http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/05/05/national/social-issues/parental-abduction-victims-hold-rally-push-joint-custody-rights/

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Parental abduction victims hold rally to push for joint custody rights

BY 

STAFF WRITER

Parents deprived of their children held a rally Friday to push for introducing joint custody to the Japanese legal system and to raise awareness of the plight faced by their offspring when marriages fall apart.

Marching through the Asakusa district in Tokyo’s Taito Ward, about 30 Japanese and foreign participants held up a multilingual banner reading, “Stop Parental Child Abduction!”

Demonstrators also carried signs reading “More visitation time” and “Affection from both parents to children” during the hour-long march on Children’s Day.

It was the first rally organized by Kodomo no Kenri wo Mamoru Bekkyo Oya Forum (Forum for Left-Behind Parents Protecting Children’s Rights) to address the problem of parental child abduction in Japan.

“I want people to know that children have the right to see both of their parents and that parents are responsible for accomplishing that,” said Daisuke Tanaka, the organizer of the event.

Tanaka has been struggling to spend time with his daughter since his wife whisked her away in March 2016. Since then, he has only been allowed to meet her twice a month for three hours at a time, he said.

Other participants told The Japan Times similar stories.

In most cases, a spouse abruptly leaves with the children before filing for divorce or custody rights. Tanaka said child abductions will only continue to fester unless Japan approves the concept of granting joint custody.

“It’s usual for the court to give custody to the parent who lives with the child, and that’s why there are so many cases of abduction. If there’s joint custody, better conversations and negotiations would likely take place,” he said.

Michihiko Sugiyama, a lawyer who participated in the demonstration, said the biggest issue is that Japanese law only allows custody to be awarded to one parent. Once separated from his family, he decided to take part in the rally to share his experience.

The civil code requires parents to decide on visitation and custody arrangements, but research shows people are increasingly forgoing such discussions and heading straight to court mediation. In fiscal 2015, 12,264 cases of mediation involving visitation rights were accepted in family courts nationwide, almost double from 10 years earlier, according to court data.

A group of lawmakers is drafting a bill to help divorced or separated parents see their children more easily, but the issue has yet to gain traction. Some are concerned that parents with a history of domestic violence are too dangerous to be granted visitation rights.

Rally participant Susumu Ishizuka, 48, claimed there must be better awareness of the issue because the current perception is that abandoned parents may have committed domestic abuse.

“People who are against such a bill are linking left-behind parents with domestic violence too easily without sufficient understanding,” said Ishizuka, whose spouse ran off with his 5-year-old child three years ago. Their divorce has not been finalized, but according to the court’s decision, he is only permitted to see his child for two hours every two months.

“I can only meet my child in an appointed place, and I’m not allowed to give them presents. This is far from a parent-child relationship,” he said.

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http://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2017/01/26/editorials/rules-handing-child/#.WIuEfbGZPVp

Rules on handing over a child

Court rulings ordering a divorced parent to hand over a child to his or her former spouse are often ignored — largely because there are no specific procedures under the law governing enforcement of such a custody transfer. A revision of the relevant law is imperative to ensure that court decisions on child custody are enforced. There are two important points for consideration — creating a clear rule for the compulsory enforcement of a court order by a legally empowered official, and imposing financial penalties on the parties defying court orders to get them to comply. Either way, due consideration should be paid to the welfare of the children, including the potential psychological damage from the procedure.

In the absence of a specific legal procedure for custody transfers between divorced parents, the Civil Execution Law’s provision on the transfer of movable property is currently referred to in enforcing a court ruling ordering a divorced parent to hand over a child to the other party. But it would not stand to reason to treat children as if they were “property.”

In the case of international marriages, the compulsory execution of a court order on a custody transfer is possible under the 1980 Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, popularly known as the Hague Convention. As of November, 95 countries were parties to the convention, which Japan signed and ratified in 2014. A law setting domestic procedures needed to implement the convention has been enacted and put in force.

The law includes a detailed provision stating what an enforcement officer in charge of removing a child from a parent who abducted that child to Japan and handing that child over to the other parent should and should not do, including the need to try to persuade the abducting parent and asking for police assistance if necessary. The provision says an officer can use some form of power to restrain or make a parent who resists giving up the child comply, but prohibits the officer from using this power if it causes harmful effects on the child. The law says that if a court rules that a child must be moved back to his or her “state of habitual residence,” the parent who won the case can in principle ask for the decision to be executed by an enforcement officer after two weeks have passed. This rule leaves room for the disputing parents to agree on the transfer of the child in an amicable way without the involvement of an enforcement officer.

