Japanese parents unarmed in battle for kids taken abroad amid radiation fears
By MANABU SASAKI / Staff Writer Asahi Shimbun
A woman who has not seen her two children since March, when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck, is starting to give up hope of ever seeing her sons again.
The woman’s apartment still contains the brand-new jacket and school bag that her older son would have used if he had entered elementary school in April. The mother, a civil servant, also finds herself searching for her two sons in her apartment when she returns home from work, despite knowing deep inside that her home is empty.
But it wasn’t the quake or tsunami that separated her from the boys, aged 5 and 7.
“It is like a kidnapping,” said the woman, who lives in the Tokai region.
The boys are now in the United States with the woman’s American husband, who has refused to return to Japan, citing radiation fears. He has also filed for divorce.
There is very little she can do to win custody of the children because the Japanese government has not passed the necessary legislation to join the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. Under the convention, if a parent illegally flees with a child under 16 to another nation, the child has to be returned to the former nation of residence.
Tokyo signaled its intention to ratify the treaty after a number of high-profile cases involving Japanese mothers taking their children to Japan without the consent of their foreign ex-spouses or in defiance of court orders.
But since the Fukushima nuclear accident started in March, Foreign Ministry officials have received a number of inquiries from Japanese parents whose spouses have left Japan for their home nations with their children in tow, using the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant as an excuse not to return.
About the only thing ministry officials can do is pass on lists of lawyers in the foreign nations where the spouse has gone to.
“We feel sorry for the parents because this is a form of negative publicity from the nuclear accident,” a ministry official said. “We hope the couples will hold calm discussions based on objective information about radiation.”
The Tokai woman’s husband in March took the boys to the United States for what was supposed to have been a one-month visit. But the Great East Japan Earthquake soon struck, and the husband refused to return to Japan, expressing concerns that the sons could be exposed to radiation from the Fukushima nuclear accident.
Daily reports in the United States showed the damage from the quake and tsunami. Nuclear experts often appeared on TV citing the dangers of the radiation spewing from the Fukushima plant.
The woman used a TV phone over the Internet to talk with her husband and children, trying to convince them that the Tokai region was safe.
But the children, perhaps influenced by their father, also expressed concerns about the danger of waves flowing inland as well as poison in the air.
The husband initially said he would return to Japan once the situation at the nuclear plant stabilized. However, by summer, he had withdrawn about $17,000 from his wife’s bank account and had rented an apartment in the United States.
In November, he filed a lawsuit in the United States seeking a divorce. He did not abide by his initial promise even after the Japanese government declared the situation at the Fukushima plant to be under control.
The woman met her future husband in 2001, when she was studying in New York. They were married the following year.
The husband was still a student, and living in New York was not economically feasible. So the couple decided to move to Japan with the wife working to support the family.
But now, she lacks any assurance of finding a stable job in the United States. She feels the possibility is low that she would be granted custody of the children under such conditions.
She has consulted with a U.S. office handling inquiries about abducted children. If Japan had joined the Hague Convention, the United States would have been obligated to return her children to Japan as a member of the convention, the office told her.
But Japan has not yet joined, leaving her and her children uncovered for protection under the convention.
She also consulted a lawyer in the United States because she felt the only way to get her children back was through a lawsuit of her own. But she was told that U.S. courts looked at how the children were being raised over the most recent six months. That would put her at a disadvantage because she had been separated from her children since the natural disasters.
Having allowed her children to remain in the United States because of radiation fears ended up working against her.
A court case in the United States can be time-consuming and costly, and she has no guarantee of winning.
Through letters and phone calls, she repeatedly tells her two children that they mean everything to her, but she has no idea when she may see them again.
“I hope the government joins the convention as soon as possible to prevent parents from successfully fleeing with their children,” she said.
Officials said there have been cases of lawyers recommending that parents flee Japan with their children because there is a good chance they can get away with it.
“Custody battles with a foreign nation should be resolved through international rules after joining the Hague Convention,” said Mikiko Otani, a lawyer who specializes in divorces among international couples. “It is extremely difficult for an individual to find a lawyer in a foreign nation specializing in such matters and proceeding with legal action.”
She also said many parents in Japan face difficulties because there are few lawyers knowledgeable about international divorce cases.
“There are risks involved in international marriage because of differences in laws and cultures,” Otani said. “There are also major differences in thinking on divorce and custody, so there is a need to be aware of the need for a basic understanding of the related laws.”