Divorce, Japanese Style


In his sixth month in office, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is trying to rescue a moribund economy, mend tense relations with China and South Korea, and stamp out persistent corruption.

But he’s a player in a far more personal drama as well.

Koizumi’s 18-year-old son, Yoshinaga Miyamoto, longs to see his politician father, a man he has never met. The closest he has come was at a rally a few months ago, when he managed to get within about a dozen yards. Nobody noticed the striking resemblance. Miyamoto didn’t have the courage to shout out his identity.

Yet he yearns for some acknowledgment from the man whose face appears on posters all over the nation--including on Miyamoto’s bedroom walls.


“He’s my father,” the teenager said in a recent interview. “There are no words that can express my feelings. In my everyday life, he is my mental support. He fuels my desire to improve myself and to face up to myself.”

Miyamoto’s mother, Kayoko, has an equally compelling dream. She wants to visit with the two elder sons she hasn’t seen since they were 1 and 4. She was six months pregnant with Miyamoto when she and Koizumi divorced, apparently because of a wide gap in age and interests, and she moved out of the extended Koizumi household. Although the older boys grew up with Koizumi’s family less than a 15-minute drive away, she has been barred from any personal contact with them.

“I’ve been hoping to see them for 19 years,” she says. “All I can do is wait.”

Since his election in April, the 59-year-old Koizumi, who has not remarried, has enjoyed unusual popularity as Japanese have focused on the hip hairstyle and manner that seem to embody his promises of reform. But the prime minister also represents a darker aspect of this society: the wrenching separation of many parents and children after divorce.

In Japan, splitting up often means saying goodbye to children forever. There is no such thing as joint custody, and in the few cases where courts grant visitation, there is no enforcement. Most divorces occur with both parties simply signing a one-page “consent” form that requires only the most basic information. No need for a lawyer. Stamp it with your hanko name seal and it’s done.

“It’s the Japanese general understanding that if they divorce, the noncustodial parent won’t be able to see the kid again,” says Tokyo divorce lawyer Hiroshi Shibuya, who handles some of the rare cases that are contested. “It’s as if the child loses a parent in an accident, as if that parent just dies.”

Custom--and usually the custodial parent--dictates the arrangements after a husband and wife with children part ways.


Family counselor Hiromi Ikeuchi, 39, who runs a “divorce school” in Tokyo to advise couples thinking of separating, has both professional and personal experience. She divorced seven years ago; her daughter, now 13, hasn’t seen her father since.

Ikeuchi takes colorful magnets the shape of large buttons and moves them around a board in her office to illustrate the male-dominated lineage system--known as ie--that underlies family matters here.

One of the magnets represents the mother’s family, another the father’s. If a child is close to the mother--viewed as an outsider by the father’s family--the child goes with the mother and, from the paternal family’s perspective, they’re both out of the picture. Often children’s names are removed from the father’s registry, changed to the mother’s maiden name and entered into her family registry. Such documents, kept in city halls, track family ties in Japan.

Although official adherence to the ie system ended after World War II, it’s still very much a part of the Japanese psyche, Ikeuchi says. A woman can keep her maiden name after marriage only if her husband agrees to take it as well.

“Japanese people have the idea that marriage is between family and family, so it’s difficult to think of divorce as a matter of individuals,” Ikeuchi says. “The grandmother thinks: ‘Oh, my poor son. He has to remarry a nicer woman who doesn’t hurt my child.’

“In Christianity, everyone is a child of God. Everybody’s the same,” she adds. “But in Japan, there’s no Christianity, so it’s a strong country of ie. Children are to take over the family.”

In Koizumi’s case, his mother, sisters and brother raised the elder boys. The family even tried, unsuccessfully, to take Miyamoto from his mother soon after he was born, Kayoko Miyamoto says.

Although divorce is on the rise in Japan--in 2000 there were about 264,000 divorces in this country of 127 million people--it is still generally considered taboo. Instead, alienation within marriages is common, and estranged couples often lead separate lives.

“If people know you’re divorced, everybody looks at you with curious eyes,” Ikeuchi says.

This prejudice extends to children of divorce. When Koizumi’s elder sister divorced, her daughter was adopted by Koizumi’s father, allowing her to avoid any stigma.

These days, in 80% of divorces, mothers take the children. But with little if any child support, most women wind up moving in with their parents, who take them, in part, to preserve their own family lines, Ikeuchi says.

Ikeuchi believes that it’s healthy for a child to see the other parent if the child wants to, but she says most children apparently refrain from asking because they sense that the custodial parent doesn’t want to make contact.

“I always get depressed, and I start hating Japanese people when I talk about this issue,” Ikeuchi says. “Japanese people are just too immature to be reasonable enough to make the opportunity for visitation.”

Many fathers, particularly those who have had affairs, assume they won’t get visiting rights. Most don’t seem bothered, says lawyer Shibuya. “Their minds are on the other woman,” he says.

Others give up because they have no choice.

Yasuhiro Ueda, 41, is an editor at a publishing house. Not long after his baby was born, his wife demanded a divorce. She resented his long hours and after-work drinking sessions with co-workers that are all but obligatory in corporate Japan.

Ueda assumed he’d have the opportunity to see their daughter, Sachiko, and wanted to pay child support. His former wife declined both, saying that if he wanted to see the girl, he would have to assume full custody.

“I knew I couldn’t make this child happy,” Ueda says. His parents lived too far away to help, and he worked too much to raise her on his own.

“I thought visitation three or four times a year would be the best thing for the child, but my ex-wife wouldn’t change her mind,” he says. And since young children are seen as having closer bonds with their mothers than their fathers, he says, “I knew if I took it to family court, I wouldn’t win.”

