Commentary / Japan

Paternity issues also strain Japan-U.S. alliance

by Robert D. Eldridge

For the past four years, I have served as a pro bono adviser to a women’s rights organization based in Okinawa Prefecture, where I lived for eight years. The nonprofit organization was established in 2007 to provide counseling to women in matters of marriage, divorce, domestic violence and child support. It received 11 consultation requests in its first year, but the numbers have quadrupled in recent years, including several in mainland Japan.

In those involving pregnancy or children, the consultations include ninchi, the recognition of paternity (and the cooperation in determining it through DNA tests when paternity is initially denied); kokuseki, the acquisition of citizenship so the child has those inherent rights; and yoikuhi, financial support to raise the child. Tracking down the fugitive father or deadbeat dad is necessary, too, and requires a lot of time. I sometimes feel as if we have become paternity policemen.

These latter issues not only involve Japanese men and foreign men, but also especially those in the U.S. military assigned to Japan. This is the dark side of some exchanges — an ignored, unwanted or abused child, forgotten responsibilities, a shattered mother and a hole left not only in their lives but in the Japan-U.S. relationship.

In this case, there are in effect two bureaucracies to be battled — the Japanese side and the U.S. one. Okinawa Prefecture, unfortunately, has a high rate of child poverty and has little in the way of support services despite the endless flow of money from the central government. There are also social stigmas attached to children born out of wedlock, and of mixed ethnicity, and especially those who do not know who their father is or have a relationship with him.

In some cases, the mother has also lost hope and is unable to cope, and the child falls between the cracks. A vicious cycle of poverty and neglect sets in, further burdening the welfare system. Unfortunately, the Foreign Ministry and its Okinawa Liaison Office headed by a full ambassador does nothing to help.

Turning to the U.S. side, the most frustrating parts about many of the cases are the all-too-many examples of indifference displayed by military authorities, as well as sadly by the U.S. Consulate and U.S. Embassy.

Furthermore, it is a rare officer or noncommissioned officer who takes a personal interest in the case and seeks to do the right thing and work with the command or the individual in question to properly address the situation. The military was often seen as the place where those with the most integrity and courage signed up for, but that appears no longer the case.

These officials — often at the colonel rank, who have power but choose not to use it in order to protect their careers — use the difference in legal systems as an excuse to take no action, in some cases allowing the individuals in question to flee their moral, legal and financial responsibilities.

Two recent situations are cases in point.

One began four years ago and still remains unresolved. A U.S. Marine stationed at Camp Foster who was working illegally as a bouncer at a bar dated a young Okinawan woman who became pregnant. He visited the obstetrician with her several times, and met her family, promising them that he would marry her. In March 2015, he left Okinawa “on deployment,” never to be heard from again. He cut communications with her, and had friends and family members also do so after making them inform her that he was engaged to his high school sweetheart, was about to be married and to never contact him again.

Disappointingly, his former command in Okinawa provided no assistance to our organization, but the leadership of one he was subsequently attached to at Camp LeJeune spoke to him “man to man.” Although he learned of the birth of his son (now 4 years old) at that time, he made no effort to contact the Okinawan mother or to assist her. Upon discharge, he was on the run (providing false addresses and telephone numbers) and literally had to be tracked down. In the meantime, a U.S. court eventually ordered him to take a DNA test, which he has spent months fighting. At the time of this writing, he is finally scheduled to take the test. He will likely fight the results and the demand for recognition, child support, etc.

The financial, mental and emotional stress on the young mother has been horrific. Giving birth and raising a family in and of itself is difficult, but added to this is the burden for the young single mother to try to track down her baby’s father without the support of his former command or the English-language skills to do so. Since he has a wife and another child now in the United States, reconciliation between the couple is impossible, but his financial responsibilities as father remain. Imagine his wife’s surprise when she learned of his “other family.”

The second case was more recent, involving a 23-year-old military member who impregnated an Okinawan minor (knowing she was underage), and despite being at the hospital for the delivery, telling his co-workers of the birth and taking a command-encouraged DNA test (coming back at 99.99999 certainty of paternity), has refused to provide child support or any other assistance to the infant and mother.

Leaving aside the crime of statutory rape, when the legal office of the base was asked about recourse, the NPO was incredulously told the military member in question is not obligated to pay because he did not register the birth of the child in his personnel records. Even if this goes to a local court and he is ordered to cooperate and pay, the Status of Forces Agreement means he is under no obligation to cooperate with the court and the command will probably not force him to do so.

It is no wonder that many Okinawans demand revision of SOFA. Unfortunately for the military, the local media is aware of the statutory rape, which will inflame tensions down there.

Prior to this second case, I had warned recently departed U.S. Ambassador William F. Hagerty earlier this spring that it was important for the military to proactively address these types of situations, not only out of concern for the political and diplomatic damage they may cause undermining trust and faith in the United States, but because it is the right thing to do from a humanitarian perspective. It is unclear if he took action; it does not appear that he did.

At the minimum an aggressive education and training program is necessary, and the message needs to go out that eventually, those involved in cases like the above or other situations will eventually be tracked down and caught.

The consequences of such behavior by male U.S. military personnel are long-lasting and can be devastating for those involved. Some people will try to say that “it’s the girl’s fault. She should have known better.” However, can someone be blamed for believing in the man when he has talked about marriage? In any case, it is not about the couple but about the baby that was born. The result of the liaison or relationship is a human life, who has natural and legal rights as well, which need to be protected.

Others (those in uniform) have said that it is “a personal issue between the two and not a command problem.” But that is also misleading, as it is the government (military) which sent the man in question to Okinawa on official orders, and thus the case can be made that the U.S. government does have a leading role and moral obligation to play in resolving these issues satisfactorily on behalf of its newest young citizens. That it doesn’t seems as heartless as the actions of the absent father.

As the late U.S. Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey said in his last public speech, and a thought similarly spoken by other philosophers and politicians: “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children.” Looks like America may be flunking right now.

Robert D. Eldridge is the author of “Post-Reversion Okinawa and U.S.-Japan Relations.”