How Did Japan Become a Haven for Child Abductions?
By Lucy Birmingham / Tokyo Monday, Mar. 07, 2011
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Like any loving father, Christopher Savoie just wanted to do the best thing for his two kids. In August 2009, his Japanese ex-wife broke U.S. law and abducted their children from his home in Tennessee, moving them to Japan. But when Savoie went to get them weeks later, he was arrested. It didn’t matter that he had legal custody in both countries; that she had violated a U.S. court order or that there was a U.S. warrant issued for her arrest. Nor did the fact that Savoie was a naturalized Japanese citizen and fluent in Japanese make a difference. After 18 days in jail, Savoie returned to the U.S. empty handed and broken hearted. A year and half has now passed, and he is still unable to see his son and daughter, now 10 and 8.
Despite all this, Savoie’s ex-wife is beyond the reach of international law. Japan has not signed the Hague Convention on the Prevention of Child Abduction, an international accord adopted by 84 nations and aimed at returning abducted children back to the country from which they were taken. Along with an increasing number of international marriages and divorces, child abductions to Japan — the only G7 nation that has not signed the treaty — have been on the rise. In 2009, the State Department ranked Japan at the top of its list in reported abductions from the U.S. among non-signatory nations. “It is our understanding that no U.S. citizen child abducted to Japan has been returned to the United States,” says Paul Fitzgerald, a U.S. Embassy official in Tokyo. The issue could tarnish U.S.-Japan relations; as Assistant Sec. of State Kurt Campbell told reporters during a trip to Tokyo in February, “The situation has to be resolved in order to ensure that the U.S.-Japan relations continue on such a positive course.” (See pictures of Japan and the world.)
Japan’s antiquated domestic family law complicates matters. In a Japanese divorce, child custody is awarded to only one parent — typically the mother. Visitation can be negotiated but there is no legal enforcement and agreements are often broken. In Japan, it’s not unusual for the non-custodial parent to lose contact with their child, and domestic abductions, when they do occur, are often ignored by the police as a family matter. It’s a devastating scenario for a growing number of fathers residing in Japan — both Japanese and foreign — who have few legal rights to see their children. “Clearly, the best legal scenario is for the children is to be here in the U.S. where each parent would be guaranteed visitation,” writes Savoie by email.
International pressure for Japan to make a change has been mounting. Over the past year, several ambassadors from embassies in Tokyo have met with high-level government officials to urge Japan to sign the convention. A Japanese government panel was set up in January to study the pros and cons, but opposition remains firm at most levels. Japanese lawmakers are worried the Hague Convention does not properly take into account past cases of domestic abuse in demanding a child’s repatriation, or a child’s own right to choose where they live. “This is why Switzerland tried to amend the treaty, even though it is a signatory,” explains Kensuke Ohnuki, a Tokyo attorney who has represented several women who have abducted children from foreign countries to Japan. “They failed. So instead, they made their own new law which enables the Swiss court to refuse the return of a child when it’s against the child’s will.”
On Feb. 22, the Japan Bar Association issued similar Hague recommendations to the government, including a guarantee in domestic law that children not be returned to their country of residence if they had been subjected to abuse or violence. Left-behind parents, including Christopher Savoie, have said the recommendations are draconian and anti-joint custody, in part because abuse is both difficult to prove and is commonly cited as one of the main reasons for abduction.
One of Ohnuki’s clients, who uses the alias Keiko, says she left the U.S. with her child because she discovered her husband was abusing their son. “There were no obvious physical marks so it would have been impossible to prove in court,” Keiko explains tearfully. After consulting a therapist and an attorney in the U.S., she feared getting sole custody as a Japanese citizen would be nearly impossible. “When we were in Japan, my son told me he feels safe, far away from his father… I didn’t really want to leave the U.S. I had a good job and many friends. But I wanted to do what was best for my son.” Keiko is now one of about 50 members of the Safety Network for Guardians and Children, a support group for women who have abducted their children to Japan from various countries. (Comment on this story.)
Finding a internationally recognized legal resolution to cases like Keiko’s will not be easy. But in the meantime, Japanese mothers living abroad who have no intention of removing their children from their families are also beginning to be affected by the problem. Jeremy Morley, a U.S. attorney specializing in Japanese child abductions says that foreign courts are “increasingly ordering Japanese mothers living overseas not to take their children to Japan even for a family visit because of Japan’s status as a renowned haven for international child abduction.”
A winning diplomatic strategy will need teeth to make a difference for everyone involved. “The mantra now is ‘Japan sign the Hague’, but that’s not enough,” U.S. Rep. Chris Smith said during a recent trip to Tokyo. The Republican New Jersey congressman, who is also the chairman of a subcommittee overseeing human rights issues, is pushing for a bill that would establish an Office of International Child Abductions within the U.S. State Department to handle cases like these and discuss sanctions against uncooperative nations. “I don’t know what the answer is,” says Keiko. “But we need to find a solution that’s in the best interest of the child.”