http://www.vancouversun.com/news/Daphne+Bramham+Japan+black+hole+abducted+children/8799583/story.html

Daphne Bramham: Japan is black hole for abducted children

Police won’t enforce custody orders, law does not recognize joint custody and the country has not signed the international convention on respecting family court decisions

BY DAPHNE BRAMHAM, VANCOUVER SUN COLUMNIST AUGUST 17, 2013 8:13 AM
Daphne Bramham: Japan is black hole for abducted children

Masako Suzuki holds a photo of her and her son.

Photograph by: wayne leidenfrost , Vancouver Sun

Seven years ago, Canadian-born Kazuya David Suzuki was abducted by his father and taken to Japan. Since then, Kazuya’s mother has only seen her son a couple of times and spoken to him only once.

That’s despite Masako Suzuki having spent close to $100,000 on lawyers both here and in Japan. And she continues to be denied access, even though courts in both countries have ordered that she be allowed to see her only child.

The problem for her and for other parents of abducted, foreign-born children is that Japan is not one of the 90 signatories to the international Hague Convention, which requires member countries to respect the family court decisions of other signatory nations.

Yet even if it were, Japan doesn’t recognize joint custody, which the B.C. court ordered in October 2006.

It’s an appalling, inhumane situation that runs contrary to international conventions that Japan has signed including the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Masako Suzuki’s life has been consumed with trying to gain access to her son — just as it has the lives of thousands of others whose children have been victims of parental abduction.

One advocacy group — the Child Rights Council of Japan — estimates there are as many as 2,000 cases of parental abduction to Japan each year.

As founder of Left Behind Parents Japan (http://lbpjapan.org/LBPJ_Organization/Joint_Policy_Statement.html), Masako is a leading advocate for change, urging Japan to sign the Hague Convention and to overhaul its 100-year-old family law system.

Somehow, the textile designer soldiers on even though she tells me that it is now probably too late to ever have a meaningful relationship with her son, who turns 19 in November.

She is convinced that Kazuya’s father has brainwashed him into believing that she doesn’t care about him. But if Kazuya does want to find her, Masako says the record of advocacy will prove that she’s never given up trying.

Masako has led marches in Japan, has held news conferences and has done dozens of media interviews.

This spring, she spoke at a symposium for Japanese government and spoke at a parliamentary committee in Ottawa that was looking into the issue of international child abductions.

In October 2006, a B.C. judge ordered that Kazuya could not be taken out of Canada and that his parents would have “joint interim custody and guardianship” until a final custody order was made based on the recommendation of a child psychologist.

But by then, Kazuya was already in Japan.

Jotaro Suzuki was granted sole custody by a Tokyo family court in December 2006. Masako got visitation rights in June 2007. But she was only able to see her son once before he and his father disappeared.

But what is more tragic than the separation from his mother is what’s happened since to the little boy, who was known as David at the West Vancouver school where he was diagnosed with a reading disability.

That reading disability coupled with Japanese language skills acquired only at home and at an after-school language program meant that he didn’t score well when he was tested for school placement in Japan.

As a result, Masako said, his father allowed him to be placed in a special class for the mentally disabled.

“I was so shocked,” Masako told me recently when we met in Vancouver. “But my ex-husband has used that. In family court in Japan, he gained the judge’s sympathy by telling him how he is a poor father struggling to take care of a disabled son.”

As far as Masako knows, Kazuya never went to high school.

The last time she saw him was in October 2009 at his junior high school choir concert in Tokyo — he was singing with his classmates, all mentally handicapped.

After the children finished singing, she said, she found him in a hallway. She called out to him and he raised his head. But before they had a chance to speak, the school’s principal came up to her demanding to know who she was.

“I’m his mother,” she told the principal. He told her that she needed her ex-husband’s permission to be at the school. He then threatened to call the police unless she left.

Kazuya never returned to that school. And, as far as Masako has been able to determine, he has never been registered at any other school in Japan.

