This article was published a few years ago and mentions the cases of two board members of Children’s Rights Council of Japan, David Brian Thomas (who is also co-founder of CRC of Japan) and Michael Gulbraa.

http://www.davidappleyard.com/japan/jp21.htm

Foreigners find divorce means sayonara to kids
— Their Japanese spouses split and courts laugh in their face

By DOUG STRUCK and SACHIKO SAKAMAKI

(This article was first published in the Washington Post, and later in the Japan Times)

It was quiet in the house when Sean Reedy got home after giving exams all day at the university. Too quiet. No cry of “Poppy!” from little Louie, 8, followed by the usual demands of Bunta, 6, and Yuzo, 5, to kick the soccer ball around before dinner.

And too neat, he recalled. The house on that Saturday 18 months ago was immaculate. As though it had been straightened in a final, departing gesture.

He looked quickly in closets. Clothes were gone. Louie’s school backpack — gone. Passports — gone, too.

His Japanese wife took his sons into hiding that day, preempting custody of the boys by simple possession. She could do so confident that the customs and laws of Japan would help her keep the children from their father.

It stunned Reedy, 44, a linguistics professor who had been in Japan for 16 years. Foreign spouses here frequently lose their children when their marriages collapse. There is no shared custody in Japanese divorces, and visitation rights are minimal and unenforceable. The wife gets the children in an estimated 80 percent to 90 percent of the cases, according to divorce lawyers, and fathers are expected to drop out of sight.

Although his marriage was not going well, Reedy said, he had no inkling that his children might be taken from him. The school system refused to tell him where they had been transferred, although there was no allegation of abuse. Through her attorney, his wife has let him see his sons three times in 18 months, but he still does not know where they live and cannot contact them. She sued for divorce, and he demanded frequent visitation rights.

“In court, when I said I wanted to see my kids every weekend, they laughed at me,” Reedy said.

Family experts say divorce carries a stigma, so  former spouses avoid seeing each other. The workaholic hallmark of post-war Japan resulted in a clear division of responsibility, they say, in which husbands belong to their job and children belong to their mothers. Mothers take total responsibility for the children — they’re blamed, for instance, if their children get bad marks in school — and are expected to retain that role after divorce.

In addition, some experts argue, children’s loyalties are less divided if the father is not around.

It is rare for Japanese fathers, or mothers,  to fight that tradition. When one parent in a failed marriage is a Westerner who wants continued contact with the children, however, there is little legal help. If a Japanese parent whisks the kids away, as Reedy’s wife did, there is no legal remedy. It is not treated as a crime.

Even if children are taken away from a parent abroad who has legal custody and are brought here, Japan is a haven from international law.

Japan is one of the few developed countries that has refused to sign the 1980 Hague Convention promising to return abducted children to the rightful custody of an overseas parent. So a Japanese parent is not prosecuted for bringing children into the country in violation of a foreign court’s custody order. Japan ranks second, behind Mexico, in the frequency of parental abduction cases handled by the U.S. State Department, a spokeswoman said.

Even as a tenured professor and taxpayer, Reedy found he could get no assistance from the Japanese courts in getting his children back — or even seeing them regularly.

“It’s a big problem, especially for foreign men,” said Kensuke Onuki, a lawyer here who handles international divorces. “The situation is totally different from the United States. There are hardly any cases where my clients are able to see their children.”

And it is a growing problem, as international marriages increase in Japan and the stigma of divorce declines. In 2001, the Health Ministry recorded nearly 40,000 marriages between a Japanese and a foreigner, more than triple the number in 1980. It also counted more than 13,000 divorces of mixed-nationality couples, nearly double that of a decade ago.

Das Pradip gets to meet with his children once a month, for 30 minutes, at a Roy Rogers restaurant
— when his ex-wife bothers to bring them.

She left her husband three years ago with the children, then 5 and 8, for a Japanese man. Pradip refuses to go home to India because he knows he would lose all contact with his children. Instead, he toils at a Tokyo short-order grill, flipping hamburgers and serving french fries.

“As long as I am alive, I will not give up my children,” he said. “I went outside their school and stood outside just to see them walking with their friends. I can’t even say hello to them. It’s so painful.” He asked to dine with them on Father’s Day, but the court said it was “not Japanese culture,” Pradip said. His ex-wife and her attorney declined to be interviewed.

In cases examined for this article, available court papers and interviews with attorneys revealed no finding of physical abuse, and the other spouses or their attorneys declined requests to respond to questions.

David Brian Thomas said he has not seen his son since his Japanese wife and her parents locked him out of their house in 1992. The divorce was overturned by the court on grounds that his wife doctored papers and forged his seal, but Thomas has been unable to see his son, Graham Hajime, who is now 13.

“The court says yes, I have rights to see my son,” Thomas said. “But there’s no method in Japan of enforcement. Technically, I have won, but I have lost. The laws are stacked against foreigners.

“I really love my son. That’s why I’ve tolerated this for so long,” said Thomas, 58, a native of Wales who teaches English in private schools here. “Why don’t I just go away and remarry and live my life? Because I have a son. How would I feel if my father ran away from me? There will come a time when he will ask, ‘Where is my father?’ and I want to be here.”

The first obstacle for foreigners is the recent custom in Japanese divorces for the wife to get the children. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was unusual when, in separating from his wife in 1982, he took custody of his two sons. More typical was the wall of silence that has remained since: His ex-wife has not seen their two children, now 22 and 24, since their divorce, and Koizumi has not spoken to his third son, now 20, who was born after the marriage dissolved.

Visitation rights aren’t part of a court’s divorce order. If the issue is raised, a family court will try to persuade parents to agree voluntarily, but there is no enforcement. Even foreign visitation or custody orders have no standing in Japan.

“I don’t want him to see my daughter,” said a 35-year-old Japanese woman who is violating a U.S. court order granting visitation rights each summer and winter to her American ex-husband. She won custody of her daughter, now 7, in U.S. courts and shuttled between countries to allow him visitation until they had a confrontation two years ago. He is suing to have the court order enforced. But she said she feels protected in Japan, which would not act even if she lost.

Salt Lake City lawyerMichael Gulbraa, 39, has a Utah court order for custody of his two sons, 12 and 13. But his Japanese ex-wife took them to Japan in 2001. Japanese police know where they are, he said, but won’t arrest them.

“They are wanted by the FBI and Interpol, but the (police) say abduction by a parent is not a crime in Japan,” he said in a telephone interview. “I just want my children back.”

Japan does not ratify the Hague Convention because it would have to return such children to foreign spouses, said Toshiyuki Kono, a law professor at Kyushu University. “Politically, there is no strong incentive here to do that,” he said. A spokesman for the treaty division of the Foreign Ministry said the Hague Convention has not been ratified because “we’ve been studying it.”

Japan’s stance that parental abduction is not a crime can change when a foreigner is the abductor. Engle Nieman, 46, was arrested at the Osaka port and spent four months in jail for trying to go home to the Netherlands with his 1-year-old daughter after his wife moved in with her parents.

He was arrested under an old law against trafficking of girls for prostitution. He was prosecuted, but the ex-wife flouts the law, he complained.

“My wife is now hiding somewhere with my daughter. She doesn’t show up for court. My lawyer doesn’t know what to do,” he said. “On schooldays, I go around to the various kindergartens in Tokyo to see if I can find them. It’s terrible.”

Reedy said he was told to forget his three sons and go home to the U.S. Distraught and depressed, he has taken medical leave from his job and returned to California for what he said will be a temporary stay.

“People in the West don’t understand,” lamented Reedy. In Japan, “it has nothing to do with whether the kids would benefit by being with another parent. Once there is a divorce, the line is cut. That’s it.”