YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — The Japanese Foreign Ministry on Tuesday established a special division to address cases of international parental child abduction within the country.

It was unclear Friday how the new Division for Issues Related to Child Custody will tackle the issue of Japanese mothers denying visitation rights to their foreign ex-husbands. However, the move shows that decades of diplomacy devoted to the matter may finally be coming to fruition.

The United States and a handful of western nations this year ratcheted up pressure on the Japanese government to sign an international child abduction treaty that safeguards custody rights for parents. Japan is the only major industrialized nation not party to the 1981 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, which prevents parents from fleeing with their children to or within the 81 signatory countries.

Japanese Foreign Ministry officials said last week that the new division will consider whether Japan should sign the treaty, a decision government officials have put off for nearly 30 years. But even if Japan signed, the hundreds of open cases would not be covered under the treaty.

Right now, Japanese law essentially protects parents who abduct their children, and courts almost always grant sole custody to mothers.

The international community’s efforts to sway Japan seemed to get a shot in the arm when Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and his progressive Democratic Party of Japan took office earlier this year with a sympathetic ear to the cause.

However, it was Tennessee resident Christopher Savoie’s desperate and highly publicized attempt to regain custody of his children in Japan in September that propelled the issue into the international spotlight. He was jailed for weeks and later released on the condition that he not contact his children or ex-wife in Japan.

The U.S. State Department, which tracks cases of international parental child abduction involving Americans and has a current caseload of more than 100 Japanese-American children, said Friday it plans to continue engaging the Japanese government on the matter, both bilaterally and multilaterally.

“To date and to our knowledge, the government of Japan has never played a role in the return of a child abducted to Japan, but we hope that that will change,” a U.S. Embassy statement released Friday in Tokyo said.

Stars and Stripes reporter Hana Kusumoto contributed to this story.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now