David Brian Thomas (who with a name like that can only owe his heritage to Welsh Wales) carries two photos in his wallet. One shows a baby; the other a gravely sweet 3-year-old — the age Thomas last saw his son seven years ago.
When I first met Brian Thomas in 1996, he was so angry that his feelings overwhelmed all rationale. A story with a full-page picture of the open wallet had appeared just weeks before in The Independent, a leading British newspaper. The headlines sensationalized: “Lost in Japan — Will Graham Hajime Takezawa Thomas ever see his father again?” Emotions were riding high.
“In the past I was often overwhelmed by feelings of bewilderment, hurt, fury and revenge towards my wife’s family,” Thomas admitted last week. “Since acknowledged at the highest judicial level that they schemed and connived to push me out, I feel more reasonable.”
He accepts that some may think it naive to marry and move to Japan to start a family without knowing that in the case of separation or divorce, Japanese law does not provide visitation rights or joint custody. “But when you’re in love, and your in-laws seem decent, kindly people, you don’t think of such things, do you?”
Thomas met his wife in London. He was a television sound recordist, she a former actress on an English study course. When they married in 1987, the hire of a boat on the River Thames for the wedding reception impressed his mother-in-law no end. His father-in-law (who has since died) even offered to sponsor him should he decide to move to Japan. It was an auspicious beginning . . . or so he thought.
Problems began after the couple moved into a house left by his wife’s grandmother. “Soon after my wife became pregnant, her parents moved in with us; they said they wanted to renovate.” After the birth, Thomas’ mother-in-law so monopolized the baby that he found it difficult to spend time alone with his son. He was made to feel unwelcome (“everyone’d stop talking when I came into a room”) and was rarely invited along when Graham was taken on family outings.
While these incidents did not raise his suspicions, Thomas was shaken when his wife suggested that if they had a second child, they should give it to her elder sister, who could no longer have children of her own. Then came the even more alarming matter of the “hanko.”
“My name seal — a present from my father-in-law after Graham’s birth — disappeared,” Thomas recalled. “When it reappeared on my desk, there was a stamped document alongside. My wife said it was a sample adoption paper; her parents had often talked about adopting Graham for tax inheritance purposes. In fact it was the real thing. Graham had been stolen from me behind my back.”
In November 1992, Thomas came home from work to find his wife had taken Graham and moved in with her sister. At a meeting with the family’s lawyer, the adoption certificate was proclaimed legally binding. “Under Japanese law, I no longer had a son.”
Thomas hired a lawyer, who worked out an access agreement. Initially this was honored, but returning one night (he was still living in the marital home), he found padlocks and barbed wire in place. Breaking in (“I was too angry to consider repercussions”), he discovered all his possessions had gone. Services were disconnected one by one. Eventually he was barred entry by a “heavy.”
Initially Thomas moved around Tokyo, sleeping on friends’ floors, spending savings and any income earned from teaching on fighting for justice. “My wife’s father, after whom — along with my own father — we’d named our son as a sign of affection and respect, had a range of business interests including a chain of petrol stations. With friends in high places, he was a powerful adversary. For a long time it felt like I hadn’t a chance.”
Finally, five years ago, the adoption paper was annulled. The judge was very decent, Thomas says, ordering an independent investigator to check out both his and his wife’s stories, and describing her as a “child-adult.” “Legally I have a son again. I sent him a remote-control Toyota for his birthday last month, but I’ve no idea whether he received it. He’s 10 now.”
While his wife’s application for divorce was initially granted, the decree was revoked by the Supreme Court in 1998. “It was a long battle, but it’s important I stay married, because legally it means I have access (to Graham). The Family Court has granted me joint custody and visitation rights, but unfortunately there’s no way to implement them.”
What helped make Thomas more broadly concerned with the rights and wrongs of Japanese law concerning children of estranged parents was meeting others in a situation similar to his own. “The worst thing is lack of joint custody in the case of legal estrangement. Even if a parent has access, there’s no rule of law by which this can be enforced. So although I’m legally allowed to see Graham, I can’t, because his mother — under the thumb of her family — won’t cooperate.”
Walter Benda, with whom Thomas cofounded the Japan chapter of the Washington-based nonprofit organization Children’s Rights Council (CRC), is back in America. Now divorced, he has no right to stay, despite having two daughters here. Since they were abducted in July 1995, he has returned over a dozen times to try to make contact.
Thomas, however, is staying put: “In the beginning I was after sole custody of Graham. Now I’d be a stranger to him. Probably he only speaks Japanese, and almost certainly he’s known as Hajime, not by my own father’s name, Graham. I couldn’t — wouldn’t — be so cruel as to remove him from the only secure home he knows; I love him far too much. Instead I’ll settle for his right to see me as can be arranged.”
CRC Japan was founded in 1996 on May 5, Children’s Day. The chapter currently has some 20 cases on file, and Thomas knows those heart-rending stories and more. A big change in his thinking concerns Japanese mothers who have lost their children to foreign spouses. “I see the problem now from the point of view of anyone who is denied the right to see their child, or a child denied the right to see both parents.”
He recalled one Japanese woman who had been divorced from her American husband under the rules of the U.S. military. When she tried to see her daughter, she was denied access while hearing the child crying out for her from behind the door. “Children are often fed false information concerning the absent parent. It’s known as PAS, or parental alienation syndrome.”
A new departure for CRC Japan is working on behalf of children whose parents are both Japanese. “In the case of divorce here, it’s traditional for the family to split; a child doesn’t just lose a parent but all the relatives on that side of the family. It’s so cruel. Many Japanese want to see change. Right now we have Japanese mothers trying to see their children, removed by Japanese ex-husbands.”
A case attracting international interest centers around Lady Catherine Meyer, wife of the current British ambassador to the United States. Formerly married to a German, she was awarded custody of their two boys in London. One summer, being fair-minded, she allowed them to visit their father in Germany. She has not seen them since. The book she wrote, “They Are My Children Too: A Mother’s Struggle for Her Sons,” is helping gain attention. She was in touch with Reunite in the U.K.; now she is president of CRC in Washington, D.C.
Thomas, recently returned from speaking in Osaka to the Kansai International Association of Counselors and Psychotherapists, believes it is time to start lobbying actively in government circles. “If we could get the commitment of just one Japanese politician with an interest in children’s rights, we’d be on our way. Laws need to be changed. Rules of enforcement need to be laid down. Right now we’re seeking a space where kids and parents can meet on neutral ground.”
He is definitely more neutral himself these days — and settled. Based in Kamikitazawa, he has regular employment, and last Saturday (being a naturally musical Welshman) played harmonica with the band Highest Region Reggae in Ebisu. But basically he believes adults owe it to children to ensure they have solid relationships with both parents where possible.
In his own case, he is not simply fighting for his right to see Graham. He is fighting for Graham’s right to see him. “My son’s rights are being violated. If I give up and go back to Britain, what good will that do him? I will not abandon him. . . . I love my son. I’m like one of those Welsh corgis. Once I get my teeth in, nothing can shake me loose.”