Foreign parents face travel curbs?

by Colin P.A. Jones

I think it is safe to say that the countdown has begun — the countdown to it becoming more difficult for you to leave Japan with your children. Difficult, that is, if you are non-Japanese and traveling without their other parent (or his or her written consent).

The recent arrest of Christopher Savoie in Fukuoka for trying to “abduct” his children back to the United States (or into the U.S. consulate, at least) has highlighted what is being characterized in the Japanese media as a new and growing problem: foreigners abducting their children back to their home countries. If they aren’t forcibly grabbing the kids like Mr. Savoie, they are taking them back home for a “visit” and then never coming back.

These are often children who were born and raised in Japan, yet their fates are being decided in foreign courts where the Japanese parents are often handicapped by distance, language and expense. If this sounds familiar, it is because it is just a reversal of the experience of scores of foreign parents whose children have been unilaterally brought to abduction-friendly Japan.

In addition to supposedly being a kidnapper, Mr. Savoie has been pilloried in the Japanese media for allegedly having two nationalities, for “tricking” his ex-wife to the United States so he could divorce her and, laughably, even for being a bigamist. But the abduction part of the story simply builds upon what appears to be a media campaign that has been under way since earlier this year, a campaign doubtless intended to help build a domestic consensus for signing the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.

That this is a government-led media campaign is suggested by the fact that it was NHK, the country’s government- sponsored broadcaster, which led the pack by running a special segment on the problem of international divorce and child custody on its morning TV news on July 15. Other less captive Japanese media organizations have duly followed suit, but the stories have all generally followed the same theme, with Japanese parents as the victims. From that standpoint, the high profile of the Savoie case is probably a bonanza for the Japanese cause.

Of course, it is on the degree of victimization where Japan and other advanced countries part ways. Certainly, there are some tragic cases of children who have been taken by a foreign father to countries like Iran or Bangladesh, where the Japanese mother loses all contact. Yet, when children are taken to the U.S., for example, remedies are likely to be prompt, and access ensured while proceedings are under way — hardly as dramatic as the scores of cases of foreigners who have been denied contact with their children in Japan for years.

This may explain why a Sept. 5 article in the online edition of the Mainichi Shimbun was reduced to relating the cases of two Japanese women whose children were taken to England and the United States, respectively (doubtless by fathers who feared a failing marriage would result in them losing their children in Japan). Yet both were able to have their children returned through legal proceedings in these countries — despite Japan not being a party to the Hague Convention. It cost them a lot of money, though, and the article contains the questionable assertion that “Japan not being a party to the Convention results in an excessive financial burden on individuals.”

It almost seems as though the main benefit to Japan joining the treaty would be to make it less expensive for Japanese parents to benefit from foreign court systems that value the parent-child relationship more highly than in Japan. There is not much in this or other Japanese media coverage of the issue that will give much comfort to parents (foreign and Japanese alike) who may well continue to be victimized by the Japanese legal system whether it is signed or not.

While Japan signing the Hague Convention is certainly a desirable goal, it is probably convenient for everyone on the Japanese government side of the issue for foreigners to be the bad guys. That way they appear to be dealing with a “new” problem, rather than one that they have already ignored for far too long. From there, the easiest way to prevent further abductions is to require foreign residents seeking to exit Japan with their children to show proof that the other parent consents to the travel. This requirement, I believe, will be the most immediate tangible result of Japan signing the Hague Convention (if in fact it ever does).

If such a requirement is imposed, will it apply to Japanese people? Probably not: Japanese citizens have a constitutional right to leave their country. And foreigners? They apparently lack this right — the re-entry permit foreigner residents are required to have is proof that they are not equally free to come and go as they please!

Ironic, yes, but how Japan “resolves” its abduction problem may itself prove to be a veritable smorgasbord of irony.