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Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2007


Losing custody: the odds

Special to The Japan Times

The turmoil of an acquaintance's divorce recently caused me to contemplate the predictability of falling into such a mess.

This particular individual has not seen one of his children since July 2004, two years before his divorce was even finalized. A separate friend informed me that ¥2 million and a good lawyer were able to convince his ex-wife to allow him access to his daughter three times a year — yet for only 30 minutes each time and with the provision that he was not allowed to tell his daughter that he was her biological father.

Many of us have heard of high-profile cases of divorce in Japan — such as former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi going two decades without seeing his youngest son, and the two children of Murray Wood being taken from their home in Canada by their Japanese mother — and we sympathize with the parents and particularly the children involved in these complex, highly emotional clashes.

But, increasingly in Japan, parents are divorcing, and one parent — usually the father — is losing custody of any children created during the marriage.

For those contemplating marriage in Japan or those currently in seemingly happy marriages here — particularly men — thoughts must be, "Could this happen to me? What is the risk?"

Specifically, can we determine the probability that a man who marries in Japan will have at least one child with his spouse, then divorce, and subsequently lose custody of any children? This likelihood is not that difficult to calculate, and sadly, it is rather high — over 21 percent.

To determine this probability, we first need to know the percentage of married women in Japan who are expected to give birth to at least one child.

In April 2005, Robert D. Retherford, coordinator of Population and Health Studies at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii, and Naohiro Ogawa, deputy director of the Nihon University Population Research Institute, published a research paper titled "Japan's Baby Bust: Causes, Implications, and Policy Responses." In this paper, the authors use a scientific-sounding term called period parity progression ratios (PPPRs) to estimate the number of children we can expect a woman to bear over her lifetime. The authors write, "The PPPRs for (the year) 2000, were they to remain constant in the future, imply that 19 percent of women (in Japan) would never marry, 12 percent would marry but remain childless, 16 percent would have only one child, 36 percent would have two children, 15 percent would have three children, and 3 percent would have four or more children."

Therefore, we can use these numbers to determine that approximately 85.2 percent (100 percent — (12/81 x 100) percent) of women who marry in Japan will give birth to at least one child.

Next, we need to know the likelihood of a marriage in Japan ending in divorce. According to a research paper published in September 2004 titled "Marital Dissolution in Japan — Recent Trends and Patterns," by James M. Raymo and Larry Bumpass, professors within the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Department of Sociology, and Miho Iwasawa of the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, located in Tokyo, "the proportion of marriages (in Japan) ending within 10 years is 22 percent and the proportion ending within 20 is 31 percent."

And this data does not reflect de facto divorces, marriages that are dissolved but never officially ended by registration of divorce. Nor does it reflect the surge expected from this year, when a divorced woman will have the right to as much as half her husband's pension. However, let's just focus on the percentage of marriages ending within the first 20 years, because those are the ones in which children are usually involved. That proportion is given as 31 percent.

Finally, we need to determine how often a mother in Japan is granted custody of her children. In 2005, Raymo, Bumpass and Iwasawa updated their paper for the XXV International Population Conference, and the notes section of this paper states, "Mothers receive custody in roughly 80 percent of divorces involving children (National Institute of Population and Social Security Research 2004a)."

Now that our data is in, we simply need to "plug and chug," as my transplanted high school physics teacher from West Virginia used to say. "And when the smoke clears" — another one of his highly accented expressions — we can conclude that about 21.1 percent (.852 x .31 x .80) of men who marry women in Japan will have at least one child, get divorced within the first 20 years of marriage, and then lose custody of any children.

Now, many of us probably wonder how this contrasts with other countries. So, let's compare our calculation for Japan with a country recognized for having fairly high fertility and divorce rates — the United States — and another known for having rather low fertility and divorce rates — Italy.

I should begin with a disclaimer, however, and inform you that the data we have for these two countries is not as current as the data we have for Japan. That said, the numbers should give us a rough idea of a similar likelihood in these two countries of this progression from marriage (cohabitation) to fatherhood to divorce (separation) to loss of child custody.

The word cohabitation just entered our discussion because once we shift our focus to areas outside Japan, cohabitation begins to play a much greater role. According to "Births: Preliminary Data for 2005" in the National Vital Statistics Reports, published by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), 36.8 percent of all births in the United States were to unmarried parents in 2005. Cohabitation in Italy, on the other hand, remains rather low, as does cohabitation in Japan not eventually resulting in marriage.

We can get our PPPRs for the United States and Italy from a research paper titled "Trends in Fertility by Parity in Europe," published in 2002 by Daniel Devolder, Maria Jose Gonzalez and Karine Gavino, researchers at Barcelona Autonomous University's Centre for Demographic Studies. These PPPRs appear not to consider marriage a factor, but simply state the "proportion of women who have a given number of children and advance to another child."

Assuming the given PPPRs from 1993 and 1994 were to remain fairly constant, we would expect 86.5 percent and 77.7 percent of woman in the United States and Italy, respectively, to have at least one child.

We next shift to the proportion of marriages in the United States and Italy expected to end within 20 years. The papers by Raymo, Bumpass, and Iwasawa give those proportions as 44 percent (1995) for the United States and 9 percent (1995) for Italy.

Finally, we need to determine how often the mother is granted custody of her children in these two countries. Oddly, I found this data to be terribly difficult to obtain for the entirety of the United States. Each state has its own divorce customs, procedures, and laws, but most important to our discussion is that all 50 states currently permit parents to seek joint legal custody of their children after a divorce.

A 1995 NCHS report gives data on physical custody awards in 19 participating states for the year 1990. And the variance between states is rather remarkable, with fathers receiving sole or joint custody 52.4 percent of the time in the state of Montana, to fathers receiving sole or joint custody only 16.3 percent of the time in Nebraska.

Unfortunately, populous states in which joint custody might be favored, such as California and New York, were not included in this study. However, the average using the data that we have is 26 percent — i.e., fathers received sole or joint custody 26 percent of the time; mothers or someone other than the father received sole custody 74 percent of the time.

For Italy, we can refer to the paper "Family Mediation in Europe," published by Centro Nazionale per il Volontariato, to learn that mothers received sole custody in 90.1 percent of divorces in Italy in 1995.

So, once again, our data is in, and we can loosely conclude that the likelihood for a man to marry and then have at least one child, get divorced within the first 20 years of marriage, and lose custody of any children is 28.2 percent (.865 x .44 x .74) in the United States and 6.3 percent (.777 x .09 x .901) in Italy.

Now, we can argue that the PPPRs we used actually refer to women, not men, and the figure we calculated really estimates the proportion of women who will marry, have at least one child, divorce within 20 years of marriage, and obtain custody of any children. Further, the proportion of men projected to never marry is somewhat higher than that of women, so our inputs would need to be male-based to more precisely calculate what we are after, but our approach can be deemed a fair approximation given the constraints of the data we have available.

And when we look at the odds we calculated for the United States and Japan, at 28.2 and 21.1 percent respectively — in reality, the odds for extreme turmoil and heartbreak — we can begin to realize the need for some serious contemplation before engaging in a course of action that embodies such risk.

Michael Hassett and his Japanese spouse have been married for nearly 15 years and have three children.

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