Tokyo Notes

The Child Abduction Debate

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Tokyo Notes

The Child Abduction Debate

Japan’s custody laws make it tough for foreign fathers to see their bi-racial children. Is this set to change?

Japan’s been under pressure for years to tackle a problem that’s a comparatively minor irritant on the annual diplomatic calendar, but which is a source of enormous emotional pain for the individuals involved.

As the number of international marriages grows, an inevitable if sad byproduct has been the rise of divorces, putting the fate of bi-racial children at the centre of sometimes bitter personal disputes. In some cases, Japanese mothers have taken their kids from foreign fathers and brought them to Japan, where they’re beyond the reach of global law, at least for now.

The issue has been forced onto the slow-moving bureaucratic agenda by the attentions of the world’s media. Last year, CNN extensively covered Christopher Savoie’s arrest and eventual release after he attempted to retrieve his children as they walked to school in Fukuoka. 

The website of Japan’s Foreign Correspondent’s Club features a harrowing tale of Frenchman Arnaud Simon, who killed himself last November, apparently in frustration at being blocked from joint custody of his half-Japanese son. According to journalist Regis Arnaud, another French man in the same predicament, Christophe Guillermin, took his own life last June. Those tragedies prompted French lawmakers recently to adopt a resolution calling on Japan to join over 80 other signatories to the Hague Convention on Child Abduction.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan is under pressure to sign-up during his next trip to the United States, scheduled for June. NHK reports that the Japanese government is ‘facing difficulties’ on deciding its position because it remains concerned about Japanese women who return with their children to ‘escape abusive foreign partners.’

What some reports neglect to mention is that Japanese fathers, in overwhelming numbers (CNN cites a figure of 100 cases of children abducted by non-custodial Japanese parents) struggle with the same problem. If Japanese experts are to be believed, most fathers are happy to accept sole custody by the mother—but not all. And, as an article in yesterday’s Sankei newspaper suggests, fathers too can withhold custody, with unusual results:

The article says that amid a divorce dispute, a father has refused to allow the mother access to their four-year-old daughter even though they are still legally married. The mother, Terumi Aoyagi (36) is still married to her husband, but he filed a complaint with the police after she, along with her mother (the child's grandmother, 63), tried to ‘get access to’ (read snatch) the daughter in the car park of the girl's pre-school. Their attempt failed after a teacher stopped them.

According to the article, both mother and grandmother were arrested for ‘kidnapping of a minor’ on January 27 and are still in jail.

The fact that the alleged kidnapping also happened in Fukuoka will prompt some to ask the obvious questions. If it's OK for a mother to take her children from the United States to Japan, why isn’t it acceptable for a father to come and take them back? If it’s wrong for a father to snatch his children on the way home from school, why is it acceptable for another father to deny access to his daughter, then have her mother arrested when she tries to get it?

Whatever your answers to those questions are, it seems clear that when the police can arrest and detain a mother for the crime of trying to see her child, there’s something badly amiss with the custody system.