Issues | JUST BE CAUSE

Biased pamphlet bodes ill for left-behind foreign parents outside Japan

by Debito Arudou

After years of pressure from foreign governments and enormous efforts by “left-behind” parents to have access to children abducted to and from Japan after marital separation or divorce, the Japanese government became a party to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction in April.

That is, of course, good news. Now the issue becomes one of enforcement. And to that end, this column has serious doubts that the Japanese government will honor this treaty in good faith.

These doubts are based on precedent. After all, Japan famously ignores human-rights treaties. For example, nearly 20 years after ratifying the U.N. Convention on Racial Discrimination, and nearly 30 since acceding to the U.N. Convention on Discrimination against Women, Japan still has no law against racial discrimination, nor a statute guaranteeing workplace gender equality backed by enforceable criminal penalties.

We have also seen Japan caveat its way out of enforcing the Hague before signing. For example, as noted in previous JT articles (e.g., “Solving parental child abduction problem no piece of cake” by Colin P.A. Jones, March 1, 2011), the debate on custody has been muddied with ungrounded fears that returned children would, for example, face domestic violence (DV) from the foreign parent. DV in Japan is being redefined to include nontactile acts such as “yelling,” “angry looks” and “silent stares” (particularly from men).

It is within this context that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) recently issued a pamphlet titled “What is the Hague Convention?” Available in Japanese and English, it offers a 12-page manga in which a Japanese father carefully explains the Hague Convention to his Japanese-French son.

The pamphlet has sparked considerable controversy. After I blogged about it last month on Debito.org, many annoyed left-behind parents overseas said they would forward it to their national elected representatives. After a South China Morning Post article cited blog commenters calling it racist, Huffington Post Japan and Al Jazeera picked up the story, engendering predictable relativism about differing cultural interpretations.

For the record, I never wrote that the MOFA pamphlet was “racist.” That term, if not used carefully, tends to dull analysis, especially since the pamphlet is more subtle than that. In fact, it provides valuable insights into MOFA’s slanted mind-set towards the child abduction issue.

First, consider the visuals. In three cartoons (on the cover, and pages 4 and 10) we see a foreign-looking man (never a woman) being physically violent towards his child, with two of those showing the child longing to return to Japan and be with mother.

Reinforcing that in five more places (cover, pages 1, 7, and 9 (twice) — see C and D) are illustrations where the child expresses dismay at being abducted from Japan; only once (page 4) is there dismay at being abducted overseas. On the other hand, pages 2 and 7 show children displaying no dismay at being abducted to Japan, or instead showing shock (pages 2 (twice) and 3 — see E) at not being allowed to return to Japan. The clear inference: Japan is, on balance, the natural place for the child, regardless of factors such as primary language or time spent living abroad.

This implicit fear of the outside world is reinforced by images of uneasy children facing unfamiliar rules, customs and languages (pages 1, 4 and 5 (twice)). More subtle is the picture on the cover and page 1, where foreign (adults) surround, frown and stare at the nervous Japanese child as though she really doesn’t belong. (She’s sent back to her Japanese mother’s loving arms by the next panel — phew.) Only once (page 3) is there a happy child sent back to his foreign dad.

Then consider the manga storyline. The Japanese father protagonist experiences a child abduction when the French mother abducts their son to France. Fortunately, according to the pamphlet, because Japan signed the Hague, Japan’s authorities can have French authorities track down the child, get mediation and (as the conflict resolution of this story) return the son (and the mother) to live happily ever after in Japan (page 6).

That is the central and tacit argument of the MOFA pamphlet: Japan signing the Hague isn’t about returning children to their habitual residence (whether it be Japan or overseas); it is about giving Japan greater leverage overseas to bring its children home to Japan. Where they belong.

Moreover, for some mysterious reason we spend the first page developing the relationship between the Japanese father and son protagonists, with father comically put off-balance by a barrage of questions from son, then negotiating with him to finish his dinner before answering. By page 3, the pamphlet mysteriously succumbs to another case of the cutes, as an anime figurine appears to praise the son’s intelligence (revealing father as an anime fetishist).

