Images of left-behind parents, holding up photos of their children, flash across the screen. In the United States, Canada, Europe and even Japan, these parents are waiting to reunite with offspring taken away by their estranged Japanese spouses.
The documentary film “From The Shadows,” completed last December, features five left-behind parents and their struggles to reconnect with their children.
During a recent interview with The Japan Times, producer and director David Hearn stressed that he was motivated to make the film to raise awareness and understanding.
In the 6½ years it took to make the film, Hearn and his coproducer and codirector, Matthew Antell, traveled to five countries, including Japan, to chronicle the parents’ torments.
“When you get to meet left-behind parents and know more about them, you can feel the kind of pain and heartache they experience. These parents are not different from you or me, they are real, imperfect, but always loving and desperate to reconnect with their own children,” Hearn said.
“Their relationship with their children fulfills their identity, who they are and without it they are often shattered.”
Regan Suzuki, Paul Toland and Paul Wong from the U.S., Murray Wood from Canada and Rina Furuichi from Japan, the parents in the film, all have had their children taken away by a Japanese spouse or relatives of the estranged spouse, and all have effectively had no contact with their sons and daughters.
These cases are only the tip of the iceberg. Many left-behind parents have spent years trying to reconnect with children who have been taken to Japan from abroad. Toland, for example, has been forced to live apart from his daughter, who was only 9 months old at the time his then-wife took her in 2003. Wood has been separated from his two children since November 2004, when they were just elementary school students.
“When kids need parents is when they’re growing up. They need me now,” Wood says in the film. “They need their dad to help them go from where they are now to solid, confident adults who have the best chance that they possibly can to be successful in life. That’s what they need, that’s what my job is.”
Some of the fathers, including Wood, take the desperate step of approaching their children as they walk to school. Although Wood succeeds, the lack of contact over the years makes their reunion heartbreakingly awkward as Wood struggles to interact with his son and daughter.
Hearn, who as a child was himself caught in the middle of a bruising custody battle between his parents, encourages left-behind parents to reach out to their children, to let them know that they haven’t been forgotten. The director recalled the awkward interactions when his father started showing up at his sporting events, but he was grateful for the man’s efforts, even though they didn’t have much to say to each other.
“For children who are growing up, learning and developing, the sudden loss of one parent can be devastating. I was lucky because losing one of my parents was never a consideration when my parents had their custody battle, but for children in Japan, if a custody battle occurs, it often means that they will lose contact with one parent,” Hearn said. “We find it unacceptable that this result is the best we can do for our kids.”
The underlying problem for many cases is Japan’s refusal to join The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. The treaty aims to prevent cross-border kidnappings by parents and to secure the swift return of children wrongfully taken or who are being held in any member state.
After years of international criticism, the government is finally poised to join the 89 other member states, if the Diet approves related bills as early as next month.
Japan is also the only Group of Eight nation that has yet to sign on to the treaty.
Many such abductions are in defiance of court rulings on child custody and visitation rights handed down in other countries that had been the offsprings’ nation of domicile, as well as the nation where they were born. Thus when a ruling is violated by an apparent flight to another country, the spouse could be subject to a fugitive arrest warrant.
Strong domestic opposition, however, remains.
Many Japanese mothers, for example, claim domestic violence prompted them to take the children to Japan in the first place. And Japanese authorities have repeatedly stressed that in such cases, children will not be sent back regardless of the convention.
Left-behind parents, however, feel this argument could be an easy justification for courts in Japan to side with the alleged abused party and not return their children.
“I’m worried because there are plenty of signatory countries all over the world (whose) compliance record can be very up or down,” Hearn said. “My worry is that Japan signs but nothing really changes. But I hope I’m wrong.”
Some experts and foreign officials have also questioned the effectiveness of Japan’s participation, citing not only the sole-custody law but also the custom of not proactively supporting visitation rights for noncustodial parents.
According to Japanese family courts, there were 409 cases of parents seeking the return of their abducted children in 2001 — a number that jumped to 1,985 by 2011. Experts point out that undoubtedly many more cases exist because these numbers reflect only those cases that have been acknowledged by the courts.
Hearn, along with many left-behind parents, expressed guarded optimism about Japan’s readiness to comply with the treaty.
“We are aware that signing The Hague Convention will not cure everything because there will continue to be situations that are difficult to handle,” Hearn said. “But if signing the treaty accomplishes one thing, we hope that it will create a situation where more relationships between children and their parents are kept intact.”
For more information, visit fromtheshadowsmovie.com.