Untangling myths on options for divorce in Japan

  • Published
  • By Capt. Joshua M. Austin
  • 18th Wing Judge Advocate
One of the most common questions judge advocates face when providing legal assistance is, "How do I get a divorce while stationed here in Okinawa?"  This question is sometimes followed up by, "I have heard [insert myth here]."

The purpose of this article is to untangle these myths and inform you of your options for getting a divorce while stationed in Japan.

At the outset, I want to state divorce is a last resort.  As I tell all my legal assistance clients seeking a divorce, there was one time you loved your husband or wife and you owe it to yourself, to your spouse, and to your children or family to try to do everything within your power to resolve your marital issues before getting divorced.

This is not to say there are not situations where a divorce is the right option.  If you are currently in a relationship where physical or emotional abuse is present, you should immediately remove yourself from the abusive environment and contact security forces or family advocacy.

However, in situations where abuse is not present, I strongly encourage you to contact Family Advocacy or your Chaplain and attempt to resolve your marital issues prior to resorting to divorce.

With that caveat, you may still be wondering, "What are my options for divorce in Okinawa?"

Can I get divorced in Japanese court?
In short, the answer is yes.  However, there are many differences between Japanese and American family law.

American law requires child custody and child support decisions to be made by a judge based on the best interests of the child.  In Japan, the general practice is to award custody to the mother unless there is an overriding reason to award custody to the father.

Child support is also determined and collected differently than in American courts.  Because of these differences, American courts may not recognize a Japanese court's judgment on issues concerning minor children who are solely U.S. citizens.

In determining whether or not you should get divorced in Japan, you should also consider whether or not you and your spouse are trying to receive spousal support and/or an allocation of military retirement.  Japanese courts may not provide for spousal support.  Additionally, Japanese courts do not have the power to order a division of retired pay.  Therefore, a division of a military member's pension from a Japanese divorce will not be enforceable.

There are four types of divorce in Japan: (1) divorce based on mutual agreement of the spouses; (2) divorce by conciliation in a family court, completed by applying for conciliation by the family court (for cases in which divorce by mutual agreement cannot be reached); (3) divorce by decision of the family court, which is a divorce completed by family court decision when divorce cannot be established by mediation; and (4) divorce by judgment of a district court for those cases where a divorce cannot be established by the family court.  This article will only discuss divorce based on mutual agreement.

A divorce based on mutual agreement, also known as a "Ward Office" divorce may be appropriate for those cases where there are two American citizens who do not have children when they are able to agree upon all the issues in their divorce.  A Ward Office divorce cannot be done when both spouses are American citizens and they have children.  A Ward Office Divorce may also be appropriate in those cases where one spouse is a U.S. citizen and the other spouse is a Japanese citizen if they are able to agree upon all the issues in the divorce.

In Ward Office divorces, the spouses file a separation agreement with the local city hall and their divorce is granted.  However, the United States Embassy for Japan warns that the U.S. does not have procedures for divorces outside of the judicial system and the legality of this type of divorce in various states of the U.S. is uncertain.

If you are considering obtaining a divorce in Japan, please come into the Kadena Legal Office to seek the advice of our qualified attorneys.  We will inform you of your legal rights, your options for obtaining a divorce, the pros and cons of each option, and we can also provide you with a list of English speaking Japanese attorneys who will be able to assist you if needed.

Can I get divorced in Guam?
Under current Guam law, an uncontested divorce may be granted if both parties are in agreement with the terms of the divorce and at least one spouse visits Guam for a minimum of seven days prior to filing the petition.  The seven-day stay "satisfies" the residency requirement for an uncontested divorce.

If either spouse does not agree to any terms of the divorce, the petitioner must file for a contested divorce and meet a 90-day residency requirement as well as provide reasonable notification to the off-island spouse.  A Guam divorce may not be an option for individuals who have children who were not born or who never lived in Guam as Guam courts may lack jurisdiction to hear matters involving the children.

Can I get divorced back in the States?
The answer is yes.  Getting divorced back in the United States is an option most of our clients should explore.  Every state has its own requirements for getting divorced.

If you are considering getting divorced, come in to the Kadena Legal Office to seek the advice of our qualified attorneys.  We will help you determine in which state you should be filing divorce, the requirements of that state, answer any questions you have, walk you through the issues you will have to consider in your divorce, give you the contact information for the state bar association so you are able to find qualified attorneys within that state, and we will also provide you with the contact information and any relevant material from the local courthouse.

We have walk-in hours every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 9-10 a.m.  Find more information on our services by "liking" the Kadena Legal Office on Facebook.

(Editor's note: This article is not intended to act as a substitute for qualified legal advice.  If you believe that a divorce is appropriate for you, it is highly recommend that you seek the assistance of a licensed attorney to learn about your rights and to explore the appropriate course of action for your situation.)