The Diet is expected to endorse Japan’s joining the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction and to approve a related bill in the current session. It is also expected that Japan, by yearend, will become a member of the convention, which addresses child custody issues in cases involving broken international marriages.
Japanese married to foreigners and living abroad often decide to unilaterally bring their children back to Japan if their marriages break down. Once Japan becomes a member of the convention, the practice of removing such children from their country of habitual residence will no longer be tolerated.
The government must make the necessary arrangements to ensure that the treaty functions properly to uphold the best interests of the children involved.
As of February 2013, 89 countries were members of the Hague abduction convention, which went into force in 1983. Of the Group of Eight developed countries, only Japan is not a member. The DPJ government decided to become a party to the convention and the Abe administration has decided to follow through. In 2011, there were about 26,000 international marriages involving Japanese spouses.
Under the convention, if Japanese parents unilaterally removes their child under the age of 16 from the child’s country of habitual residence, the left-behind parent can ask the designated central authority in Japan within the Foreign Ministry to return the child.
The central authority will be obliged to locate the child, and a family court in Tokyo or Osaka will handle the case.
Before family court proceedings start, the central authority may try to persuade the couple to negotiate a settlement of their differences. Since a settlement is preferable, the government should do its utmost to nudge both parties in this direction to avoid emotionally trying court hearings.
Records from convention member countries show that about half of child abduction cases have been resolved through talks. The records also show that even after legal proceedings have begun, courts decide in about 30 percent of the cases not to return children to their countries of habitual residence.
When a parent who removed a child does not comply with a court order to return him or her, a court execution officer is empowered to separate the child from the Japanese parent and arrange for the return of the child.
The convention prohibits returning children if it is ascertained that grave dangers may await them. Under the bill submitted to the Diet, domestic violence falls in this category. If the foreign parent is accused of domestic violence, the burden of proof will be on the Japanese parent. Therefore, it will be important that Japanese diplomatic missions be ready to introduce Japanese parents who claim to be victims of domestic violence to shelters and attorneys, and to properly advise them on what records they should save to prove their cases, including medical records documenting injuries and evidence that local police were notified during episodes of domestic violence.