12:27 31 May

FEATURE: Japanese mothers tormented by “last-minute” child abductions

By Maya Kaneko
TOKYO, May 31, Kyodo

As Japan’s ratification of an international treaty that helps settle
international child custody disputes awaits Diet approval, some Japanese
mothers are dealing with the distress of having had their children taken
abroad by their non-Japanese spouses shortly before the nation’s endorsement
of the treaty.
Those mothers face difficulties in enlisting wide support, as the issue
of parental child abductions to Japan tends to grab more attention. Tokyo is
not yet a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of
International Child Abduction, with Japan often portrayed as a safe haven for
parents taking their children to the country.
Their cases can also be considered less serious than those of parents who
are totally denied access to their children in Japan, because many of the
countries where their children were taken could award joint custody to them —
unlike their homeland, which has a sole-custody system — increasing chances
of regular access to their kids.
In addition to language barriers and expensive legal costs that often
pose a headache to parents involved in cross-border child custody disputes,
slow progress in Japan’s process of joining the international treaty weighs on
the mothers’ shoulders, as Tokyo’s accession to the convention holds the key
to future parenting arrangements.
A Japanese woman in her 30s living in Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo,
has been separated from her two children, in Florida since December 2010, as
her American husband refused to return to Japan and started a new life there
with the kids and their grandmother.
The couple and their Japan-born kids had originally been scheduled to
move to Florida together, but the husband, a former English teacher in Japan,
later refused to sponsor his wife for visa arrangement, saying he no longer
wanted to live with her, citing her problems with child-rearing, the woman
“I think my husband knew that in Japan it would be difficult for him to
gain custody of the kids and that if we got divorced, he could not easily see
them,” the woman said. In Japan, mothers tend to be given sole custody after
divorce and it is not unusual for children to stop seeing their fathers after
their parents break up.
She also said her husband had probably been aware of Japan’s imminent
accession to the Hague Convention, which sets out the rules and procedures for
promptly returning children under 16 to the country of their habitual
residence in cases of international divorce among member countries. Japan
decided to join the pact in May last year.
The treaty is not retroactive and only deals with cases occurring after
its entry into force in the country newly joining it. The pact will come into
effect on the first day of the third calendar month after being ratified by
the nation.
The woman, who communicates with her 4-year-old son and 2-year-old
daughter every other day via Skype Internet telephone service and met them
when she visited Florida last November, is worried that they can no longer
understand Japanese and will forget about their life in Japan.
The couple is now seeking divorce settlements in a Florida court, in line
with a U.S. law that designates a state where children stayed with a parent
for six months in a row as a place for litigation. For the woman, who has
never lived abroad, U.S. court procedures mean a great deal of trouble and
“unfair” situations, she said.
With the woman left with no chance of getting a green card and
difficulties in acquiring other types of visa to live in the United States,
the husband seeks to gain sole custody of the kids, she said.
“As long as Japan remains nonparty to the Hague Convention, the U.S.
court would not allow my children to go to Japan during vacations out of fear
that they would not be returned,” she said. “Japan’s accession is an important
matter to me because it opens up various possibilities.”
Another Japanese woman in central Japan’s Shizuoka Prefecture also has
her two sons, aged 7 and 5, retained in the United States since March last
year, as her American husband refused to go back with the kids due to safety
concerns triggered by the Fukushima nuclear crisis following the March 11
earthquake and tsunami.
The public servant, who declined to be further identified, said her
husband, who moved with the children in May last year to Champaign in
Illinois, where he had found a job, had repeatedly assured her that the
children would return to Japan once cold shutdown had been achieved at the
troubled reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.
But as he filed for divorce at an Illinois court in November last year
and the children did not return, even after the Japanese government declared
in December that the plant had been brought to a stable state of cold
shutdown, she learned that her husband “had planned everything in advance and
conveniently used the disaster that hit Japan as an excuse.”
“My husband waited until the kids spent six months with him in Illinois
so that he could start a divorce suit there to alter the situation to his
advantage,” the woman said.
“I was naive to believe his promise to eventually return the children to
Japan but couldn’t force him to do so, as I was concerned about radiation
contamination that could jeopardize the children’s lives,” said the mother.
The woman, who tries to maintain Skype communications with the children,
is also concerned that their memories of Japanese language and culture are
fading. As the children are still registered as citizens in Japan, she
launched a legal action in her home country. However, the process, involving
notification through diplomatic channels, would take a long time.
She said it was frustrating to face difficulties caused by the nuclear
accident and Japan’s position on the Hague Convention that “an individual
cannot change.”
The woman said, however, she would not forcibly take back her children to
Japan because unilateral abduction would only produce a “negative chain
reaction” and limit the children’s access to one parent. She believes that
kind of drastic action will “not solve the problem and never be in the
interest of the children.”
According to a tally by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, its
member lawyers have accepted about 150 consultations on parental child
abductions from Japan to other countries between 2000 and 2011.
Both the Japanese Foreign Ministry and the U.S. State Department
recognize such abduction cases to the United States, but they can only provide
relevant information and introduce lawyers as Tokyo is yet to join the Hague
Convention, according to the Foreign Ministry.