After harsh criticism regarding a growing number of unresolved parental abduction cases in Japan, the Japanese government has announced that it will sign the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction as early as next year. Child advocates, parent and fathers' rights groups and the U.S. State Department are among those hailing the decision.
Over the past five years or so, conflict over international child custody issues with Japan and other nations has come to a head. In these cases, a Japanese parent, most often the mother, takes the children to Japan without the non-Japanese parent's consent -- often in violation of a U.S. child custody order.
Once there, Japanese law becomes a virtually impenetrable wall against the children's return. Child custody is virtually always granted there to the parent who is a citizen of Japan, regardless of what was ordered by the children's home country. Japanese law also does not give non-custodial parents any visitation rights.
The Hague Convention, which has been signed by the U.S. and 68 other countries, provides a mechanism for protecting children from parental abduction by requiring the courts of signatory countries to return children to their countries of origin.
By requiring that child custody disputes be resolved in the child's country of origin, the Hague Convention acts to prevent parents from "shopping" for friendlier courts abroad. Japan is the only G-7 nation that has not yet signed the treaty.
Parental Kidnapping to Japan on the Rise, Threatening Many Fathers' Rights
According to the State Department, parental abductions of 127 children to Japan are currently unresolved. Not only is that the highest incidence of cases involving any country, it represents an sharp upward trend in cases involving Japan.
"That number, more than 100 children, places Japan at the top of an unfortunate list," said Michele Thoren Bond, deputy assistant secretary of state for Overseas Citizens Services. "Only India, with a population of nearly 10 times that of Japan, comes close to the number of open cases."
While working with any non-signatory nation is problematic, obtaining the return of children from Japan has been virtually impossible. The State Department is not aware of a single case where a Japanese court has returned a child to a non-Japanese parent, even if that parent was granted legal custody in the U.S.
Christopher Savoie spent two weeks in a Japanese jail last year after trying fruitlessly to retrieve his kids from Japan, where his wife had taken them in violation of their child custody order from Tennessee.
"It's a black hole," Savoie told NBC's TODAY in a May interview. "The children go in. They don't come out."
Savoie's case prompted the U.S. House of Representatives to pass a resolution asking Japan to sign. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton brought the issue up in her July meeting with the Japanese foreign minister.
In May 2009, the U.S., France, Canada and the United Kingdom, held a joint press conference at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo to pressure Japan to sign the treaty.
"Japan is an important ally and partner and we share many common values," representatives from the four countries said in a joint press statement. "This makes our failure to develop tangible solutions (for) most cases of parental child abduction in Japan particularly troubling."
The news that Japan has decided to adopt the treaty will be welcome news to child advocacy groups, fathers' rights groups and others who have long fought for uniform child custody standards.
- "Japan pressured to join custody treaty" (United Press International, August 15, 2010)
- "Little recourse for dad of kids taken to Japan" (Dayton Daily News, August 14, 2010)
- "Dad: Japan a child custody 'black hole'" (TODAY, May 5, 2010)