Poor Families in Today's Japan: Part Eight -
Case Study Illustrates Inadequacy of Child Support System
J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)
The following case study of the subject known as Kanami graphically illustrates how utterly inadequate the current Japanese child support payment system is towards mothers and children. Kanami's husband abandoned her and their three children and refused to pay anything towards their upkeep. This case clearly demonstrates that present arrangements work entirely to the father's advantage and helps explain why mother-headed families make up a majority of the poorest households in Japan. Non-payment of child support by absent fathers is one of the main causes of poverty for these families. Currently, if a Japanese father refuses to pay child support money, he incurs no effective penalties or punishment. *
During my most recent interview with Kanami, conducted in January 2005, she summed up her thoughts about the situation of single-mothers and the child support payment system. She said, "How can it be right that a man can just leave his children and nobody [in authority] does anything. The problem is all the [official] people you have to ask [for help] are men and you feel they do not really understand you because they are men. In Japan, the world is created by men for men. Women who are cheated by men have no chance. Until that changes we have no real rights."
She added, "It is not good, because if you are a woman, you feel you have no rights. Men, they can do what they want, but it is women who must pay."
About the Case Study Project
This case study comes from a long-term, currently ongoing, research project that was initiated in 1992. It consists of interviews and life-histories of 14 lone-mothers located all over Hokkaido and is updated each year. The account below is up to January 2005. Other case studies from this project will appear in this series to illustrate various aspects of the problems facing poor lone-mother families.
The author used personal acquaintances and informants to be introduced to the lone-mothers who make up this long-term project. It is acknowledged that the relatively small sample size, confined to Hokkaido, limits the findings of this study. However, it is hoped that this small scale study will offer some valuable insights into the challenges facing poor lone-mothers in today's Japan.
All names in the following account have been changed.
How the Child Support System Failed Kanami and her Children
Kanami was 18 years old when she became a mother. She married straight after graduating from high school, giving birth to her first son six months later. Her husband was seven years her senior and worked as a self-employed plumber. He abandoned his previous wife and two children to marry the youthful and inexperienced Kanami.
About a year and a half after the first son was born, Kanami gave birth to a second boy. She found motherhood stressful and felt her husband was too domineering. As she was much younger than other mothers in the neighborhood, and had no work experience, she felt a little isolated and inferior in their company.
Because her husband was self-employed, his income was often erratic and this caused considerable stress within their relationship. Two and a half years after her second son was born, she gave birth to a third boy. She had hoped that the arrival of the new baby might improve the marital situation, but instead the relationship continued to deteriorate. Kanami suspected that her husband was having a relationship with another woman. Just over two years after their third child was born, the couple broke up.
The father moved into an apartment in a different part of town and started living with a 19-year-old woman. This relationship eventually produced a child. Kanami and the children were forced moved into her mother's home.
Her ex-husband refused to pay any child maintenance money to Kanami for any of his three children. Although the law obliges a father to make such payments, there is no effective mechanism for forcing delinquent fathers do so. Kanami's former partner had also never paid a penny for the upkeep of his two children from his first marriage.
In December 1992, six years after the breakup, Kanami still felt angry. She explained, "My husband left us to marry a younger woman. He still lives nearby, but refuses to pay any money for the boys. The local authorities have asked him, but he refuses and they say there is nothing they can do. It seems so unfair that he can just abandon us like this and get away with it."
It appears her ex-partner had learnt from his first marriage that if you got fed up with your wife and children, you could simply abandon them without incurring any financial penalties. This is exactly what he did to Kanami. His actions clearly illustrate the woeful inadequacies of the current Japanese system and how it can be exploited at ease by delinquent fathers.
Employment opportunities limited for lone mothers
Because Kanami had no employment history and three children to care for, finding work was difficult. Her mother helped with child care arrangements and she had a succession of low paid jobs in factories and restaurants.
When I first met her in September 1992, she was working in a local factory. At that time her eldest son was 12, the second 10 and the youngest 8. They survived on a very meager income and lived in a dilapidated old house that belonged to a relative.
In 1993, Kanami landed a job at a school lunch centre, where she prepared food. It was only on certain occasions, such as when a child was sick, that mothering concerns superseded economic imperatives. For example, when her youngest son had an asthma attack, she immediately took time off work.
