Left-behind dad eyes an end to abduction culture

On Sept. 28, 2010, The Japan Times ran a feature article titled “Behind the Facade of Family Law” in which the author, a man writing under the pseudonym Richard Cory, detailed the recovery of his 12-year-old daughter, who had been abducted by her mother from the family home two weeks earlier:

“At 2:30 on this sunny Wednesday afternoon, uniformed students started to flood out of the school,” Cory wrote in The Japan Times in 2010. “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.”

Missing from this story are the 18 hours between his daughter’s exit from that school and her walk out of this horror — a period highlighted by an attempt to rescue her two abducted brothers. As the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction enters into force in Japan and parents of taken children around the world begin to submit Hague Article 21 applications for access to Japan-domiciled children, Cory recounts for the first time the details of those 18 harrowing hours:

The release of emotion was tremendous. I had done it. I had found my little one. The previous two weeks had consisted of exhaustive searches through parks, neighborhoods and virtually every train car my weary eyes could scan. My lawyer and I had visited the police station, child welfare center and family court, and spoken to authorities at these organizations many times. I had continued to put in the hours required by a full-time job. And I had done all this without much sleep, with virtually no peace of mind.

We hugged, and I quickly escorted her away from the crowd and asked her about her brothers, aged 6 and 9 at the time. A few days earlier, they had been enrolled at the elementary school up the street, so we hurried in that direction.

The intention was to pick them up, grab a taxi and head to a hotel, as directed by my lawyer. I even carried a large, black travel bag filled with several days’ clothing for the four of us. The Sheraton Grande Tokyo Bay next to Tokyo Disney Resort was my predetermined destination, but I now realize that this was careless advice from my lawyer. Returning home would have been best because police would certainly have classified any other action as kidnapping. In fact, authorities might have even considered my return of the children to the family home to be kidnapping.

My daughter and I waited outside the elementary school for about 30 minutes until it became evident that the boys had already returned to the government-owned apartment where they were staying temporarily with their mother. The warmth of spring comforted the afternoon. The air was dry, breezes were gentle and cumulus plumes dawdled in the radiant azure above. Amid all that seasonal beauty, we hatched a rescue plan.

My daughter would return to the apartment, but she would not say anything to her brothers. The next morning, she would leave for school before them, as she had done over the past three days, but instead of heading in the opposite direction to the junior high, she would wait along the path the boys would typically walk to elementary school. Accompanying them on their walk, she would announce just before their arrival that their father was there to pick them up.

I would wait with a taxi just past the school entrance and when they saw me, we would all exchange great hugs, jump into the taxi and head off to the hotel. We would return to our home a few days later, after my father had arrived from overseas. To prevent another abduction, I would escort the children to school and he would walk them back home (while I was away at work), until the court had made its decision on the custodial parent.

Repeatedly that day, the words of the chief consul of American Citizen Services had resonated throughout my mind. I had spoken to him by phone that morning after he had reviewed the digital copy of the message my daughter had left on my answering machine the night before. Basically, he said the following: Each person must make his own decisions in life. But if I were in your shoes and I had received that message from my daughter, I would know what I would have to do. If you do go over there though, you must be extremely careful. If you encounter your wife, walk away.

That morning, the family court had also been informed of my daughter’s message, but the judge said that she did not want to take any action because “violence may result.”

The weather on the morning of the rescue greatly rivaled that of the previous day. A bone-chilling rain poured from skies that two days later would blanket Tokyo with snow. I departed from the house shortly after 5 a.m. for the journey to the other side of Tokyo. I continually shivered from excitement sprinkled with trepidation.

After exiting the closest station, anxiety climaxed upon seeing a line that stretched far beyond the painted steel providing shelter to those patiently waiting for a taxi. The school was a good 15 to 20 minutes away by car, and I contemplated how I would convince others in the crowd that I was in a dire hurry and thus needed to cut in line. Fortunately, cab after cab flowed up and away, and I was soon on my way.