Since that last sighting, Masako has had no word of her son. Canadian embassy officials are powerless to help the young Canadian boy. Japanese police are unwilling to enforce either court order. And, her former in-laws refuse to say where Jotaro and Kazuya are.

The Suzuki’s story has some unique twists — including the fact that neither parent is Canadian despite the family having owned a house and lived here for 13 years.

Beyond that, it’s strikingly similar to hundreds of other cases including 36 others being tracked by the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo, a similar number being watched by the French Embassy and more than 140 known to U.S. Embassy staff.

Japan, along with a number of other countries, is seen as a haven for parental abductions and it’s enough of a problem that former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton told a congressional committee in 2011 that both she and President Barack Obama raised it at every meeting they had with Japanese officials. In February, 2013, after a meeting with Obama in Washington, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that Japan intended to sign the Hague Convention.

Canadian politicians have lobbied for Japan’s ratification and two of the highest profile Canadian advocates for changes in Japan are two Vancouver fathers whose children have been abducted by their Japanese wives.

Murray Wood is the founder of the International Rights of Children Society(http://www.irocs.org/our-mission/) , which works to raise awareness of parental abductions. He has been featured in a 2013 documentary called From the Shadows(http://www.fromtheshadowsmovie.com/).

Bruce Gherbetti, who lives in Japan, is executive director of Kizuna Child-Parent Reunion (http://kizuna-cpr.org/home), which a Japanese-registered non-profit that works toward restoring the human rights of children including the right to have relationships with both parents.

Wood’s two children — then 10 and 7 — were abducted by their mother in November 2004. She had ostensibly taken them to visit their dying grandfather in Japan. She never brought them back even though Wood had sole custody of the children and a B.C. Supreme Court order saying that his ex-wife had to return on a certain date and another that gave him sole custody.

In the past nine years, he has had very limited contact with his son and daughter. But this spring — with the help of Canadian Embassy staff — Wood’s 19-year-old son arrived in Vancouver and plans to start college here in the fall.

It’s a happy middle part of the story. There will only be a happy ending if Wood is able to establish contact with his daughter, who is now 16.

Gherbetti’s three daughters were abducted from Vancouver and taken to Japan in 2009.

Like Masako Suzuki, Gherbetti is skeptical that Japan’s announced decision to sign the Hague Convention will solve the problems.

He and his organization for “left-behind parents” are concerned that even if Japan does sign, it will not live up to the convention’s spirit and intent just as it has failed to comply with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which it signed two decades ago.

In an email, Gherbetti said the root cause is Japan’s outdated laws and views about both divorce and child custody.

Still, signing the convention is a step forward and Gherbetti’s group is trying to raise money for a post-Hague program that would provide resources and services to reuniting parents and children.

But for now, Masako told me that when it comes to abducted children, the red sun on Japan’s national flag should be replaced by a large black hole.

dbramham@vancouversun.com

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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.

A screening of the practically finished version of the “From the Shadows” documentary film about child abduction in Japan took place on November 7 at the Capitol Visitor Center Theater in Washington, D.C.  The screening was sponsored by Congressman Chris Smith’s office and invitees consisted largely of left-behind parents and their family members

“From the Shadows” is a hard hitting, superbly made documentary film that has been years in the making.  It documents the heartbreaking attempts of left-behind parents to see their children in Japan and accurately exposes how the system facilitates child abductions in Japan.  In addition to featuring a Japanese mother whose child was taken by her Japanese husband, the film also focuses in depth on four international cases:  Canadian father Murray Wood, U.S. fathers Paul Toland and Paul Wong, and U.S. mother Regan Haight.

The film is directed and produced by Matt Antell and David Hearn.  Although David Hearn was unable to attend the screening, Matt Antell was present and also participated in a panel afterwards with Paul Toland and Murray Wood, which can be viewed at the following link:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r3bNNyVkH60

In his remarks, Matt Antell noted that the producers are hoping that the film will be shown at the Berlin International Film Festival and also possibly the Sundance film festival in 2012.

To learn more about the film and how you can help, please visit the following link:

http://www.fromtheshadowsmovie.com/