Child custody injustices hard to fix Joining Hague may curb parental abductions if legal mindset evolves
Friday, Jan. 4, 2013
By MASAMI ITO
On May 6, 2010, Yasuyuki Watanabe, an internal affairs ministry bureaucrat, came home to find his wife and 2-year old daughter gone, along with their clothes.
Playing catchup: Yasuyuki Watanabe, deputy mayor of Nasushiobara, Tochigi Prefecture, speaks during an interview at a Tokyo hotel on Dec. 11. SATOKO KAWASAKI
His wife had spirited away their daughter near the end of Golden Week, just days after he was enjoying the holidays taking her on hikes and to local festivals, recalled Watanabe, 40, now deputy mayor of Nasushiobara, Tochigi Prefecture. He recounted how he carried his daughter on his back and how they sang songs together until she fell asleep, snuggling against him.
His world was turned upside down that fateful day. Last month she turned 5.
“It is so important for children to feel loved by both parents, especially when they are growing up, and I think that my daughter feels abandoned by me, that I left her because I didn’t love her anymore,” Watanabe told The Japan Times during a recent interview in Tokyo. “The most painful thing about my situation is when I think about how my daughter must be feeling.”
Watanabe is one of many parents in Japan who have been torn away from their children after a falling-out with their spouse in a nation that grants only sole custody, usually to the mother, and where it is customary for parents not living with their offspring, to have little, if any, contact with them.
This has also been a widely reported harsh reality for foreign parents, including those living overseas whose children have been taken to Japan by estranged Japanese spouses.
These so-called parental child abductions are behind growing calls for Japan to join the international Hague treaty to prevent such cross-border kidnappings.
“These two problems are actually closely related because the domestic and international situation is the same — your children are abducted one day out of the blue and you are forbidden from seeing them,” Watanabe said.
For Watanabe, what followed was a long legal battle with his wife, and divorce proceedings, which continue.
Initially his wife let him see their daughter a few times, but that stopped abruptly when he was slapped with domestic violence charges — which he branded a lie.
His wife alleged he had threatened her with a large pair of scissors while she was pregnant and told her he knew yakuza who would be willing to help him out with the situation by pushing her off a station platform in front of a train. The violence charges were later dropped.
“There is nothing more terrifying than receiving an order to appear before the court over ‘DV’ allegations. I was completely distraught. The judge, however, recognized that much of her claims were questionable and warned she could be charged with false accusations, so she dropped the charges the day before the ruling was to be made,” Watanabe said.
But his wife then filed a lawsuit, demanding custody of their child and, again, adding allegations of abuse.
Last February, presiding Judge Tatsushige Wakabayashi at the Chiba Family Court granted Watanabe’s ex-wife custody of their daughter from the viewpoint of “continuity,” ruled that Watanabe had committed domestic violence and rejected his demand that his daughter be returned. The Supreme Court finalized the ruling in September.
While his legal battles dragged on, Watanabe asked lawmakers to address the issue and his case was deliberated on in the Diet.
Given his public profile, Watanabe originally wished to remain anonymous. But to garner public support for his situation, he recently came forward to tell his story to the press.
“I’ve been labeled a DV husband, and the judge completely ignored the facts and the law in my case. I had no choice but to stand up and fight,” he said.
Watanabe has solicited the help of a special group of lawmakers who are trying to get Judge Wakabayashi fired from the bench. Among the so-called left-behind parents in Japan, Wakabayashi has spurred widespread ire, especially when in 2011, he criticized then-Justice Minister Satsuki Eda for telling the Diet that priority should be placed on the welfare of the child rather than the “principle of continuity.”
“There are many people in similar situations. I cannot give up for their sake. It is not just about me and my daughter. This is a battle for all children and their parents,” Watanabe said.
According to data compiled by family courts, there were 409 parents seeking the return of their offspring from an estranged spouse in 2001, whereas by 2011, there were 1,985 parents seeking to get their kids back. The numbers, however, reflect only the legal cases filed by left-behind parents that were officially accepted by the nation’s family courts. Experts speculate they constitute only the tip of the iceberg.
Masayuki Tanamura, a professor of family law at Waseda University, said various factors are behind the increase in parental child abductions, including Japan’s sole custody principle and the current legal framework that generally grants that right to mothers.
“Times have changed — fathers are more involved in child-rearing, and the legal system — including the principle of sole custody — makes battles over children more likely to happen. I think this part of Japan’s legal system is outdated,” Tanamura said.