Last year, Justice Minister Katsutoshi Kaneda asked the Legislative Council, an advisory body, to look into revising the Civil Execution Law to set down specific procedures to enforce court decisions ordering the handover of children between divorced parents. Based on its recommendation, the government is expected to submit a bill for the revision to the Diet as early as next year.

Setting down the relevant procedures makes sense given what is happening to divorced parents and their children. In 2015, there were 97 cases in which divorced parents with parental prerogatives or the care and custody right over their children asked that their former spouses turn the children over to them, but the children were handed over in only 27 of the cases, according to the Supreme Court.

Merely setting the procedures for a compulsory execution of the court order — which would involve an enforcement officer stepping in to physically remove a child from one parent and hand him over to the other — may be too rigid and may not serve the intended purpose of the amendment. The procedures should include an indirect approach that may seem lukewarm but will eventually lead to the transfer of a child. One option would be to fine a parent who refuses to comply with the court and, to encourage compliance, the size of the fine would rise as long as the parent keeps refusing to obey the order.

Priority should be placed on the indirect approach so that the child handover can take place in a more amicable manner. But a mechanism should also be included that will trigger a compulsory enforcement if, for example, it’s suspected that a parent ordered to give up the child is seeking to dodge the ruling by continuing to make the payments. The law to implement the Hague Convention says that the removal of a child must be carried out when the child is together with the parent who took him or her to Japan, out of consideration for the psychological effects on the child. The advisory council should take into account how to minimize the risk of trauma on children in executing court rulings.

http://ajw.asahi.com/article/behind_news/AJ201311240030

 

Divorced parents take to streets in fight for right to see children

November 24, 2013

By SATOMI SUGIHARA/ Staff Writer

Japanese parents fighting for the right to see their children after divorce are taking to the streets to highlight their plight.

In a recent campaign drive, groups of the parents have gathered in front of station terminals and plazas in 16 cities across Japan, including Tokyo and Nagoya.

Wearing yellow-green T-shirts and ribbons with the words “Stop child abduction,” they hand out balloons and leaflets to passers-by to raise awareness for their call that all parents have the right to see their children.

One of the members is a male company employee in his 40s. The man said it has been two years since he last met his children, now both elementary school pupils.

“Four fathers that I know killed themselves while agonizing about the fact they could not meet their children,” he said.

Since his divorce, he said he has been allowed to meet his children only several times, each time with his ex-wife’s lawyer present. In initial meetings, his children were their usually bubbly selves, but their relationship became gradually awkward and distant since they could meet only on rare occasions.

“I want people to realize that forced separation from children produces tragic consequences,” the man said.

The campaign was organized by the “Oyakonet” Parents And Children’s Network and other mutual assistance and awareness groups of divorced parents who are denied opportunities to see their children.

In June 2012, the groups formed a campaign network “Kimidori (yellow-green) Ribbon Project,” adopting yellow-green as their symbolic colors. They are seeking legislation to give divorced parents joint custody over children and ensure the rights of both parents to see their offspring after divorce.

The Civil Code awards custody over children to only one parent, invariably to the mother, after divorce. This often means parents who do not win custody can no longer see their children when custodial partners refuse.

In fiscal 2012, divorced parents sought judicial arbitration and judgment in 11,459 cases for the right to meet their children. The figure was a three-fold increase over 10 years ago.

A survey by the welfare ministry that covered about 1,300 divorced mothers in fiscal 2011 found that in 51 percent of cases children had not seen their fathers regularly.

Joint custody is recognized in the United States, France and many other countries in the belief that continued exchanges with both parents is essential to healthy growth.

In 2012, the revised Civil Code took effect. It requires parents to decide visits to their children at the time of divorce. But it does not outline how this should be done.

By SATOMI SUGIHARA/ Staff Writer

New paper by Colin Jones

August 5, 2013

http://law.nus.edu.sg/asli/working_paper_d.aspx?sno=WPS031

 

 

ASLI Working Paper Series

Publication Title Towards an “Asian” child abduction treaty? Some observations on Singapore and Japan joining the Hague Convention
Publisher Asian Law Institute
Series WPS031
Publication Date Aug 2013
Author/Speaker Colin P.A. Jones
This paper will briefly compare the regimes adopted by Japan and Singapore for adopting the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, together with the two countries’ underlying family law systems in order to consider whether an “Asian” approach to the treaty may develop in the future.
View/Download (PDF) File :

http://japandailypress.com/supreme-court-fines-woman-after-denying-ex-husband-access-to-child-0326288

Supreme Court fines woman after denying ex-husband access to child

posted on APRIL 3, 2013 by ADAM WESTLAKE in NATIONAL

The Japanese Supreme Court ruled last week that a woman pay her ex-husband 50,000 yen (approx. $535) for each time that she denied him access to visit their daughter. The mother had agreed to regular meetings between the child and father in a family court settlement, and this marks the first time that Japan’s highest court has ordered penalties on a parent with custody for breaking their visitation agreements.

The Supreme Court’s decision was an upholding of a ruling made by the Sapporo High Court, and the measure of “indirect enforcement” is said to often be used in cases where a debtor is ordered to make cash payments to a creditor as a way of having a psychological impact on those failing to obey a court’s decision. Justice Ryuko Sakurai said in the ruling that a parent can be ordered to make payments when the date, frequency and length of a meeting, or transfer method of a child that were agreed upon are disregarded. Other courts have set precedence of punishing custodial parents for not meeting their agreements, but as this is the first time the Supreme Court has made a ruling, it is expected to set a far-reaching standard.

This decision seems like a significant contribution to the changes in parental rights in cases of divorce in Japan. The country almost always grants custody to the mother, and there is no recognition of dual-custody, often leaving the father with no rights to see their children. In the last decade, the number of court cases involving divorced, non-custodial parents demanding to see their children has tripled, less than 3,000 in 2001, to well over 8,000 in 2011. In addition, the Japanese government has finally committed to joining the Hague Convention on child abduction, an international treaty that requires taken children to be returned to the country of their original home in order to resolve custody in a failed international marriage. Up until now, Japan has been seen as a safe-haven for its nationals to bring their children back to without notifying their foreign spouses.

http://www.tokyofamilies.com/sections/entry.php?id=810

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A father’s nightmare in Japan

By Tim Johnston | On the Cover

My journey to Japan began in 1996. I came here initially for a commercial modeling assignment and to sample the wonderful Japanese cuisine. I was tired of the United States and wanted to see the world. Japan was strange yet fascinating. It is a country where “no” means “yes” and “yes” means “no.”
I met my ex-wife on the night of my birthday in Narita, close to the airport. Coincidentally, we were born on the same day. That’s how this story began. We shared drinks and laughs. She was set to leave for the United Kingdom soon to study English. She gave me her name card and I called her a few days later. We began to date. She left me her car to use while she was away. I decided to move to Japan and wait for her return. We exchanged love letters and I took a job teaching English at the beach. This allowed me to exercise my passion for surfing. She returned and we moved in together, an arrangement that lasted eleven years.
We were married for two of those eleven years. We felt we had a good relationship. We took many overseas trips together and she even spent time with my mother and sister in France. Over the years she repeatedly asked my family, “When will Tim marry me?”
Some nine years after we first met, our wonderful son Kai Endo was born. It was the best day of my life when I saw his smiling face for the first time. He had the cutest grin and was definitely a mixed-race child. He looked more caucasian than Japanese, with blondish hair, but with his mother’s forehead and almond-shaped Asian eyes. He was big too, weighing about 3,500 grams at birth.
His mother returned to the apartment we had recently purchased after the traditional six weeks with her family. She looked exhausted, as was to be expected with a young infant and the new challenges of sleep deprivation. I began to help more with the chores and be the best husband I could be.
Conversations became more rigid and she often shouted demands at me. I accepted her change in behavior as the result of her being tired or having difficulty with her new role as a mother. Increasingly, she began to mention how single mothers in Japan are entitled to all sorts of benefits, such as subsidized education, health care, etc. I confronted her. “Why would you say such a thing?” But her reply was, “I don’t need you! You’re a foreigner anyway.  Our son is Japanese and I never want to live in your country!” I asked her how she could be so mean and spiteful.
We were drifting apart. I walked on eggshells around her when she was having her moments. It wasn’t long after that she asked for a divorce. I asked her if she was joking. She said no and walked away. When I saw her the following day, she asked me when I planned to move out.  I realized that this was no joke. She wanted me out and to have nothing to do with me anymore. I tried to get her to talk but she just tuned out. I remember vividly holding my son for the final two months before I moved out and just kissing him over and over and telling him how much I loved him and that this wasn’t his fault.
I signed the divorce papers and took an apartment close by so I could be near my son. My ex-wife had the audacity to tell me I should return to the United States. I had never felt so low in my life. After having my son, I felt complete as a person and loved my ex-wife more than anything. We had a child together. Now, my world was in shock. I reminded myself that I had to be a man. I decided to study Japanese more and accept being independent in a strange land. It was so difficult and often I couldn’t sleep. My nights were filled with questions about my son. What did he eat today? What’s he doing? Is he watching his favorite cartoon?
I told his mother upon moving out that I would see my son everyday. She agreed that I could see him once a week. We would meet in a local park and play together, sing songs and study English. He was always happy to see me and I was even happier to see him. My ex-wife, on the other hand, never once looked at me or talked to me when I met my son. As a young boy, he could understand English very well.
Some four years passed, and then one day everything changed. My wife got out of her car and walked towards me. I thought, “Wow! She’s actually going to speak to me.” I will never forget that she came within two meters of me. She looked scared. Then she said, “We are busy and I don’t have time for you to see your son anymore. I’m working now and I’m too busy.”
I live in the same neighborhood, I said. I can help, I can take him where he needs to go and pick him up from kindergarten. She said no… End of story! “Why don’t you just go back to your country and leave us alone?” she suggested. My son was seeing us like this for the first time, and a tear began to roll down his face. I asked her why she is doing this in front of our son.
She finally agreed to a two-hour meeting every two weeks. I was devastated. She grabbed my son’s arm and dragged him to the car. “I love you Kai,” I shouted. “Don’t worry, everything will be OK.”
The situation soon became unbearable. I couldn’t believe someone could be so heartless. She never returned my calls or emails inquiring about my son. I would confirm our next meeting but she would refuse to reply. This was escalating into her dominance and the alienation of her son’s father. Kai was now four years old. This carried on for two more years.
Meanwhile, my son was growing into a young man. I was so proud of him. When we did meet, we had the best four hours per month, filling the time with a lot of pictures, sports, affection and whatever else he wanted.
And then came 2:46 pm, March 11. After the initial tremor of the earthquake had subsided I panicked. I called my ex-wife and sent her emails to check that my son was safe. She never replied. Not even to say he was unhurt. I drove by her apartment but the lights were out, as with most places. Her car was gone. I guessed she had gone to her mother’s. I began to panic. I knew Japan would never be the same after March 11. I needed to see my son and hear his voice. I was worried that he may be suffering from trauma.
Following the earthquake, his mother never let the two of us talk. She probably thought I would move. Perhaps she would tell my son I had evacuated or died. However, after about a month I received a letter asking me to attend mediation court. When I opened the letter I fell to my knees and sobbed. The letter from her read, “I’m busy and have stress. You can see your son after mediation court.”
I finished  my seventh mediation hearing. The court granted me one visit with my son. He was worried about me and his mother refused to tell him anything. I comforted him and was thankful he was able to see his father. However, she told the court that I couldn’t see my son anymore. She is too busy, she said.
Japan must change its child custody laws! My current situation is unacceptable. I love my only son. I won’t ever give him up. Surely I have rights too? He is my son as well!
This is where I am today. I urge Japan to change its custody laws. I and all the other left-behind parents deserve rights and access to our children. Japanese law grants sole custody, usually to the mother. This was my wife’s plan all along. I just want to be a good father and hope Japan wakes up soon and realizes children need both parents. Loving children shouldn’t be alienated from loving parents. Japan, it’s 2012! Please help me to get access to my only son.
Tim Johnston is a resident of Narita, Chiba, Japan and the father of Kai Endo.

These statistics were provided by John Gomez of Kizuna-CPR (http://kizuna-cpr.org/meeting_summary_november_24_2012):

“4.6 million divorces 1992 – 2010, one child per divorce on average, 58% loss of access according to NHK Close Up Gendai yields an estimated 2.7 million children in Japan who have lost their relationship with their parent during this time, which is a human rights violation. It is about 150,000 children per year.”
That means every hour an additional 17 children living in Japan are being shut out of the life of one of their parents.  Considering the cumulative impact, not just in terms of the number of children involved, but also left-behind parents, family members, and others, this problem is having a devastating effect on a sizeable percentage of the Japanese population.

http://www.majiroxnews.com/2012/10/11/the-hell-of-japans-divorce-laws/

 

The hell of Japan’s divorce laws

10/11/2012

By 

An ex-resident of Japan tells the story of how he may never see his daughter again, as a result of the country’s laws governing divorce

Vincent and his daughter, Emilie

MONTREAL — I need time to heal. I am still raging at my Japanese ex-wife and the way the laws of Japan allowed her to gain custody of our daughter. The shock of the outcome shook my faith in people. After living in Tokyo for 23 years, I moved back in with my parents near Montreal on June 30, 2012. 

I met my former wife on the Internet. We were divorced, she in her late 30s, I in my early 40s, and neither of us had children. After dating for a few months she got pregnant. The news was exciting and we eventually got married. Our daughter Emilie was born on February 9, 2011.

However, the marriage didn’t work out. We constantly fought and once the police were called to our house. Then after Christmas in December 2011 my wife returned to live with her parents in Tokyo and took Emilie with her.

The divorce proceedings were inhuman and brutal. I almost died. I walked out of the court mediation in shock and fainted. Luckily, I had asked my father to come for moral support. I had prepared documents that I had professionally translated, and I had hired an interpreter, but I wasn’t prepared for the process. I won’t go into details but the whole process of a contested divorce would have taken two years during which time I would not have been allowed any visits with my daughter. After walking out of the first mediation hearing, I realized the Japanese system was biased towards whomever the child was currently living with.

What I did know is that I wasn’t going to waste my life on what I believe is a rigged process. My dad couldn’t stay with me in Tokyo for the many months it would take in court, so I signed the divorce papers giving my wife full custody of Emilie. I saw what had happened to my divorced friends, how their ex-wives manipulated them or cut them off completely. If I had been employed in Japan, I would have fought on principle, but without a job I didn’t have the financial or emotional resources to do that. I left Japan soon after the divorce, a broken man.

In Montreal, I visit friends and family, I read, I go to the theatre. I wrote a short book on Shakespeare’s plays. I need to get my mind off things and when a friend invited me to sail the Caribbean with him, I said, ‘yes.’ He needs someone to help him with his boat and I need to get away. I almost died and I still need to heal.

My parents are very supportive. In order to function and to be productive and happy again, I have to do exactly as my father says: I have to move on the same way one moves on after losing a child. But I can’t just forget my daughter when I know she is alive, when I know she’s been deprived of her father. I have to juggle my feelings.

I avoid talking about Emilie with friends and family. When asked, I give a very short account but I explain that talking about it is painful. When I talk with friends, it’s difficult for me to get off the topic once I’ve started and it ruins the evening.

I believe my wife and her family treated me in a shameful manner. But I have plans to meet with my daughter again, but I don’t know how I can do it. I am hoping that in the next few years Japan will change its laws and force my ex-wife to allow contact. We’ll see what the future brings.

http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/dy/national/T120914003660.htm

 

Child care left undecided in divorces

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Less than 50 percent of divorcing couples have planned for such matters as child support and visitation rights since the revised Civil Code was implemented in April, which requires couples with small children to do so, according to the Justice Ministry.

As local governments accept divorce applications without making couples declare such arrangements, the effectiveness of the revision has often been questioned.

The ministry collected its first statistics on the issue during the first quarter since the revision came into force. The results reflect the difficulty couples face in reaching an agreement on child-related matters.

In tandem with the implementation of the revised code, the ministry in April added items to the divorce application form asking couples with young children to verify they have come to an accord on certain issues. This includes whether they have agreed on visitation arrangements for the noncustodial parent and how child support will be handled.

According to the ministry, 32,757 couples with young children mutually consented to file for divorce from April to June. Among them, 15,622, or 48 percent, indicated they had made arrangements regarding visitation for the noncustodial parent, and 6,843, or 21 percent, had not. The remaining 31 percent did not check any boxes.

Concerning payment of child support by noncustodial parents, 16,075 couples, or 49 percent, had made a decision on the matter, while 6,316, or 19 percent, had not. The other 32 percent left the boxes blank.

In 2011, about 235,700 couples got divorced, with about 90 percent of them doing so by mutual consent. Still, there have been many problems concerning the handling of these child-related matters after divorce.

“It’s necessary for couples to reach an accord [on such matters] for their children’s sake,” said Noriko Mizuno, a Civil Code professor at Tohoku University.

“In Western countries and South Korea, couples are not allowed to get divorced unless they agree on a plan to raise their children and the plan is approved by the court. In Japan, it’s not sufficient to simply check whether parents have come to an agreement on such matters. We must also create a system to verify their decisions really serve the best interests of the child and enforce them if so.”

(Sep. 15, 2012)

http://accjjournal.com/left-behind/

 

LEFT BEHIND

PARENTS FIGHT FOR JUSTICE IN JAPAN

BY MIKE DEJONG
Apr 1, 2012 | 5 Comments | 251 views

After decades of reluctance, Japan is set to join the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. This international treaty, signed by more than 80 countries, is designed to prevent children from being taken from their home countries. While experts say joining the Hague Convention is a positive first step, critics argue that the real issue in Japan is not child abduction – but a lack of enforceable joint-custody laws to protect the rights of parents and children following divorce. This month, we examine the issues surrounding child custody and show why divorcing one’s spouse often means losing one’s children in Japan.

ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN SHELLEY
It was mid-October 2009,when Masako Akeo went to watch a choir concert at her son’s school. Akeo hadn’t seen little Kazuya in some time and was excited to hear him sing and possibly even have a word with him. After waiting patiently for the performance to end – and the applause to die down – Akeo approached her only child. 

“Kazuya!” she called out.

The little boy turned and there was a moment of recognition. But Akeo never got to follow up. To her surprise, the principal marched over and grabbed her arm. “Why did you come here?” he barked. “Why did you interrupt the concert?”

Akeo was pulled into a separate room and interrogated. She was ordered to leave the school and not talk to her son again.

“That choir concert was in the morning,” she says. “I waited outside the gate until six o’clock. But he did not come out.”

Akeo was treated like a criminal for wanting to see her son. But she was not a criminal. In fact, she was a victim of child abduction and parental alienation. And she remains so to this day.

In late summer 2006, Kazuya was spirited away from the family home by Akeo’s Japanese ex-husband. Akeo tried everything to get her son back including hiring private investigators and going to court more than 60 times. Nothing worked. Despite being a desperate mother, she has only seen the boy three times since his abduction.

“I met him two times in the Family Court,” she says. “One time was one hour – the other time was 45 minutes.

“The last mediation, my ex-husband made an agreement. I could meet my son every two months. But then final mediation, he gave the court my son’s letter. The letter said: ‘Oh, I have to study to enter high school. It is quite difficult for me now (to meet you).’

“Always, I had hope. But that day finished everything. I can’t do anything about my son.”

Takaji Takeuchi can sympathize with Akeo’s desperation. On a warm spring night in March of 2011, he tried to talk to his son who had also been taken away by his Japanese ex-spouse several years before. Japan had been hit by the horrible 3/11 tragedy and Takeuchi, like many others, was concerned about his family. He found his son at home with his ex-wife.

TAKAJI TAKEUCHI HAS ONLY SEEN HIS SON KOUSUKE FIVE TIMES IN FIVE YEARS. (PHOTO BY MIKE DEJONG)

“They came out together,” Takeuchi says. “In front of my ex-wife, my son was standing. “I said ‘Are you okay?’ He said ‘Yeah, I’m okay. But why (did) you come here?’ I don’t have a father. I don’t need a father.” 

Both Takeuchi and Akeo’s children have been turned against them. It’s a common occurance for children separated from their mothers or fathers for lengthy periods of time. And it’s something that causes great pain on all sides.

“Every year, (at) New Year I say this year will be better,” Akeo says. “But you know, every year is getting worse. Still, I must keep going and keep doing something.”

