When a marriage ends in Japan, a divorce is easily obtained when both parties sign a paper declaring that their marriage is over and file it at a government office. For Japanese children of divorced parents, this simple process often leads to the permanent loss of either their father or mother.
In most industrialized countries, the divorce rate is on the rise, and Japan is no exception. According to government data here, more than 260,000 Japanese couples divorced last year, up about five percent from the previous year and an all-time high.
But one practice sets divorced Japanese couples apart from their counterparts in other nations: by law, child custody is never shared. Instead, one parent gets custody of the children, who frequently have no contact with their other parent.
Divorce lawyer Kiyoko Ishiguro says this tradition, which dates back for generations, shows no signs of changing.
She says custody is what couples discuss last because their priority is separating. She adds that parents, even today, do not always understand that family contact could benefit their children.
Terue Shinkawa is typical of many divorced parents in Japan. The twice-divorced company manager has custody of her two children, who never see their fathers. She says that both she and her children accept the situation.
She says the first husband lacked parental sense. She adds that her second husband was so upset about the divorce that it would be too painful for him to see his child.
Hiromi Ikeuchi has written books about divorce in Japan and also counsels couples on the subject. She explains that the custom of ending relations with one parent evolved because in Japan, the household defines the family. A Japanese parent who leaves the household is no longer considered part of that family and has given up his or her right to see the children.
She says the children are born to inherit the household and the family name from the person who heads that home, whether it is a man or a woman. She adds that when it comes to these traditions, Japanese laws and practices are very rigid.
The issue of divorce and child custody gained new attention here when the divorced Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi took office earlier this year. When he split from his wife 19 years ago, Mr. Koizumi took charge of their two older sons, while the youngest son went to live in his mother's home. Since then, Mr. Koizumi has never met his youngest son. He has also turned down his former wife's request to see her other two boys, who have been raised by one of Mr. Koizumi's sisters.
This custody practice is questioned neither by the Japanese media nor by the public, which accept it as the logical consequence of divorce.
Still, divorce and custody arrangements can be bitter in Japan, just as they are in other countries. Ms. Ishiguro, the divorce lawyer, wishes some clients could focus more on the needs of their children.
She says divorcing couples often do not want to see each other again, and sometimes, out of anger, they will not allow their children to see the other parent. She adds that children also may refuse to see the non-custodial parent because they may blame them for the break-up of the family.
Activists are now lobbying the government for more support for single parents and divorced women. They want people to have more information before they choose to end their marriages so that they can make better choices for their children, who may want to remain in touch with both parents.
Prime Minister Koizumi's youngest son is one of those children. He recently told a Japanese magazine that he would like to be reunited with his father and his two brothers, and is optimistic that this will someday be possible.