Ueda last saw his daughter in 1992 at the home of his wife’s family just before the divorce. The 2-year-old was asleep but woke up when she heard him and gave him a hug.

Ueda sent child support and, every September, took great pleasure in choosing the perfect birthday gift. But on Sachiko’s 10th birthday, he received a letter from his former wife ordering him to stop sending gifts.

“She’s fine without you,” the letter said.

In 1997, Ueda remarried, and he now has twin 4-year-old boys. But he hasn’t forgotten Sachiko, who just turned 11. He thinks about her often and clings to the promise his former wife made: to let Sachiko see him if she asks.

A few fathers whose pleas for visitation rights have been denied by the courts, even though they pay child support, are trying to change the system. But even they are pessimistic about the likelihood of success. Nevertheless, they’ve formed a “fathers’ Web site” for camaraderie and support.

“It’s healthy for kids to see their fathers, because otherwise kids get the idea that they’re discarded by their parent,” says the group’s leader, Naoki Miyoshi, who has tattooed the name of his daughter, Sandy Keito, on his arm. He hasn’t seen her in 2 1/2 years.

Early one morning at his mother’s house in an upscale neighborhood in Kamakura, about 50 miles southwest of Tokyo, Yoshinaga Miyamoto is getting ready to fly to the U.S. for a short visit with friends in Tennessee, where he attended a Japanese-run boarding school. A freshman studying Chinese at Kyoto University of Foreign Languages, Miyamoto is a typical Japanese teenager: He chain-smokes Lucky Strikes, wears one leg of his jeans rolled up and streaks and spikes his hair.

The boy’s resemblance to his father, his mother says, is “uncanny.” Not only are Miyamoto’s and Koizumi’s features similar, so are their tastes and habits: They both love squid and instinctively thrust their hands into their pockets.

“So I said, ‘Why didn’t you introduce yourself?’ ” his mother says, mildly chastising Miyamoto for not working up the courage to speak to Koizumi when he saw him in mid-July at a rally attended by 16,000 people. “Why didn’t you just say, ‘I’m your son?’ ”

“I wanted to talk to him,” Miyamoto replies. “But I decided I didn’t want to bother him with my personal problems.”

Japanese tend to avoid confrontation, so many requests for reconciliation are made through intermediaries. Miyamoto has made his pleas through the media. It has never occurred to him to write his father a letter, he admits, and he has no idea what he would say.

About a month ago, Miyamoto talked to a morning TV show that had begged him for an interview. He said that he longed to see his father. Told about that later, the prime minister was noncommittal.

“Yoroshiku genki de,” Koizumi replied--a pleasantry that means, roughly, “That’s good.”

(Koizumi’s office declined to comment for this report.)

Still, Miyamoto was heartened by the words.

“It might not sound like much, but it meant a lot to me,” he says.

When Kayoko Miyamoto, now 45, moved out of the Koizumi household, all she could think about was her health and that of her unborn child, she recalls.

She was just 21, a senior in college from a prominent family, when she married Koizumi. He was 35, a political scion in parliament, his father and grandfather having both been lawmakers. It was in some ways a typical omiai, whereby an intermediary provides a large picture of the suitor and the man and woman get together for a date, then quickly decide whether to marry. This meeting, however, was arranged by then-Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda, who had become like a father to Koizumi after the younger man’s own father died in 1969.

The couple’s date lasted from afternoon into evening, and he proposed the next day. They married four months later on a day picked to accommodate Fukuda’s schedule. About 2,500 guests feasted on a giant cake in the shape of the nearby parliament building. Just weeks afterward, the bride took her college graduation exams.

Being the wife of a politician was tough enough, she recalls. “There were so many people around him.” But the biggest challenge was his family: She moved into a household that included Koizumi’s mother, sisters and brother.

“It was a matriarchy,” she says. While her husband spent most of the week and many weekends in Tokyo, she was left to wait on her in-laws, as is the traditional duty of the eldest son’s wife. “I was like a housekeeper having to do all the stuff at home,” she says.

The young wife, who gave birth to her first two sons in the space of three years, also was expected to campaign for Koizumi.

“It was campaign, children, campaign, children,” she recalls.

She won’t say what finally led to the divorce. But Koizumi’s brother, Masaya, who runs the prime minister’s district office, said in an interview last spring that there were vast differences in age and family culture. She wanted to move to Tokyo and send the children to a prestigious school there, the brother said, whereas Koizumi wanted the boys to attend the public school in his district.

Koizumi’s longtime right-hand man, Isao Iijima, told Time magazine that it was he who told Koizumi to choose between his political career and his wife, who Iijima said wasn’t sufficiently committed to politics.

Kayoko Miyamoto says Koizumi promised to let her see their two boys when they were in junior high. She retreated to her mother’s home.

Soon after her third son was born, she got a letter from the Koizumi family’s lawyer demanding custody of the infant. “I was in the depths of despair,” she says. She fought the request in family court and won.

She was heartened during the recent campaign when the teen saw his father on television and shouted, “Father, go for it!”

“I was so touched--Yoshinaga believed Koizumi would win this time,” she says. “He respects Koizumi as a father so much.”

The prime minister has paid child support, she says, although she declines to say how much.

Occasionally, she gets a glimpse on television of her elder sons, Kotaro, 23, a fledgling actor who just landed a job doing a commercial for a low-alcohol beer, and Shinjiro, 20, a college student.

But she hasn’t contacted them directly, even though they are now adults, preferring to get her message across through intermediaries and, now, the media.

For the most part, however, there’s been relatively little media attention paid to the unfolding family drama.

“Most Japanese people don’t think Koizumi’s case is rare or sad,” says divorce attorney Shibuya. “They just think Koizumi’s case is one of our cases. They think, ‘See, he’s one of us.’ ”


Rie Sasaki of The Times’ Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.