American’s attempt to take back children in Tokyo renews call for reform
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — The arrest of an American in Japan this week for attempting to retrieve his children — allegedly taken from their U.S. home by his Japanese ex-wife — is renewing calls for the new Japanese government to sign an international child abduction treaty.
“Hopefully this becomes an opportunity for decisive action on the part of Prime Minister [Yukio] Hatoyama,” Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., said Wednesday.
Smith introduced legislation this summer to impose economic sanctions against countries that do not cooperate in resolving international child abduction issues. Tokyo’s inaction in such cases has made victims of a number of U.S. servicemembers estranged from the Japanese nationals they met and had children with after being stationed in Japan.
Christopher Savoie’s case garnered international media attention Tuesday after CNN picked up the story from a local affiliate in his hometown of Franklin, Tenn.
According to CNN, Savoie learned his children had been taken to Japan when they did not show up for the first day of school in Tennessee in August.
Savoie then successfully petitioned for full custody and Franklin police issued an arrest warrant for his ex-wife, Noriko, who had been living in Tennessee since the couple’s divorce, according to the news report.
But Japanese law does not recognize foreign custody orders, and Savoie’s attempts to recover his children through proper channels quickly proved fruitless. That’s when he flew to Japan.
According to The Associated Press, Savoie snatched his two children — an 8-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl — Monday in the southern city of Fukuoka, shoved them into a car and drove away, said Akira Naraki, a police spokesman in the city.
“He took the step that none of us have taken, but one that we’ve all thought about,” Navy Cmdr. Paul Toland said Tuesday from his home in Bethesda, Md.
Toland’s wife absconded with his daughter, Erika, from their home in Yokohama, Japan, in 2003 while he was stationed at Yokosuka Naval Base. She was not charged with child abduction and was able to prevent Toland from even visiting his daughter.
The U.S. and the international community for years have lobbied the Japanese government to sign the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction of 1980. The treaty, which includes 81 countries as signatories, prevents parents from fleeing with their children to or within those countries to circumvent standing custody orders or before a court can determine custody.
“The problem has gotten so big that Japan is becoming known as a destination country for international parental kidnapping, even when no one in the family is of Japanese descent,” Smith wrote in a Sept. 24 letter to Hatoyama obtained by Stars and Stripes.
The Savoie case demonstrates not only the desperate measures parents can resort to, but also the hypocrisy of Japanese law, contend Toland and Paul Wong, an American attorney based in Tokyo who continues to fight for access to his daughter, Kaya.
“Japanese law says that parental [child] abduction is not a crime,” said Toland, whose daughter was taken by his in-laws after his Japanese wife died in 2005. “So it’s asinine that he’s being charged because he’s the biological father and his rights have not been terminated by a Japanese court.”
Wong, Toland and dozens of other left-behind parents are organizing rallies this weekend in the United States, Europe and Japan in support of Savoie.
“This is a guy who has no choice and given the track record in Japan, he was never going to see his kids again,” Toland said.
Savoie was detained by Japanese police Monday while attempting to enter the U.S. Consulate in Fukuoka City with the children, said Tracy Taylor, a spokeswoman for the consulate. The children were returned to their mother, she said.
Consular officials have helped Savoie, who is charged with abduction of minors, obtain a Japanese attorney and are acting as an intermediary with his family in the U.S., Taylor said.
A spokesman for the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Wednesday said it is aware of the Savoie case and had not been asked by the U.S. to release Savoie.
Embassy officials in Tokyo and Fukuoka would not comment on whether those discussions would take place.
As of August, the State Department had identified 118 Japanese-American children who are living in Japan and cut off from their American parents.
Stars and Stripes’ Hana Kusumoto contributed to this story.