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Focus on ‘exceptions’ waters down abduction pact

by Amy J. Savoie

For the attention of the Japanese government:

Like many other court hearings that follow a divorce, a court transcript out of Tennessee reflects testimony concerning a couple’s two children:

Attorney: Ms. Savoie. … You have known all along that Dr. Savoie’s biggest fear is that you’re going to take those children to Japan and he’ll never see them again; you know that?

Noriko Savoie: I’ve never split (the) children and (their) father. I know how important (a) father is for children, and I am not going to do that. I keep telling him I’m not going to do that.

Noriko Savoie spoke these words shortly before she did precisely what she promised under oath not to do: In August 2009, she kidnapped Isaac and Rebecca Savoie from their father’s home in Tennessee — away from their school, their friends, their church, and away from their loving father.

They were taken from a country whose laws say it is in a child’s best interest to know and be loved by both parents, and they were abducted to a land that prefers a “clean break” after the dissolution of a marriage — where one parent is expected to disappear forever.

The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction would provide a remedy for the prompt return of these and other abducted children, if only Japan would sign it.

For too long, Japan was “considering the possibility” that it might join the Hague treaty someday, and the government promised to think about it after some further study.

As the only G-8 nation that has still refused to sign the Hague despite relentless international pressure, Japan has been under attack by human rights groups, psychologists and ambassadors to Japan from several countries, all of whom insist unequivocally that it is in the child’s best interest to have access to both parents -regardless of a divorce.

Acquiescing to foreign pressure, Japan has finally announced, amidst great fanfare, that it would soon sign the Hague treaty, perhaps even within the next few months.

Growing up in Japan’s culture of uso mo hoben - “lying is also a means to an end”- many Japanese abductors, upon a divorce, may have felt justified in giving false testimony in order to gain access to their children’s passports.

However, for the scores of left-behind parents who have been lied to (“I would never kidnap the children”) and who suffer daily through the agony of having lost a child, Japan’s recent promise to sign the Hague is being studied with an abundance of caution and a large dose of skepticism.

Their concern is well-founded: Recent Diet session videos reveal that rather than finding ways to return children after signing the Hague, Japan’s efforts are focused on creating “exceptions” that would allow its courts to refuse the return of abducted kids.

This begs the question: If Japan is going to sign the Hague treaty in good faith, then why focus only on creating loopholes?

The nonprofit group Bring Abducted Children Home (BACHome) brought its concerns to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell.

Working in conjunction with several Japanese left-behind parents, BACHome warned Campbell that Japan is writing legislation that will allow it to essentially seize jurisdictional control over any new and existing abduction cases in order to ensure that children would, in fact, not be returned to the countries from which they were taken.

These loopholes would allow the abducting parent to coach (or brainwash) a kidnapped child, encouraging that child to develop the “opinion” that he/she does not want to be returned, and that child’s purported “wish” would be upheld.

Kirk Weir, an internationally-recognized psychologist, has researched this issue and found, more often than not, that a child’s alleged “opinion” that he or she does not want to see a left-behind parent is completely unrelated to the child’s actual “wish for a relationship” — in other words, the child is taught to have the opinion that the left-behind parent is “bad” based only on the taking parent’s version of events.

Mr. Weir states that during the parent-child reunions that he studied, “very young children easily resumed a good relationship with the nonresident parent (i.e. left-behind parent) once a visit took place.”

He suspected that the children enjoyed “the immediate pleasure of love and affection from the (left-behind parent) and were quick to forget the influence of their family’s views.”

Unfortunately, under Japan’s new rules an abducting parent can claim that the child does not want to go home (when, in fact, it is the parent who coached the child into voicing this opinion), or an abductor can claim domestic violence as a means of justifying her actions.

The problem with the latter is that Japan has taken this frightening (and very serious) Western phrase of “domestic violence” and broadened it into something unrecognizable.

Around the time that Japan announced a decision to join the Hague, Dr. Numazaki Ichirou devised a list of domestic violence scenarios that could be used to justify the refusal of a child’s return under a “domestic violence exception.”

Within his list, Dr. Numazaki suggests that even if a father is not at all violent or dangerous, “just one” of the following accusations could prevent a father from being reunited with his child: if the father ever criticized the mother’s shortcomings, if the father was ever annoyed when the mother “talked back” to him, or if the father ever “felt hurt” when the mother pushed back at him.

In other words, interpersonal marital strife is being defined as “domestic violence”.

The Japan Times recently quoted Japanese attorney Takao Tanase’s opinion of this: “Japanese family court judges sometimes recognize domestic arguments as verbal violence, but what couples who are facing divorce don’t argue?” (“Bills Could Render Hague Toothless,” Feb. 8).

Of course a child should be protected from actual risk of domestic violence, and this column is by no means an attempt to diminish the importance of protecting children who are at risk of grave and imminent harm by an abusive parent.

The problem is that Japan will allow temporary, inter-personal (nonviolent) disagreements to justify the permanent abduction of a child.

Given this inhuman standard of behavior, even Jesus, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi could not hope to prevail against such guidelines, for even those “heroes of peace” frequently disagreed with those in their midst — often quite vociferously.

In other words, it seems that Japan’s domestic violence “catch-all” provision will only allow the return of an abducted child if the left-behind parent is abnormally docile or, indeed, is a robot.

Like the Japanese saying, kaden rika (“if you really don’t have bad intentions, then don’t act like you do”), if Japan truly intends to abide by the Hague treaty, then why does it appear that the government is planning to sign the Hague Convention but has no intent to actually honor it?

Amy J. Savoie received her doctorate from Dartmouth College and is currently a third-year law student at the Nashville School of Law. Dr. Savoie is married to Christopher Savoie. In August 2009, Christopher Savoie’s children were abducted from the U.S. to Japan by his ex-wife. A few weeks later, he was arrested while trying to reclaim his children. Send submissions of between 500 and 600 words to community@japantimes.co.jp