“I am an American male and have been married to a Japanese woman for about a year and a half,” a reader writes. “One day, I came home from work and found that my wife had left a divorce decree on the kitchen table with a note. I was shocked!
“The first thing that came to mind was, ‘How can she get a divorce without my signature?’
I checked with the city office and by law, they will accept a divorce paper as long as all the fields are filled out. There is no way for them to verify a foreigner’s signature. I got a copy of the document and saw that my wife had written my name in Japanese characters and used my gift stamp with my name on as a stamp. This stamp is not registered.
“I was told by family court that I had to file a petition with the family court where she is now living to nullify the divorce decree on the grounds of fraud. So I did so, along with evidence of my signature. We received a notice in the mail to appear in family court at a later date.
“My questions are: 1) What happens if she does not show up? 2) Will the court automatically nullify the divorce? 3) Does my wife have to fill out some form admitting that she falsified the divorce paper? 4) If she refuses to admit to the falsification, what is the next step? 5) Could she go to jail for this and, if so, for how long?”
Under Japanese law, a divorce can be finalized by mutual consent, and the process — known as kyōgi rikon — is simple and very popular. First, one or both of the parties are supposed to fill in a rikon todoke (divorce notification paper), which both partners then stamp (or sign, if a foreign spouse does not have a personal hanko seal). The paper is then submitted to your city hall or municipal office. Both parties do not have to go to city hall together to present the document; it can even be submitted by a third party.
The drawback of such a straightforward procedure is the ease with which a spouse can forge the other’s signature or, as in the reader’s case, use their seal without their partner’s knowledge. This issue was covered in more depth in our April column, “Fujuri todoke: a valuable insurance policy if your marriage is on the rocks.” In the column, Mikiko Otani advised a reader who was worried that their spouse might apply for a kyōgi rikon without their consent to consider submitting a fujuri todoke (request not to accept notification) form, which would prevent the kyōgi rikon from being accepted at city hall.
However, once the rikon todoke has been accepted and the divorce recorded on the koseki (family register), the aggrieved party would then have to go through the courts to annul the divorce and get the family register changed back. In other words, and somewhat perplexingly, annulling a divorce achieved through forgery is much more difficult than getting a divorce fraudulently in the first place.
In such a case, the aggrieved party would usually first file for a mediation process called kyōgi rikon mukōkakunin chōtei (mediation for confirming the invalidity of divorce by consent).
The sessions involve two mediators and a judge, with the mediators asking each party in turn about the information submitted in the original rikon todoke. They will sometimes ask the parties to submit documents to help reach a solution, and ask each party for their ideas as they push for an agreement between the couple.
To file for mediation, you need to submit a kyōgi rikon todoke kisaijikō shōmeisho (certificate of entries in divorce notification paper); other documents and evidence you may submit at the mediation depend on what points the parties are fighting over.
If the parties reach an agreement through the mediation process, the court will look through the evidence and render a judgment in accordance with the agreement. Even if your partner confesses to falsifying the rikon todoke, at no point will she be forced to sign a form admitting this.
On the other hand, if the parties cannot reach an agreement, the aggrieved party would then have no choice but to file litigation to prove the invalidity of the supposed “divorce by consent.”
If the other party does not turn up for the mediation, the court would try to contact them and urge them to attend; if the other party still doesn’t show, the mediation would have to be abandoned, with the same result: the disputing party would have to file litigation to prove the kyōgi rikon was invalid.
During litigation, each party would submit the relevant documents and evidence. For example, the party disputing whether their signature is genuine might submit the results of expert handwriting analysis of the rikon todoke, and a report describing how the party found out about the forgery.
Forgery of a signature and submitting a fraudulent divorce paper are of course criminal acts, and in the reader’s case, it would be up to a prosecutor to decide whether to indict his estranged partner.
Kyoko Hijikata is an attorney with the Foreigners and International Service Section at Tokyo Public Law Office, which handles a wide range of cases involving foreigners in the Tokyo area (www.t-pblo.jp/fiss) Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.