TOKYO — With the installation of Japan’s new government last week came fresh hope for a growing movement of American parents whose Japanese-American children have been spirited away here.
Known as a haven for parents who abscond with their children, Japan is the only major industrial nation not party to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction of 1980. The treaty, signed by 81 countries, prevents parents from fleeing with their children to or within those countries before a court can determine custody.
The issue was raised last week during the first official talks between the two nations since the Democratic Party of Japan took power after a resounding victory in August elections. Since the treaty was adopted, Japan has continuously said it was considering acceding. Now, activists and officials contend action is imminent.
"We were pleased with the initial discussions we had," Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell said Friday after two days of talks with new Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada.
The Japanese Foreign Ministry declined requests for comment on the new government’s stance on the issue.
But in July, before he was elected, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama told the Japan Times Herald blog that he supports ratifying the Hague treaty "and involved in this is a sweeping change to allow divorced fathers visitation of their children. That issue affects not just foreign national fathers, but Japanese fathers as well. I believe in this change."
Foreign parents fighting to see their children in Japan are strengthening ties with Japanese parents who also have been cut off from their children, counting on domestic support to help bolster the international effort, and vice versa.
"No country is going to change because of foreign pressure," said Steve Christie, an adjunct university professor in Tokyo who has seen his 14-year-old son, Kento, only twice in four years after splitting from his Japanese wife.
Christie, 50, a former Navy corpsman on Okinawa, helped found the International Association for Parent-Child Reunion this summer after the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Canada held a symposium in Tokyo and released a joint statement urging Japan to sign the Hague convention, which spurred a flurry of international media reports.
The group is also pushing for changes in Japanese family law, which does not recognize parental child abduction as a crime, does not acknowledge foreign custody orders and does not enforce child custody orders with criminal penalties.
Christie said his group meets regularly with the U.S. Embassy in Japan and has submitted records of more than 100 cases of children who have been abducted from Japan, some of them returned through the Hague treaty process.
"Japan benefits from the Hague without having to participate," he said. "It sets a bad example."
Japan’s reluctance to sign the Hague treaty stems from its tradition of sole-custody divorces, whereby one parent typically makes a complete and lifelong break from the children when a couple splits.
Tokyo resident Mashito Kentaro understands this all too well. After relentlessly pursuing visitation rights since divorcing his wife 12 years ago, Kentaro now gets to see his son eight times a year for three-hour intervals.
During his battle, he began meeting foreigners with similar problems and is now helping non-Japanese parents navigate the system and fighting for Japanese family law reform.
At a recent meeting arranged through Internet outreach groups, Kentaro, Christie and other parents from around the world cut off from their children in Japan met to discuss upcoming meetings with Japanese government officials and a planned demonstration Oct. 24 in Yoyogi Park.
"There’s a real momentum with the new Japanese government," Christie said.
Meanwhile, because the Hague is not retroactive, parents like Navy Cmdr. Paul Toland are also pushing U.S. and Japanese officials to devise a task force to help resolve the approximately 80 open cases involving more than 100 Japanese-American children documented by the State Department.
"There’s definitely some progress being made," said Toland, a medical administration officer in Bethesda, Md. "The new government seems serious about talking about it. At least the discussions are more open now."
If the new government fails to act, there could be repercussions if the International Child Abduction Prevention Act of 2009 becomes law. Introduced in July by Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., it would allow for economic sanctions against Japan and other countries that refuse to take action in international child abduction cases.
"Japan is one of the most egregious abusers in this regard, and that’s unacceptable," Smith told Stars and Stripes in July.