Child custody division set up

Treaty studied on protecting kids when international marriages fail


The Foreign Ministry has set up a new division to handle international child custody issues in response to overseas criticism that Japan allows Japanese mothers to take their children away from their divorced partners.

The division, officially launched Tuesday, will study the issue, including whether to sign the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, whose aim is to secure the prompt return of children wrongfully removed to or retained in any signatory countries, Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada said.

“We have received various opinions from America and European nations. This is a difficult issue, but we will try to take quick action to handle it,” Okada told reporters Monday.

Foreign embassies and governments have urged Japan to improve the situations for foreign men trying to see their children, but such diplomatic efforts have not been successful.

Before the establishment of the Division for Issues Related to Child Custody, which has nine ministry officials, the issue was handled by several different departments, including the North America Bureau, the West Europe Bureau and the International Legal Affairs Bureau, division official Takuya Akiyama said. The new division will now be the main body in the ministry handling the child custody issues, he said.

However, signing the Hague Convention is just a small step forward on a long journey toward solving child abduction issues involving international couples. The government would also have to change the Civil Code to allow both parents to have parental rights after divorce, lawyers said.

As currently stipulated in the Civil Code only one of the parents would have parental rights after a divorce.

The Civil Code revision issue would need a decision by the government as a whole, not solely the Foreign Ministry’s, experts say.

Japanese courts usually rule in favor of Japanese mothers, who typically want full custody of their children, even if they forcefully take their children away from their ex-husbands.

Some Japanese mothers have taken their children without permission to Japan from their country of residence after international divorces, violating custody rulings overseas. Japanese media have reported that some have suffered from domestic violence or faced other family problems.

Divorced fathers in Japan are rarely granted visitation rights, or at best are granted minimal visitation rights.

Traditionally in Japan, visits by an ex-spouse are considered to adversely affect the family environment for children, and it is also believed that women are better suited to rear children mainly because they stay home longer than men, lawyers say.

Also on Tuesday, officials of the Foreign Ministry, including the chief of the new division, as well as West Europe Bureau officials, discussed with French diplomats the issue of child abductions by Japanese women from their French ex-husbands.

There are 35 such cases, according to Okada and Akiyama. Last month, 22 U.S. senators said there are 79 cases involving 100 American children who have been abducted by a parent to Japan.