Heartbreaking But Not Uncommon
These two cases are heartbreaking but not uncommon in Japan. In fact, there may be thousands of parents like them, who have lost contact with their children following a marital breakdown.

The reason is simple: there are no provisions for joint custody in Japan. In fact, under the country’s Meiji Era Civil Code, child custody is awarded to only one parent following a divorce, with the other parent is generally shut out. With no enforceable visitation rules, non-custodial parents generally lose access to their own children.

“Japanese Family Law is a misnomer in that there isn’t such a thing,” says Colin P. A. Jones, professor at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto. “There is not a statute that is called Family Law.

“There have never been a lot of substantive rules clearly laid out somewhere in a statute, which say parents have to do this for their children… or after divorce this is what’s supposed to happen.”

Jones says the parent-child relationship in Japan is defined in terms of a marital relationship, so essentially, divorcing a spouse also means divorcing one’s children. In the rare cases where visitation is granted, Japanese courts usually limit non-custodial parental time to a few hours per month. The custodial parent retains the right to cancel visitation at any time without penalty. This policy differs greatly from Western countries where the rights of parents are maintained and enforced – even after divorce.

“For a number of historical reasons, Japan has never really developed the notion that there are Constitutional rights associated with the parent-child relationship,” says Jones. “That is why child abduction – as we would call it – within Japan has been a problem as long, if not longer, than the international abduction cases have been.”

MASAKO AKEO HAS ONLY SEEN HER SON KAZUYA THREE TIMES IN SIX YEARS.
After a divorce in Japan, a non-custodial parent can no longer decide on their child’s health, education, living arrangements and schooling – even what name the child will carry into the future. It is common for custodial parents to move away from the other parent without notifying them of their child’s whereabouts. 

Critics say it’s a system that promotes and legitimizes child abduction and alienation.

Best Interests of the Child? 
In denying or severely limiting visitation, Japanese courts often reason that children “need protection” from the “trauma of divorce.” For example, in 2003, a desperate mother looking to visit her son was told by an Osaka High Court that “the child is satisfied with his current established lifestyle” with his father and new step-mother. The court denied the mother’s visitation request stating that “exposing the child to different lifestyles and methods of discipline can have adverse effects on the feelings and emotional stability of the child.”

This opinion flies in the face of research by child psychologists, psychiatrists and child welfare experts worldwide who argue that, despite the conflicts inherent with divorce, children need contact with both parents to grow up as healthy, well-adjusted adults.

“Empirical and longitudinal studies show that maintaining contact with non-custodial parents is beneficial for children’s well-being,” says clinical psychologist Kazuyo Tanase, a professor at Kobe Shinwa Women’s University.

In an interview with NHK, Dr. Tanase said she believes the current visitation system in Japan does not serve children or parents well. “It should be changed. Parents with no custody should be able to spend substantial amounts of time with their children like weekends and long vacations with overnights, not just several hours a month. Secondly, couples shouldn’t be allowed to separate or get divorced without a parenting plan in place. Finally, couples should be able to choose between sole custody and joint custody.”

HAPPIER DAYS FOR MASAKO AKEO AND HER SON KAZUYA.

In recent months, diplomatic officials from the US, Canada and Europe have lobbied Japan to implement a joint custody system. Senior members of the Obama Administration including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have also pushed Japan to join the 1980 Hague Convention – an international agreement that protects children from abduction. Japan is the only G8 country yet to sign the accord. The Japanese government has pledged to join the Hague Convention this year and the Justice Ministry has already released legislative proposals due to be submitted to the Diet this spring. However, critics say the proposals include so many conditions that the law will be virtually unenforceable.

“It’s pretty depressing,” says Jones, after reviewing the proposals. “It seems pretty clear that Japan is going to implement the Hague based on a number of assumptions that conflict with the assumptions of the Hague Convention.

“The implementation regime (in Japan) is basically going to assume that the taking parent has a good reason – they’re going to protect the taking parent until the left-behind parent proves otherwise.
“I don’t see it really getting anywhere – really making any changes.”

Black Hole For Child Abduction
Japan is a signatory of Article 10.2, the United Nations Convention on the Human Rights of the Child, which reads: “A child whose parents reside in different states shall have the right to maintain on a regular basis, personal relations and direct contacts with both parents.”

