“In September of 2010, The Japan Times published a two-part series by a man under the pen name Richard Cory telling the extraordinary tale of his divorce and custody battles over his three children with his Japanese ex-wife . . . essentially custody by capture.” — “Divorce and the Welfare of the Child in Japan,” Pacific Rim Law & Policy Journal, June 2011
My story, the Richard Cory story (Zeit Gist, Nov. 3, 2009; Sept. 21, 2010; Sept. 28,2010), demonstrates perhaps more than any other reported the role Japanese public servants often play in facilitating the removal of children from loving parents, usually fathers, who desire to parent their offspring. It’s a story that everyone, particularly foreigners who might not be aware of Japan’s sordid reputation as the “land of the abducted son,” should read and seriously contemplate before settling in this country.
Fathers are generally the victims of parental abduction, but loving mothers have been left behind too, and if you dare think that your spouse can’t simply decide five, 10 or 15 years down the road that he or she no longer wants you in your child’s life, you’d better go back and read the signs so prominently displayed at Narita airport: Yokoso Nippon! — Welcome to Japan.
Shortly after the first Cory article was printed, I finally decided to share the story with a fellow that I had become increasingly conversational with at the gym. This apparently single man in his 20s then opened up about a secret of his own: His son had been abducted a year earlier by his Japanese wife.
In his case — and I have reviewed the ruling — the family court investigators had recommended visitation of one hour a month, but the judge overseeing the case instead wrote in her decision: “Since one hour is relatively short, once a month is seen as not sufficient to build a healthy father-child relationship, so the rate of twice a month is deemed befitting. Furthermore, if the father’s Japanese language skills improve, expansion of visitation rights and definitions are naturally possible.”
Overlooking the prejudice based on Japanese ability, a judiciary filled with women who not only think but are willing to write that two hours a month is adequate for a healthy father-child relationship more than demonstrates the utter lack of respect afforded fathers in Japan. Would she, or any other judge, dare pen such an abomination about mothers? And how would Japanese react if, for example, a judge in an English-speaking country limited a Japanese parent’s contact with his or her own child based on the parent’s less-than-fluent English skills?
Moreover, for those of you who might think that one to two hours a month actually refers to “one to two hours,” let me direct your attention back to those signs at Narita airport. Real or fabricated excuses for not making the child available for visitation are common. This fellow’s wife would kindly let him make the two-hour journey to see his son, and then, immediately prior to the scheduled meeting, phone his lawyer and claim to be a bit under the weather. How much of this state-tolerated abuse would you endure before you finally threw in the towel?
Many foreigners claim that they would leave Japan for the more evolved parental protections offered elsewhere — what is commonly known as “jurisdiction shopping.” In fact, as the end of 2010 approached, I was contacted by a long-term resident of Japan considering such a maneuver. This American father claimed that his two young children were being abused by their Japanese mother, and even though he loved all that Japan offered, he also saw his marriage going down the same path as mine.
In my case, officers at the ward’s Child Guidance Center (jidōsōdanjo) made at least three offers to put my daughter in a shelter to protect her from an increasingly abusive mother in the three months leading up to her abduction — offers declined because she was scared to be alone (the center would not allow her father or her brothers to enter with her). However, after the abduction these same officers refused to make any efforts to protect my daughter or her brothers from their mother.
In mid-December, the man who had contacted me quit his job, transferred his money overseas, and then he, his wife and two children flew out of Japan on what appeared to be a typical Christmas visit with his family. The day after Christmas, he took the children to a secure location and then told his wife that he and the children would not be going back to Japan. And they didn’t. They quietly disappeared, and she returned alone shortly after the new year.
Now, it should be noted that judges outside Japan generally have no tolerance for the unilateral removal of a child from the habitual residence, i.e., where the child has lived during the previous six months. This was demonstrated ever so clearly in the Carter v. Carter case.
This dispute involved an American man and his Japanese wife. They met while he was stationed in Japan on a military assignment and were married here in 1994. A year later they moved to the States, and in 2002 while in Nebraska, where they had lived since 1999, they welcomed their son into the world. A few months later, Mr. Carter was assigned to a position at the Yokosuka Naval Base, and the family lived there for the next 2½ years. After Mr. Carter’s assignment ended, he returned to Nebraska with his son and filed for legal separation and permanent custody.
However, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that the state did not have jurisdiction because the boy had lived the previous six months in Japan, and furthermore awarded attorney fees of $10,000 to Ms. Carter for being “forced to leave her home in Japan to defend this lengthy and meritless jurisdiction dispute.” In the end, this naval officer most likely sank his own ship after returning to Nebraska when he advised his wife in an email that she “should be looking for an Omaha-based attorney.” Because she found one.
Those who are not Japanese might expect their embassy or department of foreign affairs to provide protections. My own court-mandated divorce mediation has continued since January 2010, and my wife has refused to allow any visitation with my sons, now 11 and 8. Over the past 18 months, the U.S. Embassy has made three requests for welfare visits with the boys, and each request has been turned down by the mother.
In fact, the most recent request was made by my congressman, who asked the U.S. State Department to confirm the safety of the boys. The State Department contacted the U.S. Embassy, which contacted the mother’s Japanese lawyer. In its response to my congressman, the State Department wrote that the mother’s lawyer stunningly claimed to be “unaware of (Mr. Cory’s) lack of contact with the children” but assured the embassy that “the courts have been monitoring the children’s wellbeing as part of the proceedings.”
At my next mediation session, I asked the family court investigator present what had been done over the past year to monitor the wellbeing of the children. I was then told that court officers were not monitoring the children, but they could ask the mother how the children are doing and possibly for a photo, even though she would be under no obligation to provide one and any information she gave would not be verified.
ASfinal option for left-behind parents to reestablishing links with their children is often the use of costly private investigators. Being a public servant — an English teacher at a junior high school in Tokyo, to be exact — my wife was able to take advantage of a very generous medical leave that allows public servants to take a year away from work at 80 percent pay for a variety of “medical” conditions, such as teacher burnout, followed by two additional years at no pay, if desired.
Although my wife was making every effort to keep herself and the two boys hidden, she was still showing up for bimonthly mediation sessions at the courthouse, during which we would never actually see each other.
So it didn’t take long for me to pony up ¥85,000 for a new team of private investigators to follow her home after one of those sessions. Although this new team came highly recommended on websites and by others in the left-behind-parent movement, my disappointment continued upon receiving the written report of the surveillance: “At 1709 hrs, the train stopped at ——— station to meet the express. (Ms. Cory) stayed in the train and seemed not to transfer to the express. At 1711 hrs, the express arrived at the station and right before the express’s door closed, (Ms. Cory) suddenly jumped out of the train and into the express. At the same time, the investigator jumped out of the train, but before the investigator could jump into the express, the doors had closed and the express had started running.
“Investigators missed (Ms. Cory) this time, but both investigators are clearly sure that (Ms. Cory) did not detect the existence of the investigators. This means that (Ms. Cory) probably assumes tailing by someone regularly, or if she detected the investigators, she has been trained and/or advised by a pro.”
Adding this ¥85,000 to the ¥261,650 that I had already spent on investigators brought my new total to ¥346,650.
After her one year of leave at 80 percent pay ran out, my wife returned to work, and I hired a third private investigator that one left-behind-parent website claims “many users rave about.” The charge was ¥50,000 up front and ¥50,000 on success. After almost two months of no success, I received the following message from the lead investigator: “Due to the pricing system, I will take care of your case in my vacant time while handling other cases at the same time. I’ll give you an update on any developments.” As an incentive, I offered an additional ¥50,000, for a new total of ¥100,000 payable on success, and out of frustration approached a previously used firm, offering it ¥120,000 payable only on success. This second team accepted the offer and found the boys on their third attempt a few days later.
Although I do not have physical custody (kangoken) of my sons, I still have full legal custody (shinken) of them, so I contacted the boys’ school to arrange a meeting with the vice principal. The vice principal contacted the mother, who of course strongly objected to any meeting between the vice principal and me. The vice principal then said that because the physical custody holder had asked the school not to disclose any information about the boys, the school would have no choice but to obey her request.
I then contacted the board of education, which concurred with the vice principal’s decision. Finally, my own lawyer piped in: “Actually, the kangoken holder can demand the school not to disclose any information about the children to the other parent even if the other parent has shinken.”
My now 14-year-old daughter has not seen her brothers since her rescue in April 2010, so I took her over to her brothers’ residence one weekday afternoon to deliver a birthday card she had made for the older boy. Even though there are no restraining orders against me, the mother was away, and I itched to see my sons, I stayed two blocks away as my daughter went to the second floor of the apartment building and rang the doorbell.
No one ever responded, but as my daughter was walking away from the building, a policeman rounded the corner like he was in a mad dash to win stage six of the Tour de France. He screeched to a halt in front of the building and raced inside. We observed from a distance, and then calmly walked away disappointed.
My daughter and I are moving on with our lives, but daily annoyances still continue. After abducting the children, my wife requested the post office to forward her mail to her parents’ home. As can be guessed, the post office occasionally makes mistakes, delivering her mail to me and apparently mine to her. Monthly credit card statements, salary summaries, financial papers and renewal notices occasionally do not arrive. During a visit to the post office to complain, I was told that the post office would “do their best” to correct the problem.
A year after my wife had left the home, the problem continued, so I visited the post office again, wondering why the mail-forwarding request did not expire after a year. I was then informed that it indeed had expired, but she had renewed it, which she can continue to do yearly in perpetuity from any known residence of mine, till death do us part.