Why these irrelevant curlicues? Because by page 6, we learn why the French mother abducted the son: She accuses father of spending all his time watching anime and not paying attention to them. This is of course made dubious after all the space spent portraying the father’s caring, explaining, hugging, even cooking for his son. So clearly she’s just being hysterical. Of course, she returns to Japan with them after negotiations, so nothing fatal to the relationship.

On the other hand, when it’s a Japanese woman abducting, her reasons are more serious than hubby’s anime fetish. She has to deal with domestic violence, poverty (cover), unsympathetic or unpredictable foreign courts (pages 2, 3, 4, and 5), and even the unlikely scenario of begging frowning foreign strangers on the street to help her missing child overseas (page 2). Conclusion: The Japanese side is generally being victimized, while the foreign side is subtly depicted as violent and overreacting.

This is where MOFA is most disingenuous: In no fewer than four places (pages 1, 2 (twice) and 5) are unsympathetic courts, “cultural differences,” “legal procedures” and “language barriers” cited as hurdles for the Japanese spouse overseas.

Japan’s unsympathetic courts, legal procedures and cultural presumptions allowing child abductions to happen here on a regular basis — even between Japanese couples — are never mentioned. Japan, remember, has no joint custody or guaranteed child visitations.

In fact, taking the issue to a court overseas may afford both parents more rights — as it did in the Savoie case, where, despite the pamphlet’s claims, a Tennessee court gave Noriko Savoie permission to leave the U.S. for Japan (whereupon she abducted Christopher Savoie’s children). This is where the pamphlet morphs from guide to screed.

No doubt some MOFA representatives will be reading this critique, so let me point out two more inaccuracies unbecoming of a government agency attempting an impartial review of the issue.

First, almost all of the international marriages in the pamphlet are portrayed as between (katakana-speaking, in the Japanese version) white men and Japanese women. In fact, most international marriages in Japan are between Japanese men and Asian women. That is where the pamphlet is an easy target for accusations of racism. Not all “foreignness,” especially in this case, is so visually identifiable.

Then there’s the biased terminology. It is inaccurate in the English version to frame child abductions as “children’s removal” — after all, this is not the Hague Convention on Child Removals. Just as inaccurate as the term it was translated from, tsuresari (literally, “accompanying and disappearing”), meant to semantically soften the act of kidnapping — especially when another appropriate word, rachi, is used for abductions of Japanese by North Koreans.

On the plus side, there have already been good outcomes from Japan’s joining the Hague. Left-behind parents including Christopher Savoie and U.S. Navy Capt. Paul Toland (who have successfully pushed for the Goldman Act, as well as several U.S. congressional resolutions decrying Japan’s status as a haven for child abductions) have recently had their Hague applications accepted by the Japanese government, which has promised to locate and provide access to the Americans’ children in Japan. In effect, this is official acknowledgment that their children were in fact abducted from their lawful custody. Two abducted children have also been returned to their habitual residences in Japan.

Very good. But will all this eventually result in Japan actually returning a child to a parent overseas — something which, according to activists, has never happened as a result of Japanese government or court action?

Let’s wait and see, of course. But at this juncture, I doubt Japan will enforce the Hague with much verve. Doing so, as Colin P.A. Jones has pointed out on these pages, would in fact give more rights to those in international marriages than it would domestic couples! If the Japanese government’s past behavior towards inconvenient international treaties is any guide, it will find caveats to ensure international divorce does not become another way for Japan’s depopulation to accelerate.

Thus, MOFA’s pamphlet is little more than subtle propagandizing meant to reassure the Japanese public that they haven’t lost the power to abduct by signing the Hague. In fact, MOFA is portraying the Hague as a means to bring more Japanese children back home. With that mind-set as strong as ever, I anticipate that foreign parents will continue to get a raw deal from the Japanese system.

Debito Arudou recommends that officials at MOFA and everyone else understand this issue better by watching “From The Shadows,” a documentary available at www.fromtheshadowsmovie.com. Twitter @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause usually appears in print on the first Thursday of the month. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp