You come home from the gym like any Saturday morning but this time the house is quiet.

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The Children’s Rights Council Japan (CRCJapan) estimates that at least 100 children are abducted by Japanese spouses both in and to Japan every year, and there is no legal way to get them back or even contact them because Japan does not recognize international parental custody rights. According to numerous parents interviewed, Japan does not enforce visitation arbitration, provide for legal joint custody, or deal impartially with foreigners. Following the recent case of American Christopher Savoie, who was imprisoned in Japan for attempting to retrieve his children who were abducted by his ex-wife, readers are likely aware that Japan is the only G-7 nation that has refused to sign the 1980 Hague Convention agreement that recognizes international child custody decisions and provides for extradition of children abducted by parents. But you may not have heard many first-hand accounts, as most foreign parents struggling to regain contact with their children are reluctant to speak out for fear of spousal and court recrimination that would make their plight even more hopeless, if that were possible.

My earliest encounter with parental child abduction was in fifth grade, when the father of a girl in my class snatched her out of the lunchroom, kicking and screaming, right in front of us. She was never the same after that and neither were we.

A few years ago, I was on a plane with my wife and little boy, flying back to Dallas for a visit. My wife kept eyeing a guy on the other end of the cabin. “Isn’t that Craig over there… Brenda’s husband?” she asked me. They were friends of ours in Kanagawa. I went over to say “hi” to him and his two kids. “Where’s Brenda?” I asked. That’s when he explained that there were, what he felt to be, irreconcilable differences; he had taken them out “for Happy Meals”… at Narita airport. He looked scared and the kids looked shell-shocked. But soon after he was in the United States, the legal system kicked in and the children were back with their mother in a week. Divorce and joint custody were discussed, but fortunately the problems turned out to be reconcilable after all. To this day, Craig and Brenda are together with their kids.

In the United States and many foreign countries, international parental child abduction, which is when one parent takes a child to another country against the other parent’s wishes, is a crime. This can be the case even when neither parent holds a custody decree prior to the abduction. If only Japan were one of those countries, I wouldn’t be writing this article.

“I didn’t expect the towel to be thrown in when it was. I thought we were still making an effort,” said Todd Schmidt, a Tokyo Recruiter who was “left behind” six years ago when his wife, a Japanese citizen, took their children Gabe (10) and Morgan (7) from their beach house in Chiba and went into hiding. Since then, he has seen his daughter twice for two supervised hours each. He was not allowed to see his son. “When it first starts, you’re going crazy,” Todd explained. “The schools will not talk to you, even if you’re still married. It’s very frustrating” he says with great constraint.

Todd explained, “If (a foreigner) asks where your kids are and you say, ‘I don’t know,’ they’d say, ‘what do you mean you don’t know?’ But say that to a Japanese person and they immediately understand. It’s totally accepted and not discussed at all.”  Todd said he’d been living in Japan for years, but that he’d never heard anything about this aspect of the Japanese culture.

Todd, like many fathers with whom I’ve spoken, says he doesn’t feel any overt discrimination from the legal system. The courts routinely favor the mother for full custody 80% of the time, according to estimates by the Japan Children’s Rights Network. Ex-prime minister Junichiro Koizumi is a notable exception, but even there, his two children never have any contact with the mother, and the child she was pregnant with at the time of their divorce likewise has never met his father. The popular opinion among the courts appears to be that it’s better for the child to remain exclusively with one parent, in the interest of “stability.” They see the alternative of a child bouncing back and forth between both parents as detrimental. Moreover, recent mores dictate that men take care of the business and women take care of the children; no intermingling of the roles. So if there’s a divorce or separation, the father is expected to “move on.” This same attitude in fact has only recently begun to fade from western cultures.

According to the US Department of State, of all the children abducted by parents to Japan from parents with legal custody in the U.S., not one has ever been returned. Todd and other parents I spoke with want to know why this is tolerated while North Korea is vilified for abducting Japanese citizens.

US Navy commander Paul Toland was at work when a neighbor called and asked him why there was a moving van outside his Negishi base house. By the time he got home, his wife, Etsuko was gone with their baby, Erika.

“Her mother had moved in with us… but we were due (to be reassigned) to the United States, and Etsuko was torn between me and her mother, who refused to leave Japan.” Paul never really thought it would come to this. 

Then, in 2007, Paul’s wife Etsuko died. Paul was grieved, but assumed that he would finally see his daughter. The courts, however felt that it would be best if Erika remained with her Japanese grandmother. Paul has never stopped fighting to regain his daughter and he, like many fathers, maintains a dedicated Internet presence with Facebook titled “Help Bring Erika Toland Home.”

