U.K. to press for rights of fathers

by William Hollingworth

Kyodo News

LONDON — The British government will put fresh pressure on Tokyo to improve the rights of its citizens seeking access to their children living in Japan with estranged partners.

The effort is to cover Britons who are either seeking the return of their kids to the U.K. or are denied access to their offspring by Japanese courts.

The Foreign Office believes Japanese courts handling custody cases could be breaching obligations under the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. The courts generally side with the Japanese parent and order the children to remain in their care in Japan.

Critics argue that due to cultural reasons, Japanese courts will always grant custody to the mother in separation battles and the idea of joint custody — more common in Europe — is anathema. Even if a court grants limited visiting rights for the father, they are not enforceable.

Shane Clarke, a father trying to gain access to his two daughters in Japan, recently received an e-mail from Helen Paige, a child abduction caseworker at the Foreign Office.

In the Oct. 12 message, she states: “We will ask the British ambassador in Japan to raise with the Japanese government the obligations of states to develop and undertake all actions and policies in the best interests of the child, referring in particular to Article 10.2.”

This article in the U.N. convention asserts that a “child whose parents reside in different countries shall have the right to maintain on a regular basis . . . personal relations and direct contacts with both parents.”

Paige said the British government is willing to raise cases with Tokyo and cite the convention if an individual has gone through the legal process and remains dissatisfied.

Clarke said he is happy that Britain has “acknowledged” the convention and that “it applies to these situations.”

While Japanese society generally accepts that mothers should be given priority in custody battles, many foreigners who married Japanese women find this intolerable.

The growing number of mixed marriages — and subsequent separations and divorces — has meant the issue is being put on the international agenda.

Despite Britain’s attempts to force Japan to honor its convention obligations, officials readily admit there is no method of “international enforcement” if it is judged that a Japanese court has failed to heed the convention’s strictures. Clarke disputes this point, claiming the International Court of Justice could fill this role.

The 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, which Britain has been pressing Japan to adopt, does provide an enforcement mechanism.

This convention requires that if a child has been taken by one parent to another country following an estrangement, the child must be returned to the country where he or she is “habitually resident.”

It also seeks to standardize laws and ensure that custody decisions are made by appropriate courts, and that the access rights of both parents are protected.

Many Japanese women have returned to their home country realizing that it offers a safe haven from any court orders arising in other countries.

Clarke’s Japanese wife returned to Japan with their two daughters after a four-year marriage in Britain. The British courts have ordered that the children should be returned to Britain, where they are “habitually resident,” but this is not recognized in Japan, according to Clarke.

Like Britain, the United States is pressing Japan to sign the Hague convention.

In correspondence with Clarke, British Ambassador to Japan David Warren has said he is “concerned” about the number of “abductions” and is hoping to hold meetings with the new government on the issue.

Japan is debating whether to sign the Hague convention. There are fears it could make it harder for Japanese women to flee abusive relationships in other countries and return with their children to Japan. The government denies Japanese courts are “institutionally racist” against foreign fathers.

Many foreign fathers feel Japan’s position is particularly “hypocritical” given that it has been continually pleading for the return of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea.

This issue was thrust into the spotlight recently with the arrest in Fukuoka of Christopher Savoie, a 38-year-old American, after he snatched his children from his Japanese ex-wife as they walked to school.

His wife took their two children to Japan in August from their home in Tennessee. In his wife’s absence, the U.S. courts gave Christopher Savoie full custody and issued an arrest warrant for his wife. Before she left, Savoie had tried to obtain court orders to prevent her from leaving the country.

Local prosecutors released Savoie in October, saying they decided it was unnecessary to detain him and will consider carefully what action to take regarding his case.