Clutching birthday presents and photographs, Navy Cmdr. Paul Toland waited anxiously outside his daughter’s school Friday to get his first glimpse of her in five years.
What he had hoped would be a reunion turned out to be but a fleeting moment.
"I called out to her in Japanese, ‘Erika it’s your papa. Can we talk?’ "
But, just steps from the apartment where she’s lived with her grandmother since Toland’s ex-wife died in 2007, Erika Toland kept walking, pausing to look back at her father and then entering the building.
His 6,700-mile trip to Japan from his home in Maryland came down to an encounter that lasted roughly a minute.
"I had hoped she would take more of an interest," said Toland, 42, a medical administration officer in Bethesda, Md. He said he gave the gifts and birthday presents to Erika’s friends who had witnessed the encounter. "She’s going to remember that her dad came to see her for her birthday."
He had been grappling with an approach since arriving in Tokyo more than a week ago, worried about traumatizing Erika. But after years of failed attempts to see his daughter through the courts and with assistance from the State Department, Toland said he had no other choice.
Toland claims Erika was abducted by his Japanese ex-wife, Etsuko Toland, from their home at a Navy housing complex in Yokohama in 2003 when he was stationed at Yokosuka Naval Base. Erika was just 9 months old at the time, and Toland has seen her only twice since then.
"Really, this is the only way to see your kids in Japan," he said. "Official channels fail in Japan. That’s why we’re relegated to this."
He claims his former mother-in-law refuses to allow visitation, although Judy Dugger, a Virginia attorney who represents the family of his ex-wife, said that is not the case.
"We welcome him to see her," Dugger said. "Every time we tried to set it up, he’d walk away from it.
"He knows where the child is, and we’ve offered supervised visitation. He should file for custody in the Japanese courts," Dugger said, adding a claim that Toland owes years of back child support.
Toland denies Dugger’s claims and said he has given up on pursuing the case in Japanese courts because "it’s a pre-determined outcome."
"You don’t change things by complying with a bad system," he said. "You have to resist."