One major difference that makes Japan’s legal system peculiar is that when an estranged spouse initially takes a child, it isn’t considered a crime. This is because it is common for an estranged parent, generally the mother, to take the children to her parents’ domicile if a divorce is being contemplated.
But if the left-behind parent then subsequently tries to retrieve the offspring spirited away from their home, the action is considered kidnapping. Tanamura claimed there are many cases in which parents who spirit offspring away are unaware such action could be construed as abduction. From their point of view, they are merely considering a divorce or fleeing an abusive environment.
“It is hard to label all parental kidnappings as illegal . . . but at the same time, there are many cases that could constitute a double standard. It’s OK for mothers to first take the children away, but when the fathers try to get them back, this is illegal,” Tanamura said. “This is based on the longtime concept that children belong with their mothers.”
To prevent children from losing access to both parents after a separation, Article 766 of the Civil Law was revised in 2011 to specify that visitation rights, child-support payments and other matters be determined during nonlitigated divorce proceedings, and that the welfare of the child be considered first.
But even this change can’t help people like Watanabe because his case was ruled on after the amendment. “The aim of the revision is to promote forming agreements (over child care) when getting a divorce. But there is nothing that guarantees compliance,” Tanamura said.
Tanamura and other experts thus agree that if and when Japan signs the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, it must at the same time institute fundamental changes in the legal system, and the public mindset must also be overhauled, or joining the convention will lead to naught.
John Gomez, chairman of the recently founded Kizuna Child-Parent Reunion, a group of Japanese and non-Japanese parents, friends and supporters advocating the right of children to have access to both parents, emphasized the need for left-behinds to cooperate because simply joining the Hague Convention will not solve anything in Japan if it continues to take a one-sided approach to domestic custodial rights.
“The problem of international cases and in-country cases has the same root cause — Japanese family law and the courts,” Gomez said.
“The abduction issue affects all people in Japan — mothers as well as fathers, Japanese as well as non-Japanese.”
The Hague treaty aims for the swift return of children wrongfully taken out of the country of their “habitual residence” by a parent to prevent cross-border parental kidnappings. Of the Group of Eight countries, Japan is the only nation yet to sign the convention.
Japan has been under pressure from member states, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, to join the convention, but it has been reluctant, given strong domestic opposition, especially from Japanese mothers who claim they fled to Japan with their children to protect themselves from abusive ex-spouses.
Facing severe criticism from the international community, however, Japan finally reached the point of submitting a bid to sign the treaty and Hague-related legislation to the Diet during the last session presided over by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s Democratic Party of Japan. But the politicians instead spent most of their time bickering over internal power struggles related to other domestic issues, pushing the Hague Convention to the sidelines once again.
And it remains unclear whether the issue will move forward under the new government led by the Liberal Democratic Party.
Government officials have expressed confidence that once deliberations begin, the Hague bid will be approved by the Diet. But parents, including Gomez, a longtime Japan resident who himself is separated from his Japanese wife and is having difficulty seeing his daughter, say joining the Hague treaty is only a step in the right direction, not a silver bullet.
Gomez explained that on the legal front, parental kidnappings must be stopped, visitation rights made enforceable and the idea of joint custody introduced. But he added that public awareness must also be raised at the same time so the public understands the benefits of the changes to ensure the rules are followed.
“The Hague is only one tool. The ultimate goal for us is a social and legal transformation of Japan . . . a complete transformation in terms of mindset and practice,” Gomez said. “We firmly believe, Japanese and non-Japanese alike, that the social and legal transformation is for the betterment of Japanese society and children and improvement in the quality of life.”
The Yomiuri Shimbun
Less than 50 percent of divorcing couples have planned for such matters as child support and visitation rights since the revised Civil Code was implemented in April, which requires couples with small children to do so, according to the Justice Ministry.
As local governments accept divorce applications without making couples declare such arrangements, the effectiveness of the revision has often been questioned.
The ministry collected its first statistics on the issue during the first quarter since the revision came into force. The results reflect the difficulty couples face in reaching an agreement on child-related matters.
In tandem with the implementation of the revised code, the ministry in April added items to the divorce application form asking couples with young children to verify they have come to an accord on certain issues. This includes whether they have agreed on visitation arrangements for the noncustodial parent and how child support will be handled.
