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Battling a broken system

A left-behind father tells the story of his fight to find and win custody of his lost daughter

by Richard Cory

First in a two-part series

In July, Tokyo’s family court granted me, an American, physical custody (kangoken) of my 13-year-old daughter exactly 120 days after she was abducted by my Japanese wife, a lifelong public servant employed as a teacher at a state school in Tokyo. This just may be the first time that Japan’s family court has awarded a foreign father custody of a Japanese child after a successful abduction by the child’s Japanese mother.

The times they are a-changin’. Or are they?

One day in March, just minutes after my daughter and I returned home from celebrating her graduation from elementary school that morning, her mother, from whom I had filed for divorce in January after 17 years of marriage, lured my daughter out of the house, shoved her into a taxi and took off for the local ward welfare office (fukushi jimusho), where her mother claimed domestic violence. A social worker met the taxi outside the office and gave the driver directions to a shelter, which was located in Shinjuku Ward within the Yamanote Line.

Life at the shelter was comfortable. The accommodations were sizable and modern, and included 20 private Japanese-style rooms. Some rooms had private baths, but most of the women used the facility’s communal sento. Two of the 20 women present had noticeable bruising from physical abuse. Savory meals were made at the facility and served three times a day. Personal laundry was washed, dried and folded daily. Youngsters were given an hour of Japanese and math study through work sheets each weekday morning, followed by cakes, cookies and the like at around 3 p.m. And all this was provided at taxpayer expense for two weeks.

At the end of two weeks, mother and child were sent to an aging apartment adjacent to a welfare office on the outskirts of the opposite side of Tokyo. Here, rent is maintained at ¥10,000 a month under a government subsidy program, and residents can stay for up to three months.

The welfare office then encouraged the mother to unofficially change her and my daughter’s first and last names, and the newly christened Michiko Watanabe was then enrolled in a school just steps from the apartment. The mother visited the school and asked the principal to help protect Michiko from her foreign father. And life was hunky-dory! Or at least that’s the illusion the welfare office attempted to sell.

The family court then had to spend the next four months attempting to clean up the welfare office’s mess, a tax-supported stench that stretched from one side of Tokyo to the other and continues to this very day.

In December 2009, shortly after I detailed my fears in this column (Zeit Gist, Nov. 3, 2009) about my wife’s ongoing affair potentially resulting in me losing custody of my children, family life got even worse as she became increasingly physically abusive toward our children. In fact, the police visited my home after one incident in December and recommended that I take my daughter to the Child Guidance Center (jidosodanjo) so that we could determine how to best handle her mother’s violent behavior. Over the next few months, my daughter was interviewed twice at the Child Guidance Center and a few times at her public elementary school.

Unfortunately, as we neared the abduction date, bias against her American father started to become evident. Exactly two weeks before her abduction, her female school principal met privately with my daughter, who summarized her principal’s comments as follows: “Your mother might be violent, but we know she’s a very nice mother on the inside. She will change one day. She’s just stressed right now.”

Two days before the abduction, the school principal and two child welfare officers met with my daughter in the principal’s office, and just hours after returning home, my daughter reported the following exchange between her and one of the welfare officers, an older Japanese woman: “And then she said, ‘Who are you going to choose?’ And I said, ‘Because Mama beats me, I want to go to Daddy’s side. I’m going to choose Daddy.’ Then she said, ‘Your mother does all the stuff at home, like cooking and doing the clothes and stuff like that, so I think it would be better if you choose your mother.’ “

What makes this “advice” even worse is that the assertion about the cooking and cleaning is based solely on the stereotypical Japanese family. I also can’t help but wonder exactly why these “professionals” were so adamant about pressuring a child to reside with her abuser. Was it because the mother is female, like them? Japanese, like them? A public servant, like them? Or possibly a public school teacher, like the principal once was?

Just hours before this abduction, this principal is reported by my daughter’s mother to have stepped even further into this mess by saying, “I think you’re going to be able to get her.”

Hours later, my wife was at the welfare office alleging domestic violence (DV) in a well-orchestrated maneuver to gain custody.

I did not know it at the time, but a person can just show up at the welfare office, declare DV and be immediately spirited away to a hidden shelter after a half-hour counseling session. Not a scintilla of evidence ever need be presented. No bruises, no evidence of threats, insults, intimidation, withholding of money — nothing! No need to ever contact the police. No need to ever involve the court.

