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YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — The United States and seven other countries urged Japan on Friday to join an international treaty on child abduction — an issue that has reached fever pitch in recent weeks following the arrest of an American for attempting to take back his children brought here without his consent.

U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos along with his counterparts from the United Kingdom, Canada, France, New Zealand, Italy, Spain and an embassy official from Australia delivered the joint request in a meeting with Japanese Minister of Justice Keiko Chiba. The diplomats urged Japan not only to sign the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction but also to implement measures allowing foreign parents visitation rights to their children in the meantime.

"Because parental child abduction involving Japan affects so many of our citizens, we … called on Justice Minister Chiba today to address our concerns," according to a statement released by the U.S. Embassy.

It is the most aggressive plea to Japan from the international community in nearly 30 years of mostly behind-the-scenes lobbying. 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 Justice Ministry declined to comment Friday.

The debate gained international momentum following the recent arrest of Christopher Savoie by Japanese police for attempting to retrieve his children, taken from their U.S. home by his Japanese ex-wife. After 18 days in confinement, Savoie was released Thursday from a jail in the southern city of Fukuoka.

The 38-year-old Tennessee resident was arrested Sept. 28 for suspicion of abduction of minors after grabbing the children, ages 6 and 8, as his ex-wife walked them to school. He was not formally charged.

His case is one of a growing number of international child custody disputes in Japan, where family courts typically award custody to mothers and do not enforce visitation rights with criminal penalties. The courts also do not recognize foreign custody orders, which many Japanese women estranged from foreign-born spouses defy to bring their children back to their home country.

Despite his release, Savoie could still face prosecution, Fukuoka District Prosecutors Office spokesman said Friday.

"We will continue to conduct investigation and carefully make the decision," he said.

It was unclear Friday whether Savoie was still in Japan.

"It’s great that he’s been released, but it does nothing to solve the problem with his children," Jeremy Morely, Savoie’s U.S. attorney, said Thursday.

"These parents feel that they have no other choice but to take matters into their own hands. We in the legal system discourage that," Morely said. "But there’s not a chance at the moment that they can get any kind of useful results out of the Japanese legal system. When people are desperate they’ll do anything for their children."

Meanwhile, an increasingly vocal group of Japanese parents also has been petitioning the Japanese government to overhaul its family court system and to remedy domestic custody issues.

"There is a need to grant joint child custody to parents," said Diet member Hakubun Shimomura. He said Japan must change its domestic laws before signing onto the Hague convention and that raising public awareness was key to accomplishing that. The Daily Yomiuri, one of the nation’s largest newspapers, published an editorial Friday pressing Japan to take action.

"Differences in systems and customs over parental custody and divorce between Japan and Western nations add another complicating factor to the mix," the paper wrote. "But a number of troubling cases have occurred, and the issue has become a cause of diplomatic friction. The government must tackle the issue without delay."

Stars and Stripes reporter Hana Kusumoto contributed to this story.

PREVIOUS STORY:October 2, 2009:American’s attempt to take back children in Tokyo renews call for reform


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