According to the ministry, 32,757 couples with young children mutually consented to file for divorce from April to June. Among them, 15,622, or 48 percent, indicated they had made arrangements regarding visitation for the noncustodial parent, and 6,843, or 21 percent, had not. The remaining 31 percent did not check any boxes.
Concerning payment of child support by noncustodial parents, 16,075 couples, or 49 percent, had made a decision on the matter, while 6,316, or 19 percent, had not. The other 32 percent left the boxes blank.
In 2011, about 235,700 couples got divorced, with about 90 percent of them doing so by mutual consent. Still, there have been many problems concerning the handling of these child-related matters after divorce.
“It’s necessary for couples to reach an accord [on such matters] for their children’s sake,” said Noriko Mizuno, a Civil Code professor at Tohoku University.
“In Western countries and South Korea, couples are not allowed to get divorced unless they agree on a plan to raise their children and the plan is approved by the court. In Japan, it’s not sufficient to simply check whether parents have come to an agreement on such matters. We must also create a system to verify their decisions really serve the best interests of the child and enforce them if so.”
(Sep. 15, 2012)Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
More stories and more news programs are popping up these days. Japan is moving toward signing the Hague. Unfortunately, they have already built in loopholes so that no children will have to be returned from Japan to their habitual residence. Parents within Japan are also working hard to get legislation passed that will allow children to meet with both parents. The media has been covering more stories related to these issues. While these stories are often a bit slanted they are never the less making it into the news. More people are slowly becoming aware of the problems surrounding the family courts and their ineffectiveness to deal with custody issues. Below are 4 links, 2 focus on the Hague and the other 2 are related to kids not being able to see both parents.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
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.”
Colin P.A. Jones
Professor, Doshisha University Law School
(Photo by Shinchosha)
Japan has developed a growing reputation as a haven for international parental child abduction. Major media outlets in the United States and other countries have brought attention to a number of recent cases of children being unilaterally removed by a Japanese parent from the United States before or after divorce, often in violation of American law and court orders.
Attempts to achieve the return of children taken to Japan through the Japanese legal system tend to be unsuccessful. As a result, some children who were born and raised in the United States have lost all contact with an American parent and other relatives, American friends, and the American part of their heritage as a consequence. The apparent lack of legal remedies for abduction in Japan is due to a number of factors that are discussed in more detail below.
Child abduction as more than just an “international” problem
From the outset it is important to understand that most of the factors which prevent the return of children taken from other countries also affect cases arising entirely within Japan, including some involving Americans married to Japanese nationals and living in Japan, and even the occasional case where both parents are foreign residents of Japan. In these strictly domestic cases also, marital breakdown all too often results in parents losing all contact with their children, notwithstanding the involvement of Japanese courts.
In other words, even though international cases tend to receive more publicity, they merely reflect structural issues in the Japanese legal system which have the effect of limiting the legal remedies of Japanese and non-Japanese parents alike. Thus, just as U.S. and other diplomats have sought change in the way cross-border abductions are dealt with by encouraging Japan to join the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of Child Abduction, a variety of Japanese parents’ rights groups have been seeking better protection of the parent-child relationship after divorce by lobbying for amendments to Japanese family law.
Despite the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011 and subsequent nuclear crisis in Fukushima, there are encouraging signs that Japan will soon move towards ratifying the Hague Convention. In May of 2011 the Diet also made encouraging amendments to its domestic laws relating to visitation after parental separation. Since these amendments have not yet taken effect (and may have a limited impact), this article will discuss both the law as it was – and had been for decades, as well as the nature of these changes.
The role of law in Japan
The Japanese legal system is based heavily on foreign models – German and French codes and institutions in many instances, but the United States as well in the case of its constitution and many areas of business law. Indeed, it is possible to describe Japanese family law and how Japanese courts resolve child custody issues in terms that make it seem quite similar to the United States or other Western countries. However, the law in Japan is much more “top down” than it is in the United States, where many important doctrines have been built through the ground up through litigation. By contrast, in Japan the law is more likely to be a medium for expressing and exercising authority, and judges (authority figures themselves) are less likely to question the exercise of that authority. The top-down character of Japanese law can be seen in statutes and procedural regimes which preserve maximum flexibility for judges and other government officials in terms of what they may do, while limiting the range of things that they must do.
Is parental child abduction a crime?