Now, if a person does feel threatened in a relationship, and we in society desire to have a system that gives that person assistance in getting out of that relationship, then good for us. However, by allowing children into its shelters, Japan has created a system that assists in the parental abduction of these youths, without, as common sense would probably dictate, first confirming whether residing with the abducting parent is actually best for the children. It’s a gigantic hole through the country’s already-primitive family law structure.

Immediately after arriving at the shelter, my daughter announced that she was going to return home. As she began walking toward the exit, a shelter worker quickly jumped in front of her and spent the next 30 minutes physically pushing her deeper and deeper back into the building. Her mother told her, “We’ll finish talking in a day, and you can then go home whenever you’d like.” Once inside the private room, her mother beat her and became frustrated when leading questions — such as a pleasantly toned “Isn’t this place nice?” — didn’t result in positive comments for the recorder she was trying to hide behind her back.

My lawyer and I realized the trouble my daughter was most likely in, so we immediately visited the Child Guidance Center and insisted that they remove my daughter from the shelter. They said they would investigate.

Their investigation consisted of sending to the shelter two child welfare officers that my daughter had never met. The center manager said that this was intentional so that my daughter would not recognize them. The officers never talked to my daughter or her mother, which I was again told was intentional. And when I later asked if these two child welfare officers were informed of my daughter’s attempt to return home, I was evasively told that the shelter workers and child welfare officers “had various conversations.”

Two weeks later when the family court investigators showed up asking the very same questions, this manager ceased his stonewalling and started fessing up — yes, the child welfare officers had been informed that the shelter workers had physically prevented my daughter from leaving.

You can thus imagine how disturbing it was to hear how the Child Guidance Center responded to the U.S. Embassy representative, who had reviewed the numerous accounts of abuse penned by my dual-citizen daughter, and then quickly asked to visit her, a right guaranteed by Article 5 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. The Child Guidance Center told the embassy that my daughter could phone or leave whenever she wanted, repeating this lie to my lawyer, knowing fully well that she was being prevented from leaving, and that facility residents are asked to surrender their cell phones upon entering.

Not knowing that we were being lied to, we then asked the center to inform my daughter of this right to phone or leave, but it refused, claiming that she just had to know it on her own. (Now you know the real reason why they didn’t want any of their child welfare officers spotted by or talking to my daughter. They did not want to give her the opportunity to ask for help.) After getting this runaround for a few days, the U.S. Embassy stepped up its game by requesting that Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs intervene. Eighty days later, MOFA simply informed the embassy that the mother would not agree to the consular visit.

After my daughter’s return, I went back to the Child Guidance Center to ask why they had continued to make this assertion about a supposed freedom to phone or leave when the shelter staff obviously had every intention of preventing it from occurring.

Unfortunately, the evasiveness began before I could even sit down. As we walked into a meeting room, I asked the continually smirking center manager whether he had heard of my daughter’s return home a few days earlier. He said that he had, so I asked how he had received this information. After an abrupt pause, he responded as if he was protecting nuclear launch codes by emphasizing that he could not reveal that information.

When I got to the freedom to phone or leave whenever one desired, he mentioned that before allowing anyone to do such, discussions would be necessary to determine how this might be done without endangering others at the facility. Of course, this politically correct response ignored the fact that an actual attempt to leave the facility resulted in what was obviously a standard physical prevention of that attempt instead of any discussions to assist in a departure.

Equally disturbing was the shelter’s response when it received news that a U.S. Embassy representative wanted to visit. Workers immediately warned my daughter’s mother, who then informed my daughter that she had better tell any visitor that she was happy and did not want to go home.

Shelter workers then told my daughter to keep the room curtains closed because her father’s spies had been spotted in the neighborhood. Yes, my spies!

These are “adults” paid by our taxes spewing such garbage.

Twenty days after her abduction, after being moved twice, renamed, repeatedly beaten and told never to speak of her mixed heritage, my daughter was rescued by me from this state-created hell, an infernal abyss of a mess in a country that so effusively prides itself on its care for children. How did she get out?

That story, next week.

Richard Cory is a pseudonym. Send comments on this issue to community@japantimes.co.jp