Applicable only in cases where children are wrongfully taken from their country of “habitual residence,” the Hague Convention offers no recourse to foreigners in Japan trying to gain access to their children following a death or divorce if they are not granted custody.
Many in this predicament are puzzled by how “child abduction” is often viewed as an international dispute here even though it victimizes Japanese parents — mostly fathers — just as much as the foreigners, and they are demanding Japan change its laws and judicial system.
Paul Wong, a 44-year-old American, said he was happily married to his Japanese wife in Hong Kong but lost his daughter, Kaya, to his wife’s parents when she died of cancer in a hospital in Kyoto in December 2005.
He moved to Tokyo in April 2007 to be near his daughter and in-laws, but they refused to let him see Kaya, who is now 6. The last time he saw her was in August 2007, shortly before he was planning to move her from Kyoto to Tokyo for schooling.
As much as Wong, a business lawyer in Tokyo, is upset with his in-laws, he is disappointed with a family court and a high court, which believed accusations leveled by the in-laws that he molested Kaya without bothering to conduct an investigation. Wong denied the allegations.
“I have no faith in the (Japanese judicial) system,” said Wong, whose parental rights were canceled by the Tokyo Family Court in May 2008. “It is extremely disappointing and disturbing how a court could so simply sanction lie after lie.” The Tokyo High Court quashed his demand to have his parental rights restored, on April 23.
For Wong, even changing the Civil Law to allow joint custody of a child is meaningless. What really needs to change is the mentality of the family court judges and municipal officials who apply laws to their work, he said.
Wong said that, in his case, judges need to change their tendency to avoid the risks of disproving those who claim abuse.
Child consultation centers also have the same tendency, he said, adding they blindly believed his in-laws’ stories without even meeting him.
Masahiro Yoshida, 59, had a similar experience.
“Fabricating abuse is the strongest weapon women can use to gain a single parental right,” he said.
His former wife, also Japanese, does not let him see their 5-year-old daughter. She told a court he was violent with her, though he claims he didn’t beat her.
“People go as far as to lie in court if their motivation is to keep their children to themselves,” Yoshida said. “Judges don’t get it. Or they ignore it.”
Mio Watanabe, 49, also said her former husband abused her. After he was repeatedly arrested in Florida for beating her, not her daughter, who was born there, mother and daughter were put into a shelter with the help of U.S. authorities before coming to Japan in 1995.
Watanabe said she was in a position to keep her daughter, now 18, away from him after they divorced but decided not to because the sudden death of a friend prompted her to rethink the idea. She instead encouraged her daughter, then 13, to go see him in Florida by herself in July 2005. She never came back.
Later, the daughter called to tell Watanabe the address of the place she and her father had moved to in South Carolina. When Watanabe went to see her in September 2006, her ex-husband told her she would be arrested for child abduction if she took her daughter back to Japan, even though Japan is not a signatory to the Hague Convention, which seeks the prompt return of wrongfully taken children.
“He must have known about the Hague Convention. I didn’t know,” she said.
After she returned to Japan alone, she consulted the U.S. Embassy and the Foreign Ministry but was unable to get any help on the matter, she said.
The ministry has reportedly received several requests from Japanese mothers who do not want Japan to sign the convention.
“I want to tell Japanese mothers holding their children to themselves that I understand their feeling, but it is best for children to have two parents,” Watanabe said.
In Masako Akeo’s case, she lost her parenting rights because a Japanese court ruled that her 15-year-old son’s life had already been established in Japan by her Japanese ex-husband, who took him from their home in Canada in June 2006.
“Whoever takes away children first and establishes stability by living together for a while is rewarded parental rights,” said Akeo, 52, who is now living in Tokyo as she attempts to locate her son. “That’s the Japanese system.”
Not only should Japan approve joint custody, it should also make parents, judges and local governments understand what dual parenting rights mean and punish those who dishonor them, she said.
Kentaro Mashito of Kyodo Shinken no Kai, an association that advocates joint custody, has seen many divorce cases involving Japanese and international couples.
Ever since Christopher Savoie, an American arrested last September in Fukuoka Prefecture for trying to reclaim his two kids taken to Japan by his ex-wife, made international headlines, Japanese fathers have upping their demands for dual parenting rights, Mashito said.
“Thanks to the attention created by a foreigner, Japanese fathers finally began speaking out,” Mashito said.
Savoie was at a recent rally in Washington held by American fathers seeking access to children taken to Japan by Japanese spouses. Backed by U.S. lawmakers, they urged Japan to join the Hague Convention.
Savoie told a news conference in Washington that he hoped his children would see him on TV. “Please always remember — Daddy loves you,” he said. All charges against him in Japan were dropped.
An estimated 200,000 to 240,000 children in Japan are being deprived of a parent through divorce, Mashito said.
Thierry Consigny, the elected member of the Assembly for French Overseas Nationals for Japan and North Asia, said there are about 5,000 foreign parents in Japan who are unable to meet their children.