Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Japan & International Child Abduction: An Update

The article below updates Japan’s attempt to handle the issue of international child abduction. It highlights the fact that there is substantial misunderstanding within Japan concerning the entire issue of child custody and how the country’s accession to the Hague Convention would work. There is a very long way to go until Japan returns abducted children.


Japan is struggling to address international child custody issues amid renewed pressure from the United States and other countries to join a convention to deal with the problems that arise when failed international marriages result in children wrongfully being taken to Japan by one parent.

What also makes Japan wary is facing possible criticism that it is harsh in its condemnation of North Korea for abducting Japanese in the past but lags behind in dealing with the so-called ''parental child abduction'' often conducted by its own citizens.

Japan is currently considering joining the convention which provides a procedure for the prompt return of such ''abducted'' children to their habitual country of residence and secures protection of rights of access to parents to their children.

Complaints are growing over cases in which a Japanese parent, often mothers, bring a child home without the consent of the other foreign parent, or regardless of custody determination in other countries, and denies the other parent access to the child.

The problem is not new. In 2006, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper raised the issue with then Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Most recently, ambassadors of eight countries, including the United States, Britain, France and Australia, jointly submitted concerns, and Kurt Campbell, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, also called on Japan to work on the issue during his visit to Tokyo earlier this month.

''The issue is only going to continue to grow by leaps and bounds if you will, simply because Japanese are marrying more and more with foreigners,'' Raymond Baca, consul general at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, said in an interview with Kyodo News.

''This is a multilateral issue. And it affects the world community,'' he also stressed, citing that a total of 81 countries have so far signed the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.

As of Wednesday, the Japanese Foreign Ministry has received complaints on 77 cases from the United States, 37 cases each from Britain and Canada, and 35 cases from France, according to a ministry official dealing with the issue.

As part of efforts to address the issue, the ministry set up in December the Division for Issues Related to Child Custody, and has engaged in separate bilateral talks with the United States and France to deal with specific disputes.

The ministry has also held a briefing session for the embassies of countries interested in the issue and plans to hold a closed-door seminar in March in which experts from several countries are expected to gather for discussion on the issue, the official said.

''The issue needs to be considered with haste inside the Foreign Ministry and also inside the government,'' Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada said in his e-mail newsletter released Feb. 5.

But he said that acceding to the convention may ''take a little more time'' and also noted the need to take into consideration the differences of legal system between Japan and the United States, or Europe.

''In Japan, basically there is an idea of not letting authorities intervene in family affairs, except for child abuse cases. Therefore, there is no means for coercion. But in Europe and the United States, that may sound strange,'' he said.

There are also differences on parental rights, with Japan's law giving a single parent, often mothers, full custody of children in divorce, while the United States and Europe allow joint custody.

Japan's Civil Code also does not mention about the visitation rights for noncustodial parent and many Japanese mothers are known to refuse the divorced parent to meet the child.

''I understand our two nations' approaches to divorce and child custody are very different, but, as a result, American left behind parents have little or no access to their children once abducted to Japan,'' Campbell, the top U.S. diplomat for Asia, said in Tokyo.

''The U.S. government...strongly believes that children should grow up with access to both parents,'' he also said, noting that leaving the issue unresolved may raise concerns on the positive nature of U.S.-Japan relations.

Foreign Ministry Press Secretary Kazuo Kodama said that the ministry would ''carefully'' handle the issue so as not to impair the relations with its key security ally, shrugging off the possibility of the issue becoming a diplomatic flashpoint.

But some Foreign Ministry officials are concerned that the discussion starts to have a linkage with the issue of North Korea's abductions of Japanese nationals.

''When Japan calls for the resolution of (North Korea's) abductions, we may be asked, 'So what is your country doing (in the area of child abduction)?','' a senior ministry official said.

''And if we answer that it is a cultural issue, Japan may be regarded as a selfish country,'' the official said, responding on condition of anonymity.

Indicating Japan's awkward position, several diplomatic sources said that Campbell warned senior Japanese Foreign Ministry officials during his February visit to Japan that its failure to join the convention may have adverse effects on Washington's assistance to Tokyo in trying to resolve the North Korean abduction issue.

The Foreign Ministry official dealing with the child custody issue said Japan basically has no objection to the convention's idea of setting procedures to restore the status quo before the wrongful removal has taken place, without making any custody determination.

But still government officials appear uncertain on whether they can gain full understanding from the public at the moment on the issue of Japan's accession to the treaty.

A Justice Ministry official said that the government has to be able to respond to concerns especially in relation to cases when Japanese women flee from an abusive foreign husband.

While the convention has safeguards to prevent children to return to an abusive environment, the official at the civil affairs bureau said interpretations seem to vary among countries on whether the safeguards apply to cases when the abuse is seen only toward the mother and not to the child.

The Foreign Ministry official dealing with the issue also said that there may be a misunderstanding among the public that a child's return order issued in line with the convention means that the child would have to be there forever.

While saying that the historic change of government in Japan may serve as a momentum for Japan to improve the situation, the official also said, ''To tell the truth, we have yet to come up with a good solution.''