally, Southern European divorce rates were often lower than Japanese ones during this period, which weakens the Japanese uniqueness/ family values argument.

While the precise reasons and mechanisms behind the rising divorce figures are debatable, the improved socio-economic status of many young women is an indisputable element in the equation. Major factors in this regard are changing attitudes towards gender roles, sexual equality legislation, higher levels of female education and the stronger economic position of many younger women.*

Both government and newspaper surveys have shown that there is a much greater acceptance of divorce than there was twenty or thirty years ago. In April 2001, Junichiro Koizumi became Japan's first divorcee Prime Minister. Even so, some elements of society continue to look upon divorce with disapproval and there are still cases of divorced women facing discrimination.

A number of conservative politicians claim that divorce goes against Japanese traditions, but this view is based on a false understanding of Japanese history. Until the introduction of the Meiji Civil Code of 1898, Japan had some of the highest divorce rates in the world. Under the old peasant marriage system, women were considered a valuable economic resource by families. Young wives were often tested out by the new family in trial marriages and if they did not meet the required standard, they were sent back home. Thus, most divorces occurred in the early stages of marriage. Remarriage rates for both men and women were high, but later marriages were usually stable. The family studies expert William Goode termed this the "stable high-divorce-rate" marriage system.**

One of the aims of the Meiji legislation was to discourage divorce and bring Japan more in line with European marriage and divorce trends. In its drive to modernize the country, the Meiji government managed to impose the anti-divorce values of the former elite Samurai classes on the general population. Samurai customs had previously only been associated with a very small fraction of the population. So successful were the government's efforts that nowadays most Japanese are unaware than their country once had one of the highest divorce rates in the world.

Japanese Divorce Rate Per 1000 of Population 1883-1943
JJapanese Divorce Rate Per 1000 of Population 1883-1943
Sources: 1883-1900, Nihon teikoku dai sanju ni toukei nenkan [Thirty-second imperial Japanese statistical yearbook] (Office of the Prime Minister, Tokyo, 1915); Vital statistics of Japan 1994, Vol. 1 (Ministry of Health and Welfare, Tokyo, 1996)

Despite huge increases in present day divorce numbers, state policy has been extremely slow to respond to the major social shifts which are occurring. Some ultra-conservative politicians have worked hard to perpetuate the myth that Japan was traditionally a country of low divorces. As the remedy for today's pressing social problems, these lawmakers tend to demand a return to an imagined golden age of low divorce rates. This unrealistic stance is seriously hindering Japan from formulating effective policies to deal with a mounting number of critical issues. Most prominent amongst these are the lack of an adequate welfare policy for divorced mothers, increasing rates of female and child poverty, an absence of a child maintenance system, an inadequate divorce mediation service and an inaccessible legal system.*** Additionally, there has also been a massive increase in the number of elderly couples divorcing which is affecting the pension system.**** All these factors are creating chronic social problems which will have very negative long-term repercussions on the economy if they are not dealt with in the near future.


* Changing Attitudes towards Gender Roles in Japan: 2002 Snapshot
J. Sean Curtin, Social Trends: Series #8, GLOCOM Platform, 24 September 2002

** Goode, William J. World Changes in Divorce Patterns (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1993)

*** Child Support Payments in 2002
J. Sean Curtin, Social Trends: Series #6, GLOCOM Platform, 9 September 2002

Poorest Japanese Families Getting Poorer
J. Sean Curtin, Social Trends: Series #4, GLOCOM Platform, 28 August 2002

**** Living Longer, Divorcing Later: The Japanese Silver Divorce Phenomenon
J. Sean Curtin, Debates, GLOCOM Platform, 5 August 2002

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications