Behind the facade of family law

Having been reunited with his daughter, Richard Cory faces a tougher battle for custody of his sons


Last in a two-part series

In mid-April, 12-year-old Michiko Watanabe, as she was now being called, found herself in a precarious situation. Earlier, her mother had clearly let her child know that she would no longer consider herself Michiko’s mother if Michiko ever attempted to return to her father. In fact, her mother said that she would never even speak to her again in such a case.

On Day 20 of Michiko’s abduction, her mother announced that she needed to step out of the apartment for a few minutes. Shortly after her mother walked out the door, Michiko took a ¥100 coin she had hidden, dashed out of the apartment to a public phone she had noticed a few days earlier down the street, frantically searched through the Yellow Pages looking for her father’s business number (he carries no cell phone), phoned her home instead, and left a message containing two very important statements: “I want to come home” and “Come and pick us up.”

The very next day, after receiving no-nonsense warnings from my lawyer and a U.S. Embassy representative about the great danger involved in this rescue attempt, and hearing that the judge and one of the family court investigators had expressed their concerns about an attempt turning violent, I planted myself on a relatively empty street corner near the school for two hours and pretended to be waiting for a ride — looking deep up and down the street whenever passing residents seemed too suspicious about this unknown foreigner standing on the corner in a business suit at midafternoon in an aging suburb on the outskirts of Tokyo.

Police drove by several times, the last time stopping with windows down right next to me at a red light. How did they respond? They looked over, said something to each other, and burst out laughing.

At 2:30 on this sunny Wednesday afternoon, uniformed students started to flood out of the school. Two teachers monitored the street, warning children to be aware of occasional traffic. One of these teachers even started to use more foreign words as my presence became more noticeable. A few minutes later, my daughter appeared at the school exit, beamed me a giant, wide-eyed smile, and the two of us simply walked away from an awful nightmare.

Minutes after returning home, my daughter phoned the school to tell them she would not be returning. The call reached comic proportions after she was transferred from one person to another over and over again and resultantly had to repeatedly explain that her name wasn’t really Michiko Watanabe.

Immediately after my daughter’s return, my lawyer phoned the police to update them on her whereabouts. Surprisingly, the police simply responded with, “Oh, she escaped” — interesting phrasing considering that you might not generally expect the welfare office to be participating in the detention of someone, thus making an “escape” necessary.

And after all that, you might think that we finally have a happy, fitting ending to one of these absurd abduction stories we often hear about in Japan.

Until you realize that Michiko Watanabe has two brothers, Alex and Dennis, soon to be aged 10 and 7 — two brothers who, as Michiko exited school, were with their mother in a locked apartment managed by the welfare office. These two brothers had also been renamed, the oldest from a very Western “Alex” to a very Japanese “Shoichi.”

Immediately after Michiko’s walk to freedom, these boys were returned to a shelter and renamed yet again.

In late March, on the second business day after learning the children had been abducted by their mother, I petitioned the family court for the immediate return of physical custody (kangoken) of the children. The earliest date a hearing could be scheduled was in mid-April, 18 days after the abduction. At that hearing, the judge assigned two family court investigators to interview the parents and the children separately.

My daughter and I were interviewed a few days later. Her session was about two hours long; mine was two and a half. Interestingly, in my session the investigators asked to hear only about a typical day at the house after my daughter had returned. In fact, when I turned to a typical day before the children had been taken, to demonstrate how active I was in raising them, the investigators immediately tried to cut me off.

A decision on custody was expected by the end of April (over a month after the abduction), but on the afternoon of April 28, right before the start of the Golden Week holidays, the children’s mother filed a lengthy rebuttal.

In court on April 30, the judge informed us that she did not feel comfortable making a decision yet because a rebuttal had just come in and the boys had not yet been interviewed because they had been “busy” (even though they had been out of school in a shelter for the previous 15 days and their mother had been on a paid leave of absence from teaching throughout all this). Their mother then petitioned for physical custody of all the children, almost four months after I had filed for divorce and full legal custody (shinken inclusive of kangoken), and a new court date was set for the end of May, thus keeping the boys away from me for a second month.

At the May hearing, the judge questioned me for about an hour, and then the children’s mother for about 45 minutes. The mother confirmed that she has been in a relationship with another man since 2007, has been seeking treatment at a mental clinic, and that she had been physically abusive toward her spouse and the children. She also complained that the 30 minutes of English reading that each of the boys did with their father nearly every day was having a negative impact on their Japanese schooling.

The judge then announced that the findings of the two family court investigators — who had interviewed officials from the school, Child Guidance Center, and the police, in addition to the children and parents — would be released in early June, and opinion letters could then be filed by both sides by the end of June (three months after the abduction), after which a decision would be made.

I then learned that the “interview” of the boys differed greatly from the two-hour private questioning of my daughter. The investigators instead paid a courtesy visit to the boys’ new apartment, where the nearly-10-year-old remained in an adjacent room pacing back and forth, constantly watching the investigators. When one of the investigators finally approached him, she asked him in his mother’s presence about his friends at a school he had attended for only three days over five weeks earlier, a school at which he was forced to use a different name and was told not to speak about his background.

So how many real friends do you think he made? How many would he even remember? Oddly, there is probably not any other topic that would generate less conversation. The investigator wrote that my son responded to that sole question with a frown, so she didn’t feel it was appropriate to ask him any other questions.

At this point, you don’t have to be a genius to realize what’s going on here: Japan’s family court is weaning these boys from their father and his side of the family, from their English, home, neighborhood, school and friends. And the system is obviously set up to allow this to occur. None of these people are in any hurry to return any children, and reports conducted by the family court investigators are biased more by subjects that are avoided than any that are actually addressed.

Sadly, it appears that in the end here in Japan, you only win custody of your children by actually physically taking custody of them. Japan’s family law structure is that primitive.

And by simply making a domestic violence (DV) claim at a welfare office, you can receive tax-supported assistance in abducting and detaining your children, and hiding them — and yourself — from the other parent.

Look at my case (and what the judge wrote in her custody ruling in July). My wife had admitted to the following:

• More than three years of ongoing adultery (“The reason for the breakup of the marriage was the respondent’s adultery”); Giving large sums of money (¥7.7 million) to her lover to help him pay off his gambling debt (“Respondent lent a large sum of money to her colleague”);

• Taking my children on dates to bet on horse racing;

• Being currently on medication for various disorders (“Respondent became mentally ill and started seeing a doctor in or around January 2010 and worried about her insufficient communication with the children”);

• Physically abusing her own spouse and children (“Respondent attacked petitioner . . . and used physical power that cannot be justified as discipline against the children”).

Her own daughter fled from her after being abducted, and then testified against her. Moreover, my wife did not even petition for custody of the children until four months after I filed for divorce and custody. I even submitted a video showing my wife with not one of the bruises or injuries she claimed to have sustained the day before the video was taken. And we even had eyewitness testimony of her trying to injure herself. Could my case be any stronger?

Nevertheless, when the judge awarded me physical custody of my daughter, she also awarded physical custody of the boys to their mother. The reason: “There’s no big problem (with the boys staying where they are).”

Based on such reasoning, you can bet the bank that this judge would have awarded custody of all three children to my wife had I not been able to rescue one. And the judge would probably have given me custody of them all had they all been able to get free.

Japan’s family court is simply a facade designed to make an unevolved system appear civilized.

Let’s not kid ourselves. In Japan, “possession of the children” trumps the “best interests of the children” every time, particularly when the “best interests of the children” are never even addressed. And when you have a country that is pouring great sums of money into a system that shuffles children off to hidden locations whenever a parent makes an unverified DV claim, the state, in essence, becomes complicit in the abduction of the children.

While in mediation at the courthouse a week after the ruling (four months after the abduction), I asked the judge about seeing my boys. Her response: “It’s still too early for that.” And then she made a sad face.

Many non-Japanese seem to think that Japan’s eventual ratification of the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction is going to be the be-all end-all that forces Japan to cease the culture of abduction poisoning this country’s family law structure. Please. Open your eyes.

Abduction is a cultural abscess that is endemic in Japan, and as long as unverified DV remains a well-funded tunnel through which vulnerable and dependent youth can be spirited away, any attempt to cite the Hague convention to return a child can easily be thwarted by caressing Article 13 of it, which stipulates that children need not be returned if there is a risk it “would expose the child to physical or psychological harm or otherwise place the child in an intolerable situation.”

Before Japan becomes party to the convention, foreigners in failing marriages here in Japan may have two options: Get your children out of the country, or watch your children get abducted within. After that convention is signed, there may be only one option.

In a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court case (In Re Stanford), Justice John Paul Stevens drew upon the words of the late Chief Justice Earl Warren to argue against cruel and unusual punishment by writing “(This) practice . . . is a relic of the past and is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society. We should put an end to this shameful practice.”

Could the same not be said about Japan’s active funding and support of the abduction of children to this day?

Child abduction is a practice that is indicative of a primitive, uncivilized society, yet a custom that continues to thrive in Japan within a protective bubble that needs to be popped and bleached clean.

Until change occurs, raising children in Japan is simply too great a risk.

Richard Cory is a pseudonym. Send your comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp