http://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2016/04/17/issues/two-years-japan-signed-hague-children-returned-old-issues-remain/#.VyUeVGNlnVo

Two years after Japan signed Hague, children have been returned but old issues remain
BY COLIN P.A. JONES
APR 17, 2016

‘What brand of Champagne did you drink?”

The lawyer delivered the question with a dramatic flourish, and I suppose it was a reasonable question to ask, even if rhetorically. I was being cross-examined as an expert witness in a child custody-related trial in a Western courtroom. One parent wanted to relocate to Japan with the child, the other was objecting.

This was 2015. In a 2008 Japan Times column written about a rumor that Japan was preparing to sign the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, I had declared: “I do not plan to crack open any Champagne until an abducted child is actually returned home.” The rumor proved wildly premature, but Japan ultimately ratified the convention, which, together with a package of baroque implementing laws and regulations, came into effect from April 2014.

The question about my Champagne preferences (Veuve Clicquot, by the way, if anyone is buying) was reasonable as a challenge to my reliability as an expert, yet was arguably irrelevant to the issue at bar: What could the court expect in terms of preserving the relationship between the child and the left-behind parent after the other parent and their child relocated to Japan? Unfortunately, “Not very much” may still be the answer.

But first, credit where it is due: In the two years since Japan signed the convention, more children abducted to or unlawfully retained in Japan have been returned to their home countries than at any time in the past. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan’s “central authority” for convention purposes, has handled almost 200 applications for assistance, and returns have been achieved in both directions (see table).

The Foreign Ministry has put significant effort into implementing the treaty and performing its central authority role. (A ministry representative also kindly responded to my inquiries in connection with this column.) It has sought to deter abductions through awareness programs, as well as foster amicable resolutions to abduction and visitation disputes by supporting mediation programs specifically designed for convention cases. (I am a mediator for one of them.) It also provides financial assistance for the translation of court documents and has set up a special online system (named Mimamori) for supervised cross-border “virtual visitation.”

Amicable resolutions are great, but there is not always much amity left between parents when one of them unilaterally spirits the children away to another country. Sometimes fear of abuse is a factor, but not always. Sometimes it is not; sometimes the taking parent is just trying to erase the other parent from his or her life, which necessitates erasure from the children’s lives as well. Having spent over a decade watching countless cases like these transpire, I believe that intentionally denying a parent — a former spouse, or life partner at that — a loving relationship with his or her child may be the worst thing one human being can do to another, short of physical violence. It is rarely good for the child, either.

The Hague Convention makes this harder by requiring that children taken or retained across borders in violation of custody rights be returned to their home country (where the other parent is typically also resident). Returns are the rule, but there are exceptions. One of these is if the child is living in Japan with the consent of the other parent. Disputes over relocation during or after divorce also being common, a child may also end up living in Japan with one parent through the permission of a foreign court.

When Japan was not a convention signatory, it was a red flag to foreign judges whenever a parent sought leave to take the children to Japan, whether to visit or live. “Just taking the kids back for the summer to see Grandma” and then staying is a pretty common abduction scenario everywhere (with Grandma sometimes playing a role in persuading the parent to stay). In Japan it was almost always a successful strategy — one that would frustrate whatever a judge in the country of origin might have decided about the child custody arrangements. Now, this type of “abduction by retention” should result in a Japanese court issuing a return order.

With Japan having joined the treaty, parents and foreign judges alike may now feel more secure about the idea of a child being brought here to live. Yet if that happens with the consent of the other parent or permission of a foreign court, a return order will then be difficult — if not impossible — to obtain. While judges in American states may be accustomed to retaining jurisdiction over children taken to another state and being able to enforce their rulings on custody, this probably won’t work with a child taken to Japan; if the scenario does not constitute an “abduction,” parents will likely be left to seek relief in Japanese family courts outside the convention framework, and they should lower their expectations accordingly.

Judges still finding their way

First, conversations with lawyers indicate that even in abduction cases that clearly fall under the convention, the Osaka and Tokyo family courts charged with resolving them are still figuring things out. Family court judges are likely accustomed to resolving domestic cases without being constrained by the rules of evidence and procedure that should apply in Hague cases.

At the same time, however, such cases are supposed to be resolved more expeditiously, despite involving complex issues such as the interpretation of foreign law: What do “rights of custody” mean in Country X, for example? (There is an international network of “Hague judges” in which Japanese judges participate, but apparently not to the extent of using it as an informal source of information on foreign law and practice in specific cases.) Similarly, which party has the burden of proving what — a parent’s consent, for example? And what if a parent or foreign court’s permission to relocate to Japan with a child is based on the relocating parent’s promise of cooperation with visitation — a promise that is immediately broken after getting off the plane?

Some of my lawyer interlocutors complain about a lack of procedural clarity. Perhaps this is a matter of time and more cases will resolve these issues.

Mixed messages on visitation

Second, visitation in Japan remains patchy and difficult to enforce. The convention provides for facilitation of cross-border access (aka visitation) but with limited substance. While the Foreign Ministry offers support, it is just that — support, such as contacting the other parent and offering online visitation and mediation. Such support has reportedly resulted in visitation in some cases, and even led to a few instances of children being returned.

If cooperation is not forthcoming, however, the parent seeking visitation is left seeking recourse in family courts, pretty much like everyone else. Here the stories I hear seem have not changed dramatically: parents going for months without seeing their children, mediation sessions where nothing seems to happen, judges who seem unduly solicitous of parents engaging in alienating behavior, and courts making decisions based on expediency rather than the best interests of children.

There are some signs of changes: Courts seem to be awarding visitation more, and I hear more about overnight stays, though recent judicial statistics show them occurring in less than 10 percent of cases. Also, in a December 2014 decision, the Fukuoka Family Court transferred legal custody of a child from mother to father due to the former’s obstruction of visitation. Only last month, the Matsudo branch of the Chiba Family Court ordered a mother to hand over her daughter to the father after years of blocking contact between the two. Japanese family court professionals have long written about the “good parent rule” — giving custody to whichever is more understanding of visitation with the other — as a remedy for such intransigence, but these are the first instances I have seen of it actually being applied.

Yet such developments should be treated with caution. Seemingly revolutionary decisions have to survive appeals and be enforced to be truly meaningful. In the Fukuoka case, only legal custody was transferred, something that can be accomplished simply by filing the judgment with the family registry; it does not automatically equate with the father getting contact, only the mother needing to seek his cooperation to take legal acts like applying for a passport on their child’s behalf.

As for the other case, branch family courts have long been the dumping ground for judges disfavored by the judicial hierarchy, meaning the Chiba case could be an anomaly as much as a harbinger of true change. Even the family courts’ increased acceptance of visitation seems to be tied to growing use of supervised visitation through NPOs staffed by (surprise!) retired family court personnel. In other countries supervised visitation is limited to cases where a parent is abusive or potentially dangerous; in Japan it seems to be becoming the easy-to-award/recommend default solution for when the custodial parent is intransigent.

Visitation thus still seems to be driven by what the custodial parent can be convinced to agree to, rather than what might be meaningful for the child. The Foreign Ministry’s Mimamori online supervised visitation system seems to be an extension of this logic: that any contact is better than none, and might lead to something more meaningful (which is sometimes the case). Understandably, some parents who have done no wrong yet are expected to accept being treated like criminals in order to interact with their own children find this abhorrent.

Lack of enforcement — and details

Third, an order from a Japanese court to return a child, whether across the street or to another country, can often still be frustrated by a parent simply refusing to comply, or getting the child to refuse. This is said to have already been an issue in convention cases, which should not surprise anyone: Before the treaty came into force, the nation’s shikkōkan — the bailiffs who enforce civil judgments — announced that it would likely be impossible to enforce return orders without the child’s cooperation. While the process of implementing the Hague Convention has brought some clarity to the theory and practice of enforcing returns, without sanctions for contempt (which Japanese judges lack in these cases) or other police-like powers to back them up, court orders can end up being meaningless pieces of paper.

Fourth, and finally, after two years and a number of cases, the workings of Japan’s Hague courts remain invisible. No judgments have been published, nor do there appear to be any statistics available on case resolutions. There is no way for outsiders to know how Japanese courts are deciding whether or not to return children.

At least I can drink some Champagne (Moet & Chandon is fine too): Japan did join the convention, and lawyers tell me it is having a real effect in deterring abductions. Yet it shouldn’t be forgotten that the convention’s potential remains limited by the constraints of the Japanese family justice system as a whole. Describing those requires more words than a single column allows, so keep watching this space.

Colin P.A. Jones is a professor at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto. The views expressed are those of the author alone. Law of the Land appears on the second Monday Community Page of the month. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

(April 1, 2014, to March 31, 2016) APPLICATIONS FOR HELP WITH RETURNS APPLICATIONS FOR HELP WITH VISITATION
APPLICATIONS TO MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS RELATING TO CHILDREN IN JAPAN (AND THE FOREIGN COUNTRY INVOLVED)
U.S. 11
France 4
Australia 4
Germany 3
Canada 2
U.K. 2
Singapore 1
Italy 1
Spain 1
Russia 1
Switzerland 1
Belgium 1
Sri Lanka 1
Turkey 1
Fiji 1
Colombia 1
South Korea 1
U.S. 39
U.K. 6
France 5
Australia 4
Canada 4
New Zealand 3
Singapore 3
Mexico 2
Germany 1
Costa Rica 1
Subtotal 37
Rejected* 8
Total 45
Subtotal 68
Rejected* 7
Total 75
APPLICATIONS TO MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS RELATING TO CHILDREN IN FOREIGN COUNTRIES
Thailand 6
Russia 4
Brazil 4
South Korea 3
U.S. 3
Germany 2
Canada 2
France 1
U.K. 1
Italy 1
Spain 1
Switzerland 1
Slovakia 1
South Africa 1
Peru 1
Romania 1
Sri Lanka 1
Belarus 1
Sweden 1
U.S. 5
Russia 3
Canada 3
Germany 2
Ukraine 2
Thailand 2
Australia 1
South Korea 1
Uruguay 1
Netherlands 1
Poland 1
Hong Kong 1
Subtotal 36
Rejected applications* 3
Total 39
Total 23
TOTAL APPLICATIONS 84 98**
STATISTICS IN TABLE COURTESY OF MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS

NOTES

* Applications for assistance may be rejected by the Foreign Ministry because they do not satisfy requirements for assistance (e.g., the requesting parent is unable to demonstrate rights of custody or visitation). In some instances, rejections reflect the fact that the taking parent has already returned with the child voluntarily, rendering the application moot.

** The far greater number of requests for visitation assistance for children in Japan in part reflects the fact that Japan allowed applications for assistance with visitation with children in Japan even in cases pre-dating the Hague Convention’s coming into force.

RETURNS

• The data regarding returns reflects applications to the Foreign Ministry for assistance in achieving the return of a child either in Japan or in a foreign country, which in the first instance involves encouraging the taking parent to return voluntarily or to mediate with the other parent. Accordingly, only some of these cases are ultimately resolved through court.

• According to the ministry, 14 children were returned from Japan, through mediation or other voluntary arrangements, alternative dispute resolution or court orders, and nine children were returned to Japan.

• These figures do not include some voluntary returns in cases where the Foreign Ministry was not formally involved.

• Three returns from Japan and one to Japan reportedly resulted from the visitation assistance process rather than the return process.

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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://mainichi.jp/english/english/newsselect/news/20130423p2g00m0dm079000c.html


Lower house OKs Japan’s ratification of int’l child custody pact

TOKYO (Kyodo) — The House of Representatives on Tuesday unanimously approved Japan’s ratification of an international treaty to help settle cross-border child custody disputes, paving the way for passage through the Diet in late May.

The 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction sets out the rules and procedures for the prompt return of children under 16, taken or retained by one parent following the failure of an international marriage, to the country of their habitual residence if requested by the other parent.

The lower chamber is set to endorse a bill stipulating the domestic process for the children to return to their habitual residence soon, setting the stage for the legislation to clear the Diet in late May with approval by the House of Councillors

Japan’s Constitution stipulates that a treaty will be given Diet approval when the upper house does not vote on it within 30 days as the lower house has more power.

A central authority to be established in the Foreign Ministry will locate children upon request. It will ask for the cooperation of local governments and police when necessary.

Exemptions for returning a child will be given in cases of child abuse or domestic violence, according to the bill.

Japan is the only one among the Group of Eight nations yet to join the pact that has 89 signatories. The G-8 comprises Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States.

The United States, Japan’s key ally, has been urging Tokyo to join the treaty as soon as possible, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told U.S. President Barack Obama in February that Japan is close to participating in the treaty.

April 23, 2013(Mainichi Japan)

April 16, 2013

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2013/04/17/national/film-sheds-light-on-plight-of-left-behind-parents/#.UW3xorWUSeR

NATIONAL
Film sheds light on plight of left-behind parents
BY MASAMI ITO
STAFF WRITER
APR 17, 2013
ARTICLE HISTORY
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Images of left-behind parents, holding up photos of their children, flash across the screen. In the United States, Canada, Europe and even Japan, these parents are waiting to reunite with offspring taken away by their estranged Japanese spouses.

The documentary film “From The Shadows,” completed last December, features five left-behind parents and their struggles to reconnect with their children.

During a recent interview with The Japan Times, producer and director David Hearn stressed that he was motivated to make the film to raise awareness and understanding.

In the 6½ years it took to make the film, Hearn and his coproducer and codirector, Matthew Antell, traveled to five countries, including Japan, to chronicle the parents’ torments.

“When you get to meet left-behind parents and know more about them, you can feel the kind of pain and heartache they experience. These parents are not different from you or me, they are real, imperfect, but always loving and desperate to reconnect with their own children,” Hearn said.

“Their relationship with their children fulfills their identity, who they are and without it they are often shattered.”

Regan Suzuki, Paul Toland and Paul Wong from the U.S., Murray Wood from Canada and Rina Furuichi from Japan, the parents in the film, all have had their children taken away by a Japanese spouse or relatives of the estranged spouse, and all have effectively had no contact with their sons and daughters.

These cases are only the tip of the iceberg. Many left-behind parents have spent years trying to reconnect with children who have been taken to Japan from abroad. Toland, for example, has been forced to live apart from his daughter, who was only 9 months old at the time his then-wife took her in 2003. Wood has been separated from his two children since November 2004, when they were just elementary school students.

“When kids need parents is when they’re growing up. They need me now,” Wood says in the film. “They need their dad to help them go from where they are now to solid, confident adults who have the best chance that they possibly can to be successful in life. That’s what they need, that’s what my job is.”

Some of the fathers, including Wood, take the desperate step of approaching their children as they walk to school. Although Wood succeeds, the lack of contact over the years makes their reunion heartbreakingly awkward as Wood struggles to interact with his son and daughter.

Hearn, who as a child was himself caught in the middle of a bruising custody battle between his parents, encourages left-behind parents to reach out to their children, to let them know that they haven’t been forgotten. The director recalled the awkward interactions when his father started showing up at his sporting events, but he was grateful for the man’s efforts, even though they didn’t have much to say to each other.

“For children who are growing up, learning and developing, the sudden loss of one parent can be devastating. I was lucky because losing one of my parents was never a consideration when my parents had their custody battle, but for children in Japan, if a custody battle occurs, it often means that they will lose contact with one parent,” Hearn said. “We find it unacceptable that this result is the best we can do for our kids.”

The underlying problem for many cases is Japan’s refusal to join The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. The treaty aims to prevent cross-border kidnappings by parents and to secure the swift return of children wrongfully taken or who are being held in any member state.

After years of international criticism, the government is finally poised to join the 89 other member states, if the Diet approves related bills as early as next month.

Japan is also the only Group of Eight nation that has yet to sign on to the treaty.

Many such abductions are in defiance of court rulings on child custody and visitation rights handed down in other countries that had been the offsprings’ nation of domicile, as well as the nation where they were born. Thus when a ruling is violated by an apparent flight to another country, the spouse could be subject to a fugitive arrest warrant.

Strong domestic opposition, however, remains.

Many Japanese mothers, for example, claim domestic violence prompted them to take the children to Japan in the first place. And Japanese authorities have repeatedly stressed that in such cases, children will not be sent back regardless of the convention.

Left-behind parents, however, feel this argument could be an easy justification for courts in Japan to side with the alleged abused party and not return their children.

“I’m worried because there are plenty of signatory countries all over the world (whose) compliance record can be very up or down,” Hearn said. “My worry is that Japan signs but nothing really changes. But I hope I’m wrong.”

Some experts and foreign officials have also questioned the effectiveness of Japan’s participation, citing not only the sole-custody law but also the custom of not proactively supporting visitation rights for noncustodial parents.

According to Japanese family courts, there were 409 cases of parents seeking the return of their abducted children in 2001 — a number that jumped to 1,985 by 2011. Experts point out that undoubtedly many more cases exist because these numbers reflect only those cases that have been acknowledged by the courts.

Hearn, along with many left-behind parents, expressed guarded optimism about Japan’s readiness to comply with the treaty.

“We are aware that signing The Hague Convention will not cure everything because there will continue to be situations that are difficult to handle,” Hearn said. “But if signing the treaty accomplishes one thing, we hope that it will create a situation where more relationships between children and their parents are kept intact.”

For more information, visit fromtheshadowsmovie.com.

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.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130219/japan-eyes-change-over-snatched-kids

Agence France-PresseFebruary 19, 2013 23:00
Japan eyes change over snatched kids

(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will be under pressure when he meets US President Barack Obama this week to pledge progress on a long-stalled treaty to prevent the snatching of children by a Japanese parent in international divorce cases.

Abe is expected to promise that Japan will follow through on a decades-old pledge to ratify the Hague Convention on child abduction, giving some legal muscle to hundreds of foreign fathers — including Americans, French and Canadians — kept apart from their half-Japanese children.

“Those are only the reported cases,” French Senator Richard Yung told AFP during a recent trip to Tokyo to press officials on the issue.

Japan is the lone member of the G8 industrialised nations — the others being the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Russia and Canada — not to have adopted the 32-year-old international treaty.

Key allies including the US, France and Britain have long demanded Tokyo step into line.

Diplomats say ratification of the Hague Convention could come during Japan’s current parliamentary session, which ends in the summer.

That would make it the 90th state to adopt the treaty, which is aimed at securing “the prompt return of children wrongfully removed or held” in another treaty state.

“These cases are particularly cruel — birthday or Christmas presents are returned,” said Yung, who added that he met a vice foreign affairs minister but was refused a sit down with Justice Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki.

The changes would also offer hope to hundreds of thousands of Japanese fathers who face similar estrangement under domestic custody laws.

Japan is unique among major industrialised nations when it comes to the children of estranged parents.

Courts do not recognise joint custody — for foreigners or Japanese nationals — and almost always order that children live with their mothers, leaving desperate fathers with almost no recourse to see their children.

Many lose touch with their offspring if the ex-spouse blocks access, a common occurrence due to the widely held opinion that child rearing is a task for women, while men earn the money.

Yasuyuki Watanabe, the deputy mayor of a small Japanese town, has not seen his daughter in years. After the country’s devastating 2011 quake-tsunami disaster, he says he tried to make contact with the now five-year-old girl.

“And my wife called the police on me,” he said.

Michael, a foreigner who has lived in Japan for three decades, had a messy divorce that ultimately saw two of his three kids tell a Japanese court they had no wish to ever see their father again.

That, he says, was the product of “brainwashing” by his ex-spouse. Michael, which is not his real name, has never met his two grandchildren.

Sometimes, judges do order the custodial parent to send photos of a child to their former spouse, or to allow a short monthly visit.

But police almost never intervene when those orders are commonly ignored.

Ratification of the convention would not automatically change Japanese laws, but it offers hope for hundreds of thousands of Japanese men cut off from their kids, including Watanabe who said he recently met with the justice minister.

“I told him how the judicial system is malfunctioning and that judges encourage these abductions, whether it is international or in Japan,” he added.

But ratifying the treaty alone is no silver bullet and there are fears that future changes to domestic laws could lack both scope and substance, warned Yung, who cited public opinion as the biggest weapon in winning the fight for access.

Richard Delrieu, president of advocacy group SOS Parents Japan, has not seen his own half-Japanese son in years and also said that ratifying the treaty alone won’t change things overnight.

“This situation is not worthy of a great country like Japan,” he said.

jlh-pb/hg/ao/pdh

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130219/japan-eyes-change-over-snatched-kids

ジャックコロー 11月2010年 from kingyochingyo on Vimeo.

Sad commentary on attitudes of the Japanese system, the law enforcement system in particular, towards peaceful, kind-hearted left-behind parents who go through tremendous efforts to try to reach out to their children. It is obvious how uncomfortable the law enforcement is with this issue, to the point that it interrupts the filming of this complete event.

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/nn20130117a9.html

Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013

Hague pact on fast track, Abe to tell Obama
Kyodo
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will tell U.S. President Barack Obama when they meet, probably in February, that he wants to speed up the procedure for Japan to join the international treaty on settling cross-border child custody disputes, sources said Wednesday.

The previous administration led by former Democratic Party of Japan leader Yoshihiko Noda had already made participation in the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction an international commitment.

The Abe team is aiming to submit a bill to the Diet early this year to endorse the convention, which sets rules for the prompt return of children under 16, taken or retained by one parent following the failure of international marriages, to the country of their habitual residence.

Domestic legislation is necessary to join the convention, but a related bill was scrapped when the Lower House was dissolved in November.

Among the Group of Eight nations, Japan is the only one yet to join the convention and has been facing calls from the United States and European countries to get on board soon.

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/nn20130104f2.html

Friday, Jan. 4, 2013

Child custody injustices hard to fix
Joining Hague may curb parental abductions if legal mindset evolves

By MASAMI ITO
Staff writer
On May 6, 2010, Yasuyuki Watanabe, an internal affairs ministry bureaucrat, came home to find his wife and 2-year old daughter gone, along with their clothes.

nn20130104f2a
Playing catchup: Yasuyuki Watanabe, deputy mayor of Nasushiobara, Tochigi Prefecture, speaks during an interview at a Tokyo hotel on Dec. 11. SATOKO KAWASAKI

His wife had spirited away their daughter near the end of Golden Week, just days after he was enjoying the holidays taking her on hikes and to local festivals, recalled Watanabe, 40, now deputy mayor of Nasushiobara, Tochigi Prefecture. He recounted how he carried his daughter on his back and how they sang songs together until she fell asleep, snuggling against him.

His world was turned upside down that fateful day. Last month she turned 5.

"It is so important for children to feel loved by both parents, especially when they are growing up, and I think that my daughter feels abandoned by me, that I left her because I didn't love her anymore," Watanabe told The Japan Times during a recent interview in Tokyo. "The most painful thing about my situation is when I think about how my daughter must be feeling."

Watanabe is one of many parents in Japan who have been torn away from their children after a falling-out with their spouse in a nation that grants only sole custody, usually to the mother, and where it is customary for parents not living with their offspring, to have little, if any, contact with them.

This has also been a widely reported harsh reality for foreign parents, including those living overseas whose children have been taken to Japan by estranged Japanese spouses.

These so-called parental child abductions are behind growing calls for Japan to join the international Hague treaty to prevent such cross-border kidnappings.

"These two problems are actually closely related because the domestic and international situation is the same — your children are abducted one day out of the blue and you are forbidden from seeing them," Watanabe said.

For Watanabe, what followed was a long legal battle with his wife, and divorce proceedings, which continue.

Initially his wife let him see their daughter a few times, but that stopped abruptly when he was slapped with domestic violence charges — which he branded a lie.

His wife alleged he had threatened her with a large pair of scissors while she was pregnant and told her he knew yakuza who would be willing to help him out with the situation by pushing her off a station platform in front of a train. The violence charges were later dropped.

"There is nothing more terrifying than receiving an order to appear before the court over 'DV' allegations. I was completely distraught. The judge, however, recognized that much of her claims were questionable and warned she could be charged with false accusations, so she dropped the charges the day before the ruling was to be made," Watanabe said.

But his wife then filed a lawsuit, demanding custody of their child and, again, adding allegations of abuse.

Last February, presiding Judge Tatsushige Wakabayashi at the Chiba Family Court granted Watanabe's ex-wife custody of their daughter from the viewpoint of "continuity," ruled that Watanabe had committed domestic violence and rejected his demand that his daughter be returned. The Supreme Court finalized the ruling in September.

While his legal battles dragged on, Watanabe asked lawmakers to address the issue and his case was deliberated on in the Diet.

Given his public profile, Watanabe originally wished to remain anonymous. But to garner public support for his situation, he recently came forward to tell his story to the press.

"I've been labeled a DV husband, and the judge completely ignored the facts and the law in my case. I had no choice but to stand up and fight," he said.

Watanabe has solicited the help of a special group of lawmakers who are trying to get Judge Wakabayashi fired from the bench. Among the so-called left-behind parents in Japan, Wakabayashi has spurred widespread ire, especially when in 2011, he criticized then-Justice Minister Satsuki Eda for telling the Diet that priority should be placed on the welfare of the child rather than the "principle of continuity."

"There are many people in similar situations. I cannot give up for their sake. It is not just about me and my daughter. This is a battle for all children and their parents," Watanabe said.

According to data compiled by family courts, there were 409 parents seeking the return of their offspring from an estranged spouse in 2001, whereas by 2011, there were 1,985 parents seeking to get their kids back. The numbers, however, reflect only the legal cases filed by left-behind parents that were officially accepted by the nation's family courts. Experts speculate they constitute only the tip of the iceberg.

Masayuki Tanamura, a professor of family law at Waseda University, said various factors are behind the increase in parental child abductions, including Japan's sole custody principle and the current legal framework that generally grants that right to mothers.

"Times have changed — fathers are more involved in child-rearing, and the legal system — including the principle of sole custody — makes battles over children more likely to happen. I think this part of Japan's legal system is outdated," Tanamura said.

One major difference that makes Japan's legal system peculiar is that when an estranged spouse initially takes a child, it isn't considered a crime. This is because it is common for an estranged parent, generally the mother, to take the children to her parents' domicile if a divorce is being contemplated.

But if the left-behind parent then subsequently tries to retrieve the offspring spirited away from their home, the action is considered kidnapping. Tanamura claimed there are many cases in which parents who spirit offspring away are unaware such action could be construed as abduction. From their point of view, they are merely considering a divorce or fleeing an abusive environment.

"It is hard to label all parental kidnappings as illegal . . . but at the same time, there are many cases that could constitute a double standard. It's OK for mothers to first take the children away, but when the fathers try to get them back, this is illegal," Tanamura said. "This is based on the longtime concept that children belong with their mothers."

To prevent children from losing access to both parents after a separation, Article 766 of the Civil Law was revised in 2011 to specify that visitation rights, child-support payments and other matters be determined during nonlitigated divorce proceedings, and that the welfare of the child be considered first.

But even this change can't help people like Watanabe because his case was ruled on after the amendment. "The aim of the revision is to promote forming agreements (over child care) when getting a divorce. But there is nothing that guarantees compliance," Tanamura said.

Tanamura and other experts thus agree that if and when Japan signs the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, it must at the same time institute fundamental changes in the legal system, and the public mindset must also be overhauled, or joining the convention will lead to naught.

John Gomez, chairman of the recently founded Kizuna Child-Parent Reunion, a group of Japanese and non-Japanese parents, friends and supporters advocating the right of children to have access to both parents, emphasized the need for left-behinds to cooperate because simply joining the Hague Convention will not solve anything in Japan if it continues to take a one-sided approach to domestic custodial rights.

"The problem of international cases and in-country cases has the same root cause — Japanese family law and the courts," Gomez said.

"The abduction issue affects all people in Japan — mothers as well as fathers, Japanese as well as non-Japanese."

The Hague treaty aims for the swift return of children wrongfully taken out of the country of their "habitual residence" by a parent to prevent cross-border parental kidnappings. Of the Group of Eight countries, Japan is the only nation yet to sign the convention.

Japan has been under pressure from member states, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, to join the convention, but it has been reluctant, given strong domestic opposition, especially from Japanese mothers who claim they fled to Japan with their children to protect themselves from abusive ex-spouses.

Facing severe criticism from the international community, however, Japan finally reached the point of submitting a bid to sign the treaty and Hague-related legislation to the Diet during the last session presided over by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's Democratic Party of Japan. But the politicians instead spent most of their time bickering over internal power struggles related to other domestic issues, pushing the Hague Convention to the sidelines once again.

And it remains unclear whether the issue will move forward under the new government led by the Liberal Democratic Party.

Government officials have expressed confidence that once deliberations begin, the Hague bid will be approved by the Diet. But parents, including Gomez, a longtime Japan resident who himself is separated from his Japanese wife and is having difficulty seeing his daughter, say joining the Hague treaty is only a step in the right direction, not a silver bullet.

Gomez explained that on the legal front, parental kidnappings must be stopped, visitation rights made enforceable and the idea of joint custody introduced. But he added that public awareness must also be raised at the same time so the public understands the benefits of the changes to ensure the rules are followed.

"The Hague is only one tool. The ultimate goal for us is a social and legal transformation of Japan . . . a complete transformation in terms of mindset and practice," Gomez said. "We firmly believe, Japanese and non-Japanese alike, that the social and legal transformation is for the betterment of Japanese society and children and improvement in the quality of life."

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.