U.S. citizen parents whose children who have been abducted to Japan are likely to be told by Japanese officials that under Japanese law it is not a crime for parents to “abduct” their own children. However, there have been instances of Japanese and foreign parents being arrested, even convicted – for kidnapping their own children. Article 224 of the Japanese Penal Code describes the crime of “abduction of a minor” in very sparse terms: “[a] person who kidnaps a minor by force or enticement shall be punished by imprisonment with work for not less than 3 months but not more than 7 years.” An American lawyer reading this would probably seek more information on how the terms “kidnap,” “force,” and “enticement” are interpreted and would probably look to case law for guidance. But court precedents are not likely to be as useful for interpreting statutes such as this, at least not to the same degree as they would in the United States.
As a result, both the characterization of parental abduction as a non-crime and the arrest of some parents for criminal abduction can co-exist as “correct” interpretations of Japanese law. An abduction which disrupts public order (a father grabbing his children off the street) may be treated as a crime, while those which do not (a mother getting on a plane or a train with her children to go live with her parents, or merely refusing to return to the United States after a visit to Japan with the children) probably will not. Japanese law enforcement authorities have a basic policy of not getting involved in “civil disputes” but also wide discretion in deciding if a particular dispute is a civil one or not, meaning that the most important determination about whether a particular case of abduction is a crime or not may be made at the police station rather than the courthouse.
Custody determinations as an administrative disposition
Similarly, with respect to decisions regarding parental authority, custody, and visitation involving children in divorce, there are no statutory guidelines which a court must follow, such as the principle found in U.S. law that frequent and continuing contact between a child and his or her parents after they separate is presumed to be in a child’s best interests. Furthermore, since there is also no Japanese constitutional jurisprudence establishing a fundamental interest in having and raising children or otherwise recognizing a constitutionally-protected dimension to the parent-child relationship, decisions about children made by Japanese judges are essentially a form of administrative disposition made in the absence of law. As discussed below, many of the most important decisions a judge may make about children are likely to be rendered in the form of “decrees” following non-public, non-trial proceedings.
Japanese family court judges thus have tremendous discretion when it comes to making decisions about children and may do so by, for example, completely reversing a foreign custody, refusing to award any visitation to a non-custodial parent, awarding visitation for only a few hours once a year, or ordering the custodial parent to send a few photographs of the child every year in lieu of visitation.
Divorce and child custody as part of a consensual process
In Japan, both divorce and what happens to the children afterwards are presumed in the first instance to be determined through consensual arrangements. Japan’s Civil Code provides for divorce by agreement with judicial divorce being available only when the parties cannot agree and a limited range of grounds for divorce are applicable. Furthermore, unlike in the United States where even a consensual divorce involves court filings and possibly a judicially-approved parenting plan or separation agreement if children are involved, a Japanese cooperative divorce is accomplished by simply filing the relevant paperwork with a local government authority which will reflect the change in marital status and allocation of parental responsibility in the parties’ family registry. Since approximately 90% of divorces are accomplished through this process, courts only become involved in the small minority of cases where parties cannot agree on a cooperative divorce or where there is a dispute over children or other matters arise after divorce, including situations where one parent abducts the child or refuses to allow visitation after divorce.
Under Japanese law, parties seeking a judicial divorce or other judicial relief relating to child custody must first attend family-court sponsored mediation. Mediation sessions take place in a family court mediation room in front of a mediation panel composed of a judge, two mediators chosen by the court, and court personnel. Mediation continues at a pace of about one session a month until the parties agree on a result or the judge decides that further sessions are pointless. Although the court takes the lead in administering the mediation, its primary purpose at this stage is to encourage the parties to agree on a result.
Approximately 8% of Japanese divorces – most of those which are brought into court – are achieved through the mediation process. The remaining 2% are either judicial divorces resulting from litigation commenced after mediation has failed, or divorces by settlement after such litigation has commenced but before a divorce judgment. Therefore, one aspect of divorce proceedings that may be confusing is that there are a variety of procedures which vary depending upon the scope of the court’s involvement and responsibility. There are cooperative divorces which involve no court action whatsoever, mediated divorces and divorces by settlement where the court is involved but not responsible for the result, and judicial divorces where the court is involved and responsible for the final result (technically there are two additional types of divorce which are rare and not discussed in this article). Judicial divorces account for only about 1% of all divorces. These differing procedural regimes are also relevant to child custody proceedings.