Paul Brown has not been allowed to see his son, Liam, since he was a baby three years ago. It came as no surprise to him, as his wife Tomiko had been threatening it since before Liam was born in Australia. “Once she fell pregnant, she constantly told me that our child didn’t need me and she could raise it by herself.” Not surprisingly, Paul’s ex-wife was herself a child raised without a father. Paul continues to try to get access, though he says he has no real hope it will ever happen. “I just hope he will want to know who his father is despite the things his mother has said to him about me.”

Tokyo resident Tracy Wyatt, father of two daughters, fought rigorously for years to see his children after his wife abducted them. “My girls are the most important thing in the world to me,” Tracy exclaimed, “I’d do anything for them, but I love my wife, too.” For years, he has been coaxing and encouraging his wife to reconsider; a slow process, almost like courtship, only on a foundation of hostility.

According to a Kanagawa PTA member, the father is of little importance to the children beyond providing income, whereas the mother’s relationship is “divine.” “The mother is God to her children… if the father cannot be useful (in his role), he should go away,” she expressed under terms of anonymity. Again, this is understood here, thought rarely discussed. But not all Japanese agree.

“I have already told my husband I would never do anything like (abduct our son),” says children’s English school manager Mami Johnson. She also believes that children should know both their parents. “I’ve seen what happens to children when one parent is pushed away… it’s very terrible for them, emotionally,” she explained.

Todd repeated, “It takes two people to make a kid. It takes two people to raise a kid. The kids need both parents… I would never try to keep the kids away from her.” But what about blow-back? Doesn’t the abducting parent know that they cannot keep them apart forever? By Japanese law, when the children turn 14, they can choose where they want to live. But in reality they become so indoctrinated against the other parent that by then, they often will have succumbed to Parent Child Alienation Syndrome, similar to Stockholm Syndrome, and have developed an irrational fear of the other parent. Tracy blames this on the possessing parent. “They go out of their way to tell the children that the other parent is a threat, or doesn’t exist.”

The Way It Works

Fathers I spoke with described the divorce process in Japan (where children are concerned) as nothing short of a “farce.” “When I said I wanted joint custody, (the court) thought it was ‘sweet’, Todd said, sardonically. He said he didn’t feel like this would be so different if he were a Japanese father. Many fathers I talked to explained that the system favors the status quo; wherever the kids are, and whatever their situation is, is how the Japanese courts prefer to keep it. “A lawless system,” as he terms it.

According to the parents I’ve spoken with, the system typically goes like this: Sole custody is awarded at the divorce hearing (joint custody is not on the menu). Both parents are required to sign off on this. At that point, the kids become the children of one parent and cease to be the children of the other parent, as per the koseki or family registry. The other parent is told that a second family court will arrange matters like visitation. What they are not told is that those courts are strictly arbitrations with no “teeth.” Once the divorce is settled, the parent with custody of the children need never again grant the other parent access. If the other parent persists, the legal parent often uses the other’s desire to see his kids as a means of extorting money; “Send me ¥100,000 and your son will give you a phone call.” Not surprisingly, educated foreigners try to avoid divorce in Japan at all costs.

When Commander Toland’s wife abducted their daughter, he saw a military lawyer who advised him to go through the Japanese court system. According to Toland, “What the lawyer should have said was DON’T go through the Japanese court system,” which promptly stripped him of custody and left him with no recourse through military courts. “The arbitration was bizarre,” he recalled. “All they talked about was money.” In the course of it, his Japanese lawyer apologized to him, &ldqu
;You’ll hav
to forgive our system; it’s filled with racism.” He said that defending him was “like defending the Taliban.”

There are groups like the Children’s Rights Council Japan and the Japan Children’s Rights Network trying support parents and persuade Japan to change its laws. The CRC Japan’s motto is “the best parent is both parents.”

While some people argue that this is simply an aspect of the Japanese culture, Mami points out that “international marriages and births are the only ones in Japan that are increasing rather than falling, so the foreign attitudes must also be respected.”

When asked if he thinks he’ll ever see his son again, Todd answered, “I’d like to see him while he’s still a kid, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. Fortunately, we have the Internet and I will keep posting information that I love him, that he will not be able to avoid.”

In October, Toland visited Japan in the hopes of seeing his daughter again and supporting protest rallies planned around the country in the wake of the Christopher Savoie case. He met with US congressman Chris Smith while in Japan to discuss what could be done to see his daughter and support Smith’s bill proposed to fight child abduction to Japan. 

Out of countless fathers I talked to and read about, only one has had any success. Tracy gradually managed to reopen channels, saying “I can see my girls, and me and my ex- have a great relationship now.” He says he doesn’t worry about her abducting his daughters again. “I think what has made me relax is that I know that my daughters will not let her do it again. They are 13 and 10 years old and they understand that I am an important part of their lives, and that I love them very much.” Tracy explained, “What changed everything was when they refused to give up their surname and forget me.” But for the time being, Tracy’s case is the exception and Japan remains a haven for Japanese parents who choose to abduct their children and deny the other parent access.