Care burden prompting more widows to cut off in-laws via little known procedure

by Akane Sujino


An increasing number of Japanese, especially women, are choosing to terminate legal relations with in-laws after the death of a spouse.

With Japan’s graying society leaving more and more elderly requiring nursing care, the decision to break ties is becoming more prevalent as surviving spouses look to break tradition and be freed from the burden of caring for aged in-laws.

A widowed writer in her 40s, who uses the pen name Mayumi Sugihara, made the difficult decision to end ties with her husband’s parents 1½ years after her spouse’s death.

Sugihara and her husband, who was more than 10 years her senior, had been married for 17 years and lived with his parents, a situation Sugihara was never happy about. When her chronically ill husband died, a conflict developed between Sugihara and her in-laws over the funeral arrangements and inheritance issues. Eventually, the situation deteriorated to the point that she was forced out of her home.

“After the shock of my husband’s death, and then being forced out of my home, I felt like my livelihood was being threatened,” Sugihara recalled.

A friend told her that it was possible to sever ties with her husband’s family, recommending that she do it to find peace, and closure.

After completing the process, Sugihara said the dark clouds lifted, leaving her free of the torment she had been enduring.

“I finally cut off my ties with that family,” Sugihara said. “Now that they are entirely unrelated to me, even under the family registration system, the hatred I was feeling has receded. I can now look forward.”

The system is set up so the termination of familial relations with in-laws does not require their consent and once the process is completed they are not even informed. In addition, the inheritance of assets from the spouse’s estate remains possible.

Applications for the procedure have been on the increase over the past decade. In fiscal 2015 there were 2,783 cases, up from 1,772 in fiscal 2005.

Cases are most often brought by women who are reluctant to be burdened by caring for aged in-laws or would prefer not to be buried alongside them.

There is no legal requirement for surviving spouses to provide nursing care to in-laws, making the cutting of ties for that reason a more symbolic decision. But women often do it because it provides peace of mind and an escape from what is a traditional Japanese family responsibility.

Last year, family counselor Harumi Takakusagi received some 30 inquiries about terminating in-law relations, up sharply from the one or two per year she was used to receiving in the past, possibly because word of the procedure has spread through the internet.

Most came from women in their 40s and 50s who either lived with, or in close proximity to, in-laws and want to avoid being responsible for their nursing care, Takakusagi said.

“Aged people take it for granted that they will be cared for by their daughters in-law, but often they struggle because they want to live their own lives after the death of their husbands,” she said.

Under the prewar civil code, a woman who loses her husband was allowed to end her relationship with his family only if she remarried.

The rule was changed after the war to give women more freedom and choice. Article 730 of the revised code says, “Lineal relatives by blood and relatives who live together shall help one another,” but does not legislate a duty to do so.

Fumio Tokotani, professor of family law at Osaka University, said people might be going through the process of cutting ties because they misunderstand their legal obligations, or lack thereof.

“The values of postwar generations are changing, meaning ties to in-laws are seen in a different light these days,” Tokotani said.