In February 1993, Kanami discussed her feeling about the conflict she felt between work and mothering. She observed, "When your children are sick, you have to be there for them. You can't be at work. That is why I am so lucky with my job. Mr. Tanaka [the manager] understands my situation. ... The other women also know what it means to be a mother, even though they are all older. Sometimes it is very hard being a young mother when all the other women are your seniors. They can be very bossy. Still, they know what it means to be a mother."
One of the reasons she had taken up this employment in the first place was that she knew the head of the school lunch centre was sympathetic towards her situation, allowing her time-off when her children were sick. Another factor was that the place of employment was both near her home and relatively near the children's schools. In her previous job, she could not take time off in this fashion and this caused her a lot of distress. Fortunately, her mother had been able to look after the children during this period.
Taking up a new position also offered Kanami a possible chance for advancement. If she obtained a nutritionist license, she would qualify for a higher salary scale. This had encouraged her to study for the licence. However, she did not see possible advancement in terms of career development, but purely for its potential financial yield. If she acquired a food science qualification, she would increase the family income.
Although she felt quite comfortable with her job and life in the town where she was living, worries about her children's senior high school education eventually led her to relocate to one of Hokkaido's largest cities, where they could attend better schools. In less urban areas the choice of a senior high school is limited and often the ranking of these schools is low.
Planning for the move began well in advance in 1994, a year before her eldest son was due to graduate from junior high school. A relative in City Z was able to arrange an apartment and job. In March 1995, the whole family relocated to City Z and her eldest son entered a technical high school in April of that year.
Kanami succeeded in getting into another school lunch center, but despite her best efforts made little progress with her studies towards obtaining a licence. She was, on the whole, happier to be in a larger city as it offered more social opportunities. She also felt freer as she had no driving licence and the larger city's public transport was much better than in her hometown. Her second son decided to study nursing and later entered a vocational high school specializing in nursing.
In an interview conducted in May 2001, she reflected on her new life in the city. "It is much better for the boys' education to be here, there is much more choice and they have a chance for a better future. Also, for me there is a better selection of jobs. In some ways, I like it here, but I wish I did not have to live such a distance from my mother. She encouraged me to come here, but I miss her....Financially, things are just about manageable. Because there is more choice here, I can save money when I go shopping, so the money goes further...There are more things to do here and I can go out in the evenings sometimes."
In 2002, her second son, who was by then 20-years-old, got a young woman pregnant. The two had known each since junior high school days and were both originally from the same town. The couple were railroaded into marriage by the 19 year old girl's parents, who help arrange employment for their new son-in-law in their hometown. The local government offered the young father a clerical position and he soon settled down in his new role. The town was suffering from a declining population and welcomed the new family. He was still working in the same position in January 2005 and by then had a second child.
Kanami was uneasy about becoming a grandmother and initially felt a little uncomfortable with her new status. In February 2003, she told me, "Who expects to be a grandmother at my age? I certainly did not think I would ever become a grandmother so young." After the initial shock, she gradually adapted to life with a new title.
I last interviewed her in January 2005. She was still working at the meal centre and uncertain about her future. Now free of her mothering duties, she had formed a relationship with a man a few years older than herself. Her eldest and youngest sons were living in the same city, both had steady jobs. None of her offspring had gone to university because of the cost. Reflecting on her life she said, "The situation for divorced mothers is still just as bad as when my marriage broke up. Things remain completely in the man's favour. It makes you wonder if things will ever improve?"
A full list of articles in this series can be found here.
* Non-payment of child support by absent fathers is one of the main causes of poverty for families headed by women. According to a recent survey, only 34% of divorced mothers had functioning support payment agreements with their children's fathers. The child support system is deficient in several key areas: most crucially there is no effective mechanism for enforcing payments or collecting arrears. The courts normally do not take action if a delinquent father fails to meet his obligations. Basically, if a father reneges on an agreement, most mothers can do very little about it unless they are wealthy enough to pursue the matter through the slow, time-consuming and expensive legal system. The current system leaves mothers and children at the mercy of fathers, who face no real penalties for nonpayment. The law was revised in April 2003 with the supposed aim of requiring divorced fathers to pay child support, but the half-hearted amendment has had no impact. In fact, the situation has deteriorated, as the average monthly maintenance payment five years ago was 53,200 yen and in the new survey it is only 44,660 yen, a decrease of 8,540 yen or 16%. All past attempts to effectively amend the law have been derailed by a vocal group of conservative male lawmakers who claim that making men liable to pay for divorced children would go against so-called "Japanese traditions."