Yet personal relations and direct contact with both parents often does not happen in Japan. And, with its lack of respect for international court rulings and a decades-long reluctance to join the Hague Convention, some critics call Japan a “black hole” for child abduction.

In fact, the US State Department warns that “Abductions to Japan represent one of the largest portfolios in the Office of Children’s Issues and are among the most difficult to resolve. To date, the Office of Children’s Issues does not have a record of any cases resolved through a favorable Japanese court order or through the assistance of the Japanese government.”

Two high profile cases recently highlighted the need for Japan to get serious about child abduction. Last December, Wisconsin doctor Moises Garcia saw his nine-year old daughter returned after a four-year fight. The child had been abducted to Japan by her mother, who ignored a US court order granting the father custody. The child was returned as part of a plea bargain agreement when the mother was arrested in Hawaii on child abduction charges. In 2009, the Japanese ex-wife of American Christopher Savoie also ignored a US court order and took the couple’s children away. Savoie traveled to Japan to try and get the children back but was himself arrested on abduction charges. The charges were later dropped but Savoie was forced to leave Japan without his children.

In both of these cases, Japan failed to recognize US court decisions and experts say this highlights not only problems with Japanese law but also the country’s disregard for international court rulings.

Left Behind Parents
An organization known as Left Behind Parents Japan (LBPJ) has been campaigning for Japan to join the Hague Convention and to implement an enforceable visitation system. The group – which brings together foreign and Japanese parents who have lost access to their children – has taken its fight to senior levels of the Japanese government, including meetings with a former Japanese Justice Minister.

“Meeting with (former Justice Minister) Eda Satsuki was extremely important because he’s been a lawyer for over 40 years,” says LBPJ spokesperson Bruce Gherbetti. “He was a Family Court Judge early in his career, so he understands the issues at play.

“And I believe that he inherently believes that the solution is for Japan to sign the Hague Convention.

“Ultimately, Article 818-819 needs to be changed. That’s the (article of the) Civil Code that speaks to sole parental authority.

“Kyodo shinken is the answer,” says Gherbetti. “Kyodo shinken or joint custody.”

Not Only A “Foreign” Matter
From the attention given to high profile international abduction cases, one might assume the child abduction issue is a “foreign” matter in Japan. However, it is not. Japan’s divorce rate is now more than double what it was in the early 1970s and statistics show that nearly half of all marriages end in divorce (nearly 40 percent in 2010) – which means there could be thousands of permanently separated Japanese parents and children. At least 20 percent of the cases also involve left-behind mothers.

“If you’re a public school teacher, you’re looking at a class where one-third of the children probably have experienced a parental divorce,” says Jones. “Just nobody talks about it and the law really has not addressed what should happen to children after divorce. What is in their best interests after divorce.”

Despite all of the publicity surrounding the issue, it does not appear that help is coming soon from the Japanese government. In an interview with the Japan Times on February 1, 2012, Japan’s new Justice Minister Toshio Ogawa had this to say about modernizing the Civil Code: “If we allow dual parental rights, it will be difficult to decide which parent the children live with and to make other decisions. I believe a major complaint that people seeking dual parental rights have is that they don’t get to see their children enough. That can be largely solved by ensuring visitation rights.”

“The problem is that visitation rights are not enforceable under the current system,” says Gherbetti. “You could talk about visitation rights all you want, but if one parent still has veto rights over the other, then visitation provisions are essentially meaningless.

“To continue to disallow dual parental rights is a human rights violation, plain and simple,” says Gherbetti.

LBPJ member Dennis Gunn adds, “If one side has tyrannical power over the relationship with your child, then sooner or later – and usually sooner – that is going to be abused.

“They have devised a system here that is guaranteed to cause the parents… and the children to suffer.”

 

PHOTO BY LOUISE ROUSE

Suffering is what Masako Akeo continues to do. Although she devotes much of her time and attention to helping other left-behind parents, she endures on-going nightmares about her son’s whereabouts. She doesn’t know where he is, what he is doing or whether or not he is safe. His childhood was cruelly stripped from her by a vindictive ex-husband and a system that supports child abduction. 

“I’m kind of an activist,” she says. “Maybe so my son can see TV or magazine or newspaper.

Okay, Mommy’s doing this for me. That’s why I’m doing this – for my son.”