Postwar Japan has been strongly associated with low divorce rates. In the 1980s, Japanese politicians claimed that the country's low marital separation figures were proof that Japan would not follow the same trend of high divorce rates seen in the United States. Until the sharp rise in the late 1990s, divorce was not considered a major social issue and attracted relatively little academic interest. Yet, as the new millennium dawned, the image of Japan as a low divorce country seemed set to change.
Although the overall Japanese postwar divorce trend has been gradually upward, the rate of increase has been modest by international standards. Many ordinary Japanese considered the low divorce rate a sign of the robustness of the Japanese family system in a postmodern world. Seemingly confirming this view, the Japanese divorce rate stood at a modest 1.28 per thousand of population in 1990. However, during the course of the 1990s this situation was to completely change.
By 1998 the divorce rate had leapt up to 1.94 and the country found it increasingly difficult to deal with the rising social and economic costs of marital dissolution. Furthermore, solace could not even be taken in international divorce rate comparisons as the country had overtaken European nations like France which had a rate of 1.90 (1996).
Various theories have attempted to explain Japan's divorce trends. Many Japanese scholars have linked the trends to either Japanese uniqueness theories (Nihonjinron) or alternatively to so called quote;Japanese/Asian family values.quote; However, such notions are notorious difficult, if not impossible, to prove in practice. Family studies researchers have pointed out more convincingly that Japanese women incur much greater economic and legal penalties as a result of divorce than their counterparts in Europe or North America.
What has been occurring in the 1990s to cause such a sharp rise in the figures? Are Japanese divorce trends finally beginning to follow patterns experienced in Western Europe and North America? If so, what are the implications for Japanese society as a whole? What are the likely trends for the future? This presentation will focus on the legal and social trends in divorce during the 1990s.
J. Sean CURTIN is a Ph.D. candidate in Japanese Studies at Sheffield University and teaches at the Japanese Red Cross Hokkaido Nursing University.