Because Japanese law provides for court proceedings which in many cases lead to a result for which the court is not responsible, there may be a significant gap between what U.S. citizen parents expect from family courts and what family courts consider their role to be. A party seeking the return of or at least visitation with a child usually wants the court to “do something” as soon as possible. Since most cases are going to start with mediation, however, the family court may view its role primarily as one of encouraging the parties to agree upon a mediated result. Furthermore, since at the mediation stage the court is supposed to be playing only a supporting role, it may be reluctant to provide interim remedies (including ordering the handover of the child) unless they are clearly in the best interests of the child.
Other aspects of Japanese family law may also come into play at the mediation stage. Although divorce is exceptionally easy in Japan so long as both parties agree to it, obtaining a litigated divorce unilaterally over the objections of one party is exceptionally difficult and time consuming. In addition, just as there is little formal law specifying what should happen to children after their parents separate, Japan’s Civil Code is similarly sparse when it comes to providing for property distribution, alimony, and child support. Accordingly, courts have developed a variety of doctrines to protect the financially weaker party from being divorced on unfavorable terms.
A number of amendments to the Civil Code were made in May 2011, though it is unclear what effect they will have on current family court practice. First, the amendments make it easier for public authorities to temporarily suspend parental authority in cases of child abuse and neglect. Under prior law the only remedy was permanent termination of parental authority. Second, under the amended law, parents seeking a cooperative divorce will be required to provide for visitation arrangements and other forms of contact as well as allocate child-rearing expenses, in each case giving priority to the welfare of their children. If they are unable to do so then a family court may make the determinations in their place. While it may seem a minor change, the fact that visitation is now even mentioned in the Civil Code could be said to represent significant progress, since before this amendment it was nothing more than a judicially-created disposition.
However, it is not clear that courts (as opposed to parents) are required by the new law to make decisions in the best interests of children, or that visitation is presumed to be good for children. Combined with the addition to another part of the Civil Code which imposes upon all parents a statutory duty to act in the best interests of their own children, it is not clear whether family courts will regard the new amendments as being anything other than a codification of their existing practice.
Parental authority and custody
Although determinations relating to children are generally made in the context of divorce proceedings, an important procedural difference emerges if mediation fails. To understand this, however, it is necessary to briefly review the concepts of parental authority and custody. Under Japan’s Civil Code, married parents jointly exercise parental authority over minor children. Parental authority includes both the rights and duties of the parent relating to the care and upbringing of their children, but also the management of the children’s property and the taking of legal actions (such as applying for a passport) on their behalf, or even consenting to the child’s adoption. Because parental authority can be relevant to commercial transactions and dealings with government agencies, it can be confirmed through the family registry system. An extract from a child’s family registry may be required for passport applications or other dealings where proof of the parent-child relationship and the parental authority of the person making the application are required.
Under the cooperative divorce regime, parents simply make a notation on the divorce form as to which parent will retain parental authority over which children after divorce. One significant limitation, however, is that Japanese law does not allow for the formal continuation of joint parental authority after divorce even if both parents agree to it.
Procedurally, court involvement makes custody and parental authority more complicated. This is because it is possible for courts to separate the “care and custody” element of parental authority from the property management/legal representative aspect and award them to different people. Thus, a mother could be awarded custody over the child, who she would live with and raise, while the father would be awarded parental authority (minus the custodial element), which though being reflected in his family registry, would be limited to only the authority to manage the child’s property and engage in legal acts in the child’s name. In reality, this type of split custody is rare. The true significance of a court’s ability to deal with these two elements of parental authority separately is more important for procedural purposes rather than the end result.
Judicial determinations of parental authority are generally only made (or changed) by courts at the time of a judicial divorce following a trial. If divorce mediation fails, the onus is on one of the parties to proceed with divorce litigation. If neither does so the parties will simply remain married under the law but live apart. Parental authority will nominally remain with both parents.
However, with respect to matters relating to the custody portion of parental authority ( i.e., who will live with and raise the child, visitation, child support payments, and whether a taken child should be returned), if mediation fails the court will automatically proceed with making a determination, even if neither party proceeds with divorce litigation. These determinations may also be made (or changed) by courts after divorce, in the case of disputes over visitation after a cooperative divorce, or when a child is abducted to Japan after a divorce has taken place in the United States or elsewhere.
Procedurally this is significant because to the extent they are decided by a judge at all they are likely to be decided through the issuance of a judicial decree after mediation fails. Decrees are issued through “non-trial” proceedings, with very loose procedural and evidentiary requirements. Accordingly, what for most parents is the most important part of the proceedings – the part in which the fate of their children is decided – involves a process which seems like a trial (since there is judicial involvement) yet lacks many of the procedural or evidentiary protections that the average person is likely to expect from a trial.
Decrees can be appealed, and if the case advances to divorce litigation, a judge granting a judicial divorce can also make decisions relating to children ancillary to the divorce. In reality, however, it is probably unlikely that judges will second guess a prior decree on custody issues absent blatant mistakes or a change in circumstances.
In cases involving child abduction or interference with visitation, even a complete “win” in court may prove meaningless. Japanese civil law struggles with the enforcement of judgments in many contexts, but it is a problem that is particularly evident in disputes over children. Japanese courts lack marshals with police-like powers that can facilitate enforcing civil judgments. Similarly, Japanese judges do not have broad powers to sanction or imprison recalcitrant parties for contempt of court. Nor is there a mechanism for courts to require the police to become involved in such cases.
The first step in enforcement of a family court decree may be for a family court to issue a “compliance recommendation.” This may involve further inquiries by a family court investigator to confirm the circumstances behind the refusal of the parent having custody to cooperate with visitation. Even if a compliance recommendation is issued, however, there are no sanctions for non-compliance. In fact, compliance recommendations are considered to be a form of casework that is an extension of the courts’ role as a social welfare institution rather than a judicial one. As such, they have no legal force whatsoever.
In terms of actual legal remedies for enforcement, Japanese civil law does not contain any provisions which deal specifically with enforcing orders relating to the compulsory transfer of a child from one parent to another. One remedy is for the court to impose a non-penal monetary fine on a party who refuses to comply with a court order to return an abducted child or cooperate with visitation. However, this type of “indirect enforcement” may be of limited efficacy against parties who do not have a regular income or identifiable assets subject to forfeiture.
In the case of a court order for the return of a child who is young enough that they can be deemed not to have the capacity to form their own intent, it is also possible to seek “direct enforcement” of the order. This involves a district court bailiff attempting to physically accomplish the return of the child. Although the bailiff may request police accompaniment if there is a fear that the abducting parent may become violent, the police will not get involved if there is no crime. The bailiff himself does not have the power to arrest a non-cooperating parent. Thus, although direct enforcement is sometimes successful, it can also sometimes be frustrated by a taking parent through the simple expedient of stubbornly refusing to let go of the child or even just hiding.
Failing any of these remedies, the final arrow in the judicial quiver is habeas corpus. Based on the ancient common law remedy for unlawful detention by government officials, habeas corpus in Japan is used to order an abducting parent to bring the child to court for an inquiry into why they have been “detained.” A parent who refuses to follow a habeas corpus summons and bring an abducted child to court may be subject to imprisonment and/or penal fines. It is thus the only remedy for abduction available to the judiciary where there is the possibility of criminal sanctions for non-compliance.
While it is not uncommon for left-behind parents to immediately file for habeas corpus for children who have been taken to Japan, there do not appear to be any cases where a Japanese court has found the detention of a child to be “significantly unlawful,” even if it involves the violation of a foreign court order or has resulted in criminal proceedings in that country. There have been a number of cases where Japanese courts have both recognized the validity of a foreign court order awarding custody to the foreign parent while refusing to grant habeas corpus relief.
Domestic violence, legislative amendments, and the Hague Convention
The Japanese government is often criticized for appearing to drag its feet on adopting the Hague Convention. As the above discussion shows, however, meaningful implementation of the convention would involve significant amendments to Japanese domestic law. That this process may require a wide-ranging debate is understandable in a democratic society such as Japan.
In the course of the debate over the Hague Convention, one concern that has been expressed repeatedly is how to deal with situations where a Japanese mother residing abroad unilaterally returns to Japan with her children out of fear of domestic violence in the United States or other countries. While domestic violence is a legitimate policy concern, it is also an issue that can be assumed dealt with adequately through the legal system of the United States or other Hague Convention signatories. While it would be easy to view the concerns about domestic violence as primarily reflecting a lack of faith in the judicial systems of potential treaty partners, domestic violence is also controversial in strictly domestic custody cases. Japanese law defines “domestic violence” in exceptionally broad terms and it is often interpreted even more broadly so that not only physical violence, but verbal abuse, psychological “violence,” and even “economic violence” is sometimes included.
It has been suggested by some in Japan that the Hague Convention be signed, but with implementing legislation providing for exceptions that would prevent the return of children in cases involving domestic violence or abuse. The Japan Federation of Bar Associations has gone further in proposing that any legislation implementing the Hague Convention, if adopted, not only prevent return in such cases, but also if the taking parent would be subject to criminal prosecution if they returned with the child. Given the expansive definition accorded to domestic violence and abuse, it seems possible that virtually any instance of a child being taken to Japan could be characterized so as to fall into this exception. But this involves speculating on legislation that does not yet exist.
As noted in the introduction to this article, recent events in Northeastern Japan will have dramatically shifted the focus of policymakers in Japan. What can be expected in the immediate future in terms of the Hague Convention and further changes to Japanese family law remains to be seen. But natural disasters notwithstanding, Japanese people will continue to get married, have children and, in some cases, get divorced. So long as no changes are made, Japan will also continue to be regarded as a haven for abduction. This would be a sad thing since it is ultimately children – the ultimate resource in Japan, the United States, and everywhere else – who will continue to suffer.
Colin P.A. Jones is a Professor at Doshisha University Law School, a Life Member of Clare Hall, University of Cambridge, and has been admitted to the bar in New York, Guam and the Republic of Palau. He received his A.B. from the University of California at Berkeley, an LL.M. from Tohoku University, as well as a J.D. and LL.M. from Duke University School of Law.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
TOKYO (Kyodo) — A U.S.-based Nicaraguan man who fought a legal battle with his Japanese ex-wife for custody of their 9-year-old daughter has called for changes in the Japanese judicial system, saying the lack of power to enforce court rulings hinders the resolution of such disputes.
Following a drawn-out conflict involving legal action in two countries, the mother last week consented to return the child to the father within 30 days in a plea agreement in a court in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
In an e-mail interview with Kyodo News after the ruling, the father, a permanent resident of the United States, said he believes his former wife was arrested on a felony charge as U.S. law enforcement authorities thought civil court procedures would not deliver a desirable outcome soon.
When she went to Hawaii to renew her green card in April, the 43-year-old woman from Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture was nabbed on a charge of concealing the daughter from the 39-year-old father.
Following the plea agreement, the case in the U.S. court will be held open for three years, after which the felony charge will be reduced to a misdemeanor if she adheres to the court order. The mother plans to live in the United States and seek regular visitation rights, her American lawyer said.
In 2008, the couple filed for divorce and days before the father was granted custody of their child by a U.S. court, the woman took the girl to Japan. After returning home, the mother sought to become the girl’s custodial parent, in place of the father, as she claimed to have been abused by her former spouse.
In March this year, the Itami branch of the Kobe Family Court decided to change the custodial parent as requested by the mother, underlining the fact that the daughter had become accustomed to life in Japan.
But the court rejected the woman’s claim of abuse due to a lack of evidence and granted visitation rights to the father to maintain the daughter’s contact with the languages and cultures of the United States and Nicaragua, according to the mother’s Japanese lawyer.
Both parents filed a protest against the Kobe court ruling and the case is now being examined at the Osaka High Court. The woman’s Japanese lawyer said she will likely drop her appeal in Japan following the plea agreement in the United States.
The man welcomed the Milwaukee court decision as “the first case of a child abducted to Japan to be returned to the habitual residence.” He also said the best interests of his daughter will be protected as she will have access to both parents and her “multicultural heritage.”
He said the case was important as it “allowed us to show the inefficiencies of the Japanese legal system,” referring to what he calls “the lack of enforcement” and “protectionism” in the country’s court process.
The father said his former wife has limited his contact with the daughter in Japan despite the couple’s agreement in the U.S. court to ensure communication between the man and the child.
As an example of the lack of the Japanese courts’ power to enforce their rulings, the man said his former wife “when urged by the judge to let me see my daughter, she simply said ‘No’ and turned around.”
In a rare decision in Japan, the Kobe court granted him visitation time of about two weeks in Japan and 30 days in the United States every year until August 2017. But the mother said such requirements would be “a significant burden” for the daughter and appealed the ruling, the lawyer said.
The lengthy civil court proceedings in Japan may have prompted the U.S. law enforcement authorities to issue an arrest warrant for her a few weeks before her capture in Hawaii, the man said.
To deal with an increasing number of cross-border parental child abduction cases, the Japanese government decided in May to join the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, which sets rules and procedures for the prompt return of children under 16 to the country of their habitual residence.
