Mommy or Daddy? shines a light on the way child custody works in Japanese culture. Unlike many Western countries, Japanese has no custom for joint custody between parents. That means one parent is given full control over a child, and in many cases, it’s normal for a parent to simply excommunicate their former spouse from the life of their offspring. There are lobbying groups of parents and adults who grew up split from one of their parents who have endeavored for decades to change the legal system, but little progress has been made — and the culture at large does not seem motivated to change it. It’s a complex and difficult issue, much like the standards and practices of child custody even in nations that permit joint parenting.
Directors John H. LaDue Jr. and Jennifer LaDue Miyagawa do a good job exploring the issue through the eyes of Rie Shishikura, a woman who lost contact with her son, Hizuki, 12 years ago when she split up with her husband. Her ex-husband has since remarried and had another daughter. Rie hasn’t spoken to Hizuki since his first birthday. Her attempts at doing so were met with derision by her former partner. In the years since, Rie fell into despondency, eventually attempting suicide with pills and alcohol. Losing a child is unthinkable as it is, and it was made worse knowing her child was simply taken from her and lives happily across the city.
The film is not a journey to their reunion, however. Rie instead finds purpose in the not-for-profit organization Weeds, founded to assist divorced parents in allowing a child to spend time with both parents. Weeds supervises reunions and relationships to help kids form relationships with a parent they may no longer regularly see. Their founder, Ayumi Mitsumoto, is driven by her own past, having been taken by her father in a divorce and separated from her mother for most of her life. Ayumi and Rie bond over how they can help other children.
There are some interesting facts provided in this relatively short but captivating documentary. Each year, several million Japanese children are separated from a parent, with no legal recourse for the other parent to seek time with their children. This is common in many international marriages as well; Rie is Filipino-Japanese, which played a role in her own upbringing. It’s a dynamic with many cultural dimensions, particularly when questioning how opening legal avenues could potentially embolden abusive or poor parents when trying to gain joint custody of their children. There are no easy answers.
Simple resolutions evade Rie, too, who finally has a chance to meet Hizuki at the end of the film. Whether she does so is best left to the viewer’s discovery, but it’s importantly treated as a topic with the weight and empathy it deserves. What emerges in this piece is that beneath the complexities and lack of simple answers surrounding Japan’s national policies on child custody are real people affected by a cultural approach to joint parenting that can cause real, lasting harm to children caught in the middle. There may be no easy answer, but there are, at least, folks like Rie and Ayumi doing their best to help those who need them.