While many divorced noncustodial parents in Japan have no choice but to battle acrimoniously to gain access to their children, the situation is also often painful for their own parents, who as grandparents have become separated from their grandchildren.
Some grandparents who have been denied access to their young relatives are now networking with one another so that their visitation rights can be guaranteed. They are stepping up their efforts particularly because they have taken heart from amendments to the civil code due to take effect in April that stipulate that parents work out visitation matters involving their children when they divorce.
Visitation issues have taken on increased importance in Japan as the number of divorces rose to some 250,000 in 2010, up from about 160,000 in 1990.
Under the sole custody system in Japan, noncustodial parents are often denied access to their children after they break up with their spouses. Such troubles tend to be less common in Western countries where joint custody arrangements are the norm.
One 65-year-old resident of Shizuoka Prefecture, who spoke on condition of anonymity, is consumed by concerns for her two grandchildren, whom she has not seen for the last seven years.
“I often wonder whether they are suffering from the flu or scared because of earthquakes,” that are constantly jolting Japan ever since the March 11 temblor and tsunami, she said.
Years back her oldest son’s wife ran off with the children. The son later divorced and has been insisting on his right to see the children to no avail in the face of his ex-wife’s refusals.
“I don’t even know where the kids live. It’s so hard not being able to see them,” the grandmother said. “It’s doubly hard for the grandparents when their son is also distraught, pining after his missing children.”
Now grandparents are joining forces to make themselves heard. Naohisa Fujita, a Chiba Prefecture resident, heads a nationwide group of kin who have been separated from young children as a result of divorce. Grandparents previously refrained from raising their voices to address their own suffering when their children were wrestling with their agonies of not being able to secure visitation rights, said Fujita. “But the grandparents have finally learned to speak up because their attitude has changed amid the growing public awareness about the civil code revisions.”
The group was formed in 2008 first by divorced parents, but its membership later grew as it began to attract senior relatives as well. One member, a grandmother, said: “The civil code change (aimed at sorting out visitation matters) is not legally binding so we have to make sure that parents’ visitation rights are guaranteed by law. Then the grandparents’ chances of being reunited with their loved ones could improve.”
The group is relying on the power of the Internet, urging grandparents in similar situations to join its campaign.
Some grandparents are being separated from their grandchildren after their own children have died and custody has been handed over to their former spouses.
One 68-year-old resident of Chiba Prefecture, who prefers to remain anonymous, has not heard from his ex-son-in-law who took over custody of his young grandson after his daughter died a year and a half ago. “I want to see my grandson grow up and tell him what his mother was like,” he said.
“Having no ties with his grandparents is not good for the child,” he added. “Grandparents have had almost no say about visitation matters, but unless people who have experienced this kind of grief take action, nobody will learn about their plight.” The man is preparing to take the matter to a family court.
While the population of the young dwindles in Japan, grandchildren are becoming an object of ever more intense affection among relatives. Meanwhile, grandparents’ help in raising children is needed more than ever before as more kids’ parents are both working.
“Now that the relationships between grandparents and grandchildren have become more intimate than before, the government should work out rules on visitation rights that will take the wishes of both parents and grandparents into consideration to help people getting a divorce better sort things out,” said Akira Aoki, a Taisho University professor researching the psychology of kids of divorced parents.