Japan is the only Group of Eight country yet to join. In the country, which adopts the sole custody system, courts tend to award mothers custody and it is not unusual for children to stop seeing their fathers after their parents break up.
The man said he doubts his case could have been settled more smoothly if Japan had been a signatory of the pact, saying his ex-wife “would have used one of the so-called Japanese exceptions for the Hague,” pointing to her claim of his violence.
The Japanese government has been preparing domestic legislation to endorse the Hague Convention, with the aim of submitting a bill to a regular Diet session to be convened early next year.
The bill would indicate exceptions to the returns of children. The outline of the bill worked out by the government sets two conditions — when the abducting parent has fled from an abusive spouse and when such a parent could face criminal prosecution in his or her country of habitual residence.
The Hague Convention only says children will not be returned when there is “a grave risk that his or her return would expose the child to physical or psychological harm or otherwise place the child in an intolerable situation” and does not stipulate specific conditions.
“If Japan makes significant changes in the domestic law, including securing and enforcing visitation rights and court orders, I believe that most parents will look for a ‘civil’ solution, and a criminal option will be left behind,” the Nicaraguan man said.
Masayuki Tanamura, a professor of Waseda University specializing in family law, said Japan’s accession to the convention will likely lessen “forcible” solutions of custody rows through criminal prosecutions as it would enhance cooperation between judicial authorities of the countries involved.
Tanamura also said Tokyo needs to work out a system to provide support to anyone involved in such disputes both within Japan and abroad to ensure the welfare of children. “We have long avoided a debate on how the parent-child relation should be after divorce, but we now have to create a system centered on children’s benefits,” he said.
Kyodo News has refrained from disclosing the names of the family members involved in this child custody case for privacy reasons.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan – In an about-face, the Pentagon now supports the idea of federal legislation to better protect troops’ child custody rights.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates confirmed the move Wednesday during a Defense Department budget hearing with the House Armed Services Committee. He said the Pentagon would begin working with Congress immediately to help craft a bill to ensure servicemembers are not unduly penalized in child custody disputes because of their military service.
In a letter Tuesday to Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, a member of the armed services committee, Gates wrote, “The Defense Department has been officially opposed to federal legislation on this matter. However, I have been giving this matter a lot of thought and we should change our position.” Turner has sponsored such legislation since 2006 but has been unable to overcome opposition in the Senate.
“You should know that this view is not widely shared within the legal community,” Gates wrote, “but I am convinced that the benefits outweigh the concerns.”
Turner said the Gates’ endorsement would eliminate much of the Senate’s resistance to the idea behind his failed Service Members Family Protection Act.
It sought to prohibit family court judges from using deployments against troops when determining custody and prevent permanent changes to custody orders while troops are deployed.
Turner said he aims to preserve those pillars of his original legislation while working out the details of a new bill with Pentagon officials.
Turner said he hopes a new bill can reach a vote in Congress within the next few months.
“Our men and women in uniform should not have to worry about losing their children while they defend us overseas,” Turner said Wednesday.
Because most family court proceeding are not public, tracking how many divorced troops have been denied custody of their children based on their deployments is impossible.
However, the media continues to report on such cases; in the fall Oprah Winfrey interviewed on her show several female servicemembers involved in custody battles related to their military service.
The growing media attention likely helped influence Gates’ decision to support a national standard of protection for servicemembers in child custody cases against the advice of his Pentagon advisors, Turner said.
Before the change in stance, the Pentagon had been working to help pass individual state laws with the objectives similar to Turner’s proposed legislation through the Defense State Liaison Office. To date, 13 states have few or no state laws safeguarding troops’ custody rights, 21 have some laws on the book and 16 have met the DOD’s desired level of protections — a standard based on a points system for different measures such as not holding a deployment against a parent when determining custody.
Col. John Odom, who tracks child custody issues at the Pentagon, told Stars and Stripes in May that federal legislation would only complicate family law, which is typically decided and enforced in state courts, where few matters are simple.
But Turner contends a federal law is necessary because of the differences in state laws and the mobile military lifestyle. When a servicemember is an official resident of one state, gets divorced in another and then enters custody proceedings after having moved to yet another state or even out of the country, determining jurisdiction can be difficult.
A federal custody protection for troops would create a baseline of protection in U.S. courts, no matter where they were assigned, Turner said.
Gates change of heart “is incredible news because we now have an ally that was previously our biggest force of opposition,” Turner said. “Gates has 1,001 things to do, I’m just glad he did this one.”Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )