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International military couples: Japan

Many military families are composed of one natural-born American citizen and one foreign national, usually a naturalized citizen. This is not surprising considering the international nature of the services, but it does raise some unique concerns if a marriage begins to fall apart. Many times, it falls to service members and their spouses to decide on a forum — that is, the country in which they choose to pursue the divorce litigation. In terms of Virginia couples with at least one Japanese citizen, the most pertinent concern informing that decision would likely be child custody.

As anyone who has spent much time in Japan has likely realized, the legal environment in the country is much different than it is in the United States. While the laws themselves are similar in writing — some are, in fact, based on American regulations — default judgments tend to come more from an accepted status quo than a series of litigated precedents. This means that, more often than not, U.S. and Japanese courts would decide differently on the same custody issue, despite some similarity in the statutes. 

An article in the Japan Times illustrates some of the finer points of the system in Japan, perhaps most importantly that the mother nearly always gains sole custody of younger children. According to the article, this happens in over 80 percent of cases; the courts base these decisions on a belief that children under ten years old require physical intimacy with the mother to develop properly. 

The legal information page on the official website of Camp Butler, the United States Marine Corps base in Okinawa, also states that mothers almost uniformly receive full custody in Japan. Furthermore, this resource discusses the fact that there are no such concepts as visitation, shared parenting or joint custody under Japanese law.

The Camp Butler page also goes into detail on many of the items pertaining to a military divorce, some of which are applicable regardless of the jurisdiction of the proceedings. Nearly every mixed-nationality military couple faces similar challenges during divorce, so it is often wise to perform a robust assessment of all options available before filing papers in any country.

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