The school occupied a block of flat land, and the taxi driver circled the entire property to arrive at the school’s entrance gate. He was an older Japanese man, perhaps in his early 60s. I asked him to wait. I then opened a large, ebony umbrella into the downpour and stood next to the taxi, about 20 meters from the gate. It was 8:05 a.m., and the idling taxi was a hindrance to every vehicle splashing its way through the sodden street.

Inside the apartment, my daughter was about to depart. Under her uniform, she had put on all her favorite shirts and several pairs of underwear. Her schoolbag was crammed with every treasured personal item that her mother had earlier removed from the home.

Stepping out the apartment door, my daughter turned left toward the junior high, and then circled back to the path the boys would be taking. Later she would remark at how astonishing it was that her mother did not recognize how stuffed her schoolbag appeared. A few minutes later, the boys arrived along that path and the 9-year-old immediately began complaining about his sister following them. The 6-year-old tried to keep pace. This was only his fourth day of school ever. The older boy walked faster, apparently desiring to quickly get out of the cold rain and greatly annoyed to have his sister tagging along.

At many elementary schools in Japan, yellow hats are worn by first-grade students to make them more visible and thus protect them from traffic accidents. At this school, all the students had hats — a different pigment for each grade, and I had no idea which grade was represented by which color.

As I stood within the wintry deluge, waves of students shielded by brims and umbrellas of multiple colors began to flow into the school. Minutes passed as my eyes jumped from child to child. Anxiety surged. All of a sudden, I noticed my daughter — without a hat — at the entrance gate frenziedly scanning the area. Her face was filled with panic. I ripped my umbrella down and raced the 20 meters across and up the street.

“They went in!” she hurriedly exclaimed, bouncing with anguish.

“Where are the boys?”

“They just ran inside.”

“Inside? Did they see me?”

“I don’t think so.”

We looked toward the building in distress. Kids and umbrellas of all sizes and colors continued to flood in. “Go in and bring them out!” I instructed, carefully enunciating each word.

Greatly uncertain, my daughter followed the massive procession through the schoolyard mud into the building. I stood, umbrella down, outside the gate peering in, tilting my head left and right, scanning as far in as my eyes would take me. A few minutes later, my daughter returned, dejected. “I can’t find them,” she said. “I don’t know where their classroom is!”

Soaking wet, we walked across the street to the taxi, still waiting, and got in.

The chaos and rumble of the rushing children, passing cars, drenching deluge — the entire storm — muffled as the taxi door closed. I asked my daughter the name of the junior high and instructed the driver to quickly take us there.

“Here’s what we’ll do. We’ll try this again tomorrow. Exact same plan. This time, I’m going to be right by that entrance gate.”

Emotionally spent, she paused and began to cry. I looked down, deep in thought, as the sobs continued.

“I just want to go home,” she softly wept. “I just want to go home.”

The taxi arrived in front of the junior high. The chaos of a minute ago seemed so distant inside its warmth. I caressed her back and gazed out the window, irregular streams flowing down its face, realizing that my next decision was going to tear a hole in my heart. “Let’s go home,” I said depleted. “Let’s go home.”

The very next day, I recounted the story to the family court judge, who excitedly listened — oohing and aahing throughout as if she was thoroughly entertained.

Four years have now passed, and I am happy to biasedly report that my now 16-year-old daughter is thriving. She still wishes to have a relationship with her brothers, but her mother continues to refuse access. In fact, my daughter recently waited for her now 10-year-old younger brother outside his elementary school for the opportunity to speak to him for the first time in years. On seeing her, he dashed away with his friends and hid behind a neighbor’s car. However, after she talked sensibly to his friends, they encouraged him to step forward and engage his sister. Ironically, my son’s 10-year-old friends spurred him to speak with his sister. His 50-year-old mother, a public-school teacher, has apparently taught him to run. Her generation of Japanese has sadly embraced a culture of abduction. It is my hope that his generation will finally put an end to it.

The entire Richard Cory series can be found at the following links: Nov. 3, 2009; Sept. 21, 2010; Sept. 28, 2010; Oct. 4, 2011; Dec. 13, 2011.

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