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The Harsh Reality of Getting a Divorce as a Mom in Japan

One single Black mother's story of raising a half Japanese child against all odds.

By 6 min read

Even before my son was born, I knew raising him in Japan was going to be the hardest thing I would ever do. His father, who is Japanese, was never in the picture. He always had an excuse why he couldn’t be bothered to give our son a bath, change his diaper, or even just be present.

I would not stick around to find out if [my husband] would strike our son the way he struck me many times before.

He would abandon us for days, sometimes weeks, without money for food or baby supplies. On the rare occasion he was actually around and I mentioned finding work for myself, he would shame and isolate me.

I was abused in every way possible—psychologically, emotionally, mentally, physically, and financially—but I tried my best to keep it together for my son’s sake.

A whirlwind of abuse and trying to escape

Struggling to stay strong for my son, a mother’s worst nightmare happened. My husband started showing signs of aggression and jealousy towards our baby.

Being pushed while holding a premature infant in my hands was terrifying. From that moment, I knew we needed out. I would not stick around to find out if he would strike our son the way he struck me many times before. My son would not grow up thinking the behavior displayed by his father was normal.

I decided to become a single mother. I had already been living a single parent lifestyle more or less, so I knew I had what it took.

After my husband made verbal threats to my son, I knew I had to get a divorce.

By that time I was already working a part-time job at my son’s daycare. My paycheck was merely peanuts—barely enough for me to save anything. There was no way I could afford rent on my paycheck, but I tried my best anyway. I worked tirelessly for months, saving every cent I earned that wasn’t spent feeding my son until I had just enough to rent a small apartment. It didn’t matter that I was broke, we were finally away from my abusive husband.

The first day of our new lives away from my husband.

Reality hit hard after a month as my money dwindled rapidly and my repeated requests for extra work hours or a full-time position were denied. As independent and strong-willed as I am, I knew there was no way I could financially manage. So, I applied for welfare where I was met with the disheartening reality of being a single mom in Japan.

This society was not made for people like me

Japan’s working system is designed for happy families, not single mothers in poverty. If you’re not married or working at least 40 hours a week, you have damn near no support in taking care of your child.

The average monthly payment for daycare can be extremely expensive, ranging from ¥26,000 to ¥65,000. For already struggling single mothers, that’s an impossibly high price. That doesn’t even factor the supplies your child will need for daycare.

The system seems almost set up to work against single parents in a society where an unhappy marriage is seen as better than raising a child alone.

Finding someone to babysit is near-impossible. Couples in Japan typically rely on their parents for help and separating from my husband took that option off the table. Still, though, I’d rather struggle and find a way to provide for my son on my own than live with the terror of wondering whether my husband will hit me tonight after he gets off work.

On the surface, Japan does have generous public assistance programs. Public assistance is available for housing, living expenses, skill training, health insurance, and more. For single-parent homes, there’s Jido Teate (Childcare Allowance) which is paid out quarterly to help with childcare costs.

There is also Jido Ikusei Teate (Child Support Allowance) which is especially for single parents and parents of children with disabilities. On top of those, there is a medical expense subsidy program for single parents.

Just the two of us for my son’s first birthday.

As with many things in Japan though, the paperwork and hoops you have to jump through to receive this assistance are enough to make you go insane. For one, you can’t apply for all of the programs simultaneously. Without someone to babysit, it’s hard to get to these government offices once—let alone make several trips.

My son has tagged along with me on multiple trips stretching all over Osaka Prefecture, sitting in his stroller for what felt like endless hours, only for us to be told to come back or go to a different office.

Though some offices do have a small play area, most do not have anyone to help watch children while the single parent sorts out the paperwork. The system seems almost set up to work against single parents in a society where an unhappy marriage is seen as better than raising a child alone.

Navigating Japan’s xenophobia as a person with mixed-race heritage

Single mothers have it hard enough with the negative stigma and social attitudes, but for the mother of a mixed-race Japanese national, the hardships are tenfold.

As someone who is mixed, I know how being constantly “othered” feels. Here, in a country as homogenous as Japan, people who are not “pure” Japanese may as well not even try to claim their Japanese heritage.

I have to teach my son… how to thrive in a country that still has strong nationalism and racial bias for Eurocentric beauty standards.

We’ve seen it the treatment of Naomi Osaka, and her constant whitewashing in the media. Thinking about how Osaka is really only celebrated as being Japanese when she’s winning, I could see what the future would hold for my son.

My son is half Japanese and mixed with Filipino, African-American, and Native American. Those three ethnic groups are often singled out here in Japan if not outright discriminated against.

I have to teach my son how to love himself.

On top of everything, being heavily tattooed and pierced has made it easy for other moms to shun me from their circles. When we visit play areas, my son rarely makes friends with other children, but when a white woman and her child appear, everyone pulls out their best English and forces their kids to play.

The isolating feeling is something I am absolutely terrified to know that my son will experience when he gets old enough to notice it. Even with how scary the future is, though, I have to stay strong for my son. The adversity has only made me more resilient for what lies ahead.

I have to teach my son how to love himself in a world that is not so eager to love him back. How to thrive in a country that still has strong nationalism and racial bias for Eurocentric beauty standards.

We may be the nails that stick out, but we won’t be hammered down.

Victims of domestic violence can contact the Japan Gender Equality Bureau Cabinet Office for support. For resources for getting divorced in Japan, check our Japan 101 section. Read more about child custody after divorce in Japan here.

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