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.mofa.go.jp/policy/human/symp_en_130116.html

“Symposium on the Hague Convention
– in Considering the Modality of International Family Mediation –”
organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

December 11, 2012

The Government of Japan has been making efforts toward the conclusion of “the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction (the Hague Convention)”. Should it be concluded, the Government of Japan will designate the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a Central Authority which provides assistance for securing the return of children and other objectives of the Convention. Under the Convention, the Ministry shall take, either directly or through any intermediary, all appropriate measures to secure the voluntary return of children or to bring about an amicable resolution of the issues. Mediation, a non-judicial form of amicable solution, encourages both parties to move voluntarily on to an agreement and often successfully avoids the increased complication of the issues. Contracting States have recognised the importance of mediation in this light and shared this view at such forum as the Special Commission Meetings. Nevertheless, currently in Japan, there are no sufficient experiences or knowledge accumulated in the field of international mediation concerning child removal issues.

The “Symposium on the Hague Convention – in Considering the Modality of International Family Mediation –” to be held on 16th January in 2013 will be a forum for discussing the modality of international mediation in Japan. The discussion will include sharing the experiences and knowledge of experts from the U.K. and Germany with a wealth of experience in mediation within the scope of the Hague Convention, and exchanging views on what modalities for international mediation should be in place in Japan after the Hague Convention comes into effect.

We are looking forward to your participation and please register your attendance as guided below.

Date

Date:
Wednesday 16th January, 2013, 13:00 – 16:30
Venue:
Mita 2-1-8, Minato-Ku, Tokyo, Mita Kaigisho
Map [PDF]
Organiser:
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan
Cooperation:
Japan Association of Arbitrators
Sponsorship:
Japan Federation of Bar Associations
Language:
Japanese and English(For those who wish to hear a simultaneous interpreting, the limited number of earphones will be available.)
Admission:
Free of Charge
Capacity:
Approximately 200 people
Preliminary Programme
13:00 Opening
Opening Address(Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
13:20
Keynote Speech
1) Anne-Marie Hutchinson OBE(Solicitor and Partner at Dawson Cornwell, Chair of the Board of Trustees of reunite, United Kingdom)
Theme : “Cross-border Child Custody Disputes and the Ideal Modality of the Hague Convention and the Mediation”
2) Isomi Suzuki (Attorney at law, Chairperson of the study group on private mediation schemes of Japan Association of Arbitrators)
Theme : “Challenge of International Mediation in Japan in response to the Hague Convention Cases”
14:25 Break
14:40
Panel Discussion
Theme : “Mediation in the Framework of the Hague Convention – Learning from Experiences of Germany and the United Kingdom-”

Moderators :
Mikiko Otani (Attorney at law, Member of the study group on private mediation schemes of Japan Association of Arbitrators, Vice-chair of the Hague Convention Working Group of Japan Federation of Bar Associations)
Miyuki Sano (Attorney at law, Member of the Hague Convention Working Group of Japan Federation of Bar Association)

Panelists :

1) Sandra Fenn (Expert for the Mediation of Hague Convention, reunite, United Kingdom)
2) Masayuki Tanamura (Professor, Faculty of Law, Waseda University)
3) Yoshiko Aibara (Attorney at law, Member of the Hague Convention Working Group of Japan Federation of Bar Association)
4) Christoph Cornelius Paul (Lawyer, MiKK, Germany)
5) Isomi Suzuki (Attorney at law, Chairperson of the study group on private mediation schemes of Japan Association of Arbitrators)
6) Akio Miyajima (Deputy Director-General, Foreign Policy Bureau, Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
Registration for the Symposium

To register for this symposium, please email us at hague.symposium@mofa.go.jp by 18:00 on Tuesday 25th December. Your email should include the following information:
Subject:Registration for Hague Symposium
(1) Name
(2) Organisation
(3) Position
(4) Telephone number
In the case of group registration, please provide the necessary information of all participants.
Seating capacity at the symposium is limited (approximately 200 people) and we may be unable to invite all applicants if we receive more applications than available seats. We will notify you whether a seat is available or not by around a week ahead of the symposium.
Information provided by you on this registration will be processed properly and only used for the purpose of this symposium.
Please come well ahead of the starting time as we will confirm your name at the reception desk. Persons not following our staff’s guidance or instructions in the hall will be refused admission or asked to leave.
Please come to the venue by public transportation if possible as the Mita Kaigisho has no parking areas.
Enquiries about the Symposium

Hague Convention Division, Foreign Policy Bureau, Ministry of the Foreign Affairs of Japan
Tel:03-5501-8000 (Enquiries are accepted from 9:30 to 17:30 on weekdays.)
FAX:03-5501-8239
Email:hague.symposium@mofa.go.jp

http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/dy/national/T120509005259.htm

 

Divorced parents lack ways to meet kids / Ministry has asked local govts to help out, but so far only Tokyo has taken active steps

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The welfare ministry has asked local governments to encourage meetings between divorced parents and their children by arranging and overseeing such encounters, but little progress has been made.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry started a project this fiscal year to increase opportunities for parents to meet their children after a divorce by encouraging prefectural governments and those of 20 ordinance-designated major cities nationwide to help out.

But among them, only the Tokyo metropolitan government has decided to begin to offer relevant services by the end of this fiscal year. The other 66 local governments will do so later, or have no plans.

Though the local governments admitted the project is necessary, they said the services cannot be provided because they have no officials with know-how about such meeting arrangements.

Thus it is an urgent task to train personnel who can implement the services.

Experts have said that meeting with parents after they get divorced is important for the children’s growth.

But in many cases, meetings by those directly involved are difficult to hold because of emotional conflicts.

According to the Supreme Court, applications for parent-child meetings in 2010 numbered 7,749, an about 3.2-fold jump from 10 years ago.

There have been many cases in which parents who have been refused permission to meet their children have taken matters into their own hands and absconded with them.

Private organizations offering to arrange and oversee such meetings do exist, but there are too few of them to meet nationwide demand. Consequently, only a limited number of people can use the services of such organizations.

A man in his 30s living in Hiroshima Prefecture apart from his wife and child while the couple’s divorce proceedings are under way said, “As my trusting relationship with my wife has been lost, I can’t even directly contact her.”

He said an arbitration service by a nonprofit organization cost 18,000 yen for two hours. He said, “Public assistance is necessary.”

In response to such opinions, starting in this fiscal year, the ministry decided to subsidize part of the costs if local governments of prefectures, major cities and regional core cities implement their own parent-child meeting services.

The public services cover low-income earners with children under 15, and the services are free of charge.

The idea is for officials of the local governments or other public entities to coordinate times and places for the meetings and also accompany the persons involved.

Since autumn last year, the ministry has asked the local governments to proactively implement the services.

However, in a survey conducted in April by The Yomiuri Shimbun on prefectural and major city governments, only the Tokyo metropolitan government replied it planned to introduce the service within this fiscal year.

Forty-six of the local governments, or 69 percent, said they were still considering whether to introduce the service. Twenty, or 30 percent, replied that they had no plans to do so.

On why such a service had not yet been introduced, a question for which multiple responses were permitted, 32 of the governments, or 48 percent, said they do not have officials or outside experts with expertise about such meetings, and 21 of them, or 32 percent, said they could not secure budgets for the purpose.

Most of the surveyed local governments admitted the project is necessary. But the Kochi prefectural government said the project means that public entities will get involved in the participants’ private affairs and thus careful consideration is necessary.

The Fukuoka prefectural government said that local governments alone have a limit on what can be done because difficult adjustments will be necessary in some cases, and it will be necessary to establish a system in which local governments will closely cooperate with lawyers, family courts and other experts.

A ministry official said, “We’ll take the opinions into consideration so that more local governments will implement the project.”

Waseda University Prof. Masayuki Tanamura, an expert on family law, said: “Maintaining interactions between parents and children after a divorce is important for the children’s growth. As there are many parents who say they can allow children to meet divorced spouses with third-party oversight, the project is significant.

“Because this is the first attempt of its kind, the local governments seem to be reluctant due to fear of possible trouble. But it’s useful even just to coordinate meeting schedules or contact parents on behalf of the other spouses. It’s necessary to actively provide the services,” he said.

(May. 10, 2012)