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Photos reunite left-behind parents with lost children, but only on film

by Simon Scott

If there is no bond deeper or love stronger than that between a parent and a child, then equally, there is no pain greater than when that bond is broken or that love taken away.

For father Akio Yokota, the pain of being separated from his only son was too great to bear, and on Sept. 12, 2011, he took his own life.

In November the previous year his wife left him, taking their 1-year-old son, Kaede, with her. For six months afterwards Yokota had no contact with his son, but at the time of his death a visitation schedule had been set up whereby he could see Kaede for an hour a month.

In the weeks leading up to his suicide, Yokota wrote regular diary entries on the social media site Mixi, expressing his thoughts and feelings about his life and his resolute desire to end it.

The first entry is as follows:

Aug. 31, 2011, 3 p.m.

I want to die.

I am thinking of trying this Saturday.

The next day, Yokota read a news story about a junior high school girl who jumped to her death before a school opening ceremony and began to contemplate how he would kill himself.

Sept. 1, 2011, 7:24 p.m.

I can understand the feelings of someone who commits suicide. I am the same as them.

If I jump to my death, will I be unconscious?

In my case, I want to take medicine and then hang myself.

I want to die as soon as possible.

I have visitation next week and I want to hug my son. However, I am not sure if I’ll be alive by then.

Yokota’s relationship with his son figured prominently in his diary, and he wrote of both his deep love for him and the absolute despair he felt at being unable to see him.

He longed for reconciliation with both his wife and child.

Sept. 2, 2011, 10:52 p.m.

How much I love my son. I cannot believe that he came from my body.

This is a gift from God.

Even if I was not related to my son by blood, it would not change the way I feel.

I have watched my son grow.

Sept. 1, 2011, 12:50 p.m.

I think my death would suit this world.

I have lived for my son but I know now this is impossible.

Sept. 4, 2011, 9:25 p.m.

My happiness is raising my son.

I am wondering whether I’ll be able to live together with my wife and son again.

My wife is still adamantly saying no.

Really, please help me.

I wish she would accept me like I accepted her one year ago.

On one level, Yokota’s diary also serves as a political statement or letter of protest about what he perceived as the inherent problems in Japan’s family custody system.

In the following entry, Yokota directly addresses Satsuki Eda, the justice minister at the time.

Sept. 2, 2011, 5:59 p.m.

Justice Minister Eda.

Who is next?

Please consider child abduction.

Child abduction is kidnapping.

Yokota made a number of failed attempts to take his own life before finally succeeding on Sept. 12.

Sept. 4, 2011, 9:25 p.m.

I tried to use a towel to hang myself from a thick pipe earlier, but all I heard was a squeaking sound.

I asked myself why I cannot die.

If I die, I would not be a problem for everybody anymore.

Following this attempt, Yokota tried again to kill himself by overdosing on drugs, which he took from the Kyoto hospital where he worked as a dialysis and endoscopy technician.

He intravenously self-administered a mixture of the hospital-grade benzodiazepine tranquilizers Dormicum and Horizon but survived, and was, surprisingly, allowed to return to work at the same hospital two days later.

The day before his suicide, Yokota met with his son for the last time. From the tone of the diary entry it appears he had begun to believe that even his son, who was only 2 at the time, was rejecting him:

Sept. 11, 2011, 2:31 p.m.

I met my son today.

I asked him who his dad was. My son did not look at me, and he was against me.

He knows the situation.

Is he worried about me?

The last lines of his diary simply read:

To everybody, I would like to keep Mixi like this.

To everybody,

Goodbye

Yokota died the following day from a drug overdose. It is believed that, as in the earlier suicide attempt, he took the drugs from the hospital where he worked and administered them through an IV drip.

Tokyo-based freelance photographer Clive France met with Yokota four months before his death to take his picture for a documentary photo project he was working on about left-behind parents.

France says he was shocked to hear about Yokota’s suicide but that, on reflection, he seemed more fragile than the other parents he photographed for the project.

“After first contacting him, he emailed me to say he had taijin kyōfushō and therefore couldn’t speak on the phone,” France says.

Taijin kyōfushō is a social anxiety disorder considered to be specific to Japan, in which the sufferer avoids social contact due to intense fears that they will harm or offend other people.

“He also complained of suffering from depression, paranoia and suicidal tendencies during the six months he was unable to see his son,” France explains.

France’s photograph of Yokota taken at Nishi-Hongan-ji Temple in Kyoto and another of him holding a picture of his son are currently on display at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan alongside those of 20 other left-behind parents.

The exhibition, “Left Behind by Japan: The other victims of parental abduction and Japanese child custody laws,” is France’s first solo show, the culmination of a year’s work documenting left-behind parents across the country.

France says his passion for documentary photography comes out of a strong interest in people and a desire to tell their stories in a straightforward, unembellished way.

He was also drawn to the underlying political dimension to the story of Japan’s left-behind parents.

“In the best photography there is an element of subversiveness about it, and politics — politics with a small P,” he says. “I am trying to shine a spotlight on a group people who should be getting more of society’s attention, but aren’t.”

France’s photos are presented as a series of pairs, with the top photo depicting the left-behind parent, the bottom one their child or children.

He says the left-behind parents were easy to photograph as they wanted their stories to be told, but most of the children were not available or willing to have their picture taken.

To get around this, France decided to take photos of each parent holding a favorite picture of their child or children.

By using this form of double representation — a photograph of a photograph — France manages to subtly articulate the cruel way Japan’s sole custody laws reduce and dehumanize the most important of all relationships — that between a parent and child — to nothing more than a fuzzy old photograph.

“In a number of cases, the parent’s memory of their child is frozen at that time,” explains France. “It is the latest photograph of their children and they have never seen them since.”

Despite working in black and white in many of his previous projects, France opted for color film for this project.

“I wanted to just show them exactly as they are, so color was the way to go, although I’m not so much a color photographer,” he says.

“But I just wanted to show them very, very simply, and I wanted repetition.”

France deliberately chose a repetitive format of paired images of parent and child as a way of expressing both the scale and unending nature of the problem of left-behind parents in Japan.

“I wanted the idea that this is not an individual case — that this is again and again and again and again, and these people represent hundreds of thousands or even millions of others.”

Left-behind parent Masahiro Yoshida, whose photo is featured in the exhibition, is currently awaiting trial at Matsuyama Prison in Shikoku for attempting to abduct his daughter earlier this year.

This was not Yoshida’s first brush with the law. He was detained for 23 days in early 2010 on charges of kidnapping after trying to take his daughter out of nursery school.

This time around, Yoshida, accompanied by another left-behind parent who assisted with the abduction, took his daughter to a house on the Izu Peninsula, where the police found them.

Yoshida’s ex-wife left with their daughter in 2008 and he has only seen her a few times in the last 4-and-a-half years.

In a letter recently sent from prison to Left Behind Parents Japan leader Masako Suzuki Akeo, Yoshida spoke of how powerless he feels behind bars:

Inside jail I cannot do anything.

People on the outside just can’t imagine how I am suffering.

I try hard to empty my heart and mind of all thoughts and feelings.

I must wait here for a long, long time.

I want my child back soon.

I want my child back soon.

I worry about my child so much.

The exhibition “Left Behind by Japan” by photographer Clive France runs until June 1 at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan (www.fccj.or.jp) in Yurakucho, Tokyo. Members of the public can view the exhibition for free, but need to register at reception on arrival. The photos can also be viewed at clivevfrance.com