For years, the international community has been pressuring Japan to abide by international human rights standards in preventing cross-border parental kidnapping.
Japan has been censured for not being a signatory to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, which protects children from wrongful removal or retention from their habitual place of residence.
Though former Prime Minister Naota Kan announced on May 20 last year that Japan intends to sign The Hague Convention, Japan is the only G8 member that has yet to become a signatory. LBPs (Left Behind Parents) are cautious to find the signing as reason to cheer because changes are also needed in Japan’s family courts for them to be reunited with their children. The continued condoning of both domestic and international child abduction cases can be traced to Japan’s family court.
Japan’s family court often awards sole custody to the parent with whom the child is residing. If the other parent wishes to see their child, permission by the parent to whom custodial rights were awarded becomes necessary.
This means that the parent who takes away the child from the other parent first will be in a superior bargaining position, since the family court overwhelmingly recognizes the status quo of whom the child is residing with.
Many LBPs have criticized the Japanese judicial system for condoning abduction by granting sole custody rights to the parent who snatches the child away first. In situations where cross-border kidnappings take place, the foreign parent is effectively powerless, as the Japanese family court will rule in favor of the parent with whom the child is residing. This has led some bereaved foreign LBPs to refer to Japan as a “black hole for child abduction.”
First, the Japanese government’s stance to become a signatory of The Hague Convention is an indication of changes in favor of adopting international human rights standards.
The move comes at a time when the numbers of international marriages and divorces are increasing in Japan. According to the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, approximately 19,000 international marriages ended in divorce last year in Japan, comprising 7.5% of the total number of divorces in Japan. In 2010, the ratio to divorces to all marriages in Japan was approximately 36%. Children of divorce are at significant risk of losing access to one parent in the current family law system.
Things are finally starting to change at both the international and domestic levels. There are two model cases, one in Wisconsin and one in Matsudo, Chiba.
Japan has stuck to awarding sole custody to one parent following a divorce since the Meiji era. Though some have mentioned this as evidence of sole custody being a part of Japan’s culture, in reality, this system has also created a legal system that condones child abductions.
In addition, on Dec 23, 2011, a girl was returned to her father in Wisconsin after being abducted by her Japanese mother nearly 4 years earlier, the first return of an abducted child from Japan by means of the courts.
She was reunited with her father when her mother, who had been arrested in April 2011 in Hawaii on child abduction charges, agreed to a plea bargain to be released from jail in exchange for returning their daughter to the United States.
The case, which received wide coverage in international and Japanese media, marked the first time for Japanese media such as NHK and Asahi to use the term “tsuresari” (abduction) rather than “tsurekaeru” (to bring home).
Of course, a plea bargain is still not the equivalent of a change in stance in Japan’s family court, but changes are also gradually being implemented in the domestic sphere as well.
Many people following the child abduction issue are closely monitoring the development of a high-profile domestic abduction case in Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture, to see if a judicial precedent making child abductions an unlawful act will be made.
On April 26, 2011, former Justice Minister Satsuki Eda mentioned three criteria that need to be considered in determining the custody of children after divorce, as stated in article 766, in his remarks to the Committee on Judicial Affairs.
The three criteria are: the abduction of children should be eligible for consideration as child abuse; the issuance of custody rights should favor parents who are willing to allow the other parent visitation of their children (also known as the “friendly parent rule”); and parents who commit unlawful abductions of their child should be at a disadvantage in the issuance of custody rights.
At the domestic level, article 766 of Japan’s civil code, which stipulates legal guidelines for the custody of children after divorce, was revised on June 3, 2011, to include a provision which states that visitation and economic support must be deliberated between the two spouses before divorce papers are submitted.
As stated in the “friendly parent rule,” one of the three criteria underlined by Eda, not allowing visitation, ought to work unfavorably toward obtaining custody rights. In cases where the child has already been abducted, the LBP may offer the abducting parent visitation in fighting to recover their child in court.
In effect, the revision of article 766 is significant, as the abduction of a child by a parent will be in breach of the new provision. This measure, if properly enforced by Japan’s family court, will help prevent the abduction of children by a parent.
However, when asked to recognize the remarks made by Eda, Tatsushige Wakabayashi, the judge presiding over the case, reportedly remarked, “What the justice minister says at the Diet is irrelevant.”
In response, various LBP groups have called for Wakabayashi to step down. Wakabayashi has yet to make a final verdict, leaving both domestic LBP groups and the international community tense anticipating his decision.
The writer is a student at the University of Tokyo.