Dear Japan: International Parental Child Abduction Is a Problem

Article excerpt

Japan is a safe haven in the world of international parental child abductions. (1) This became obvious in October 2009 when American-born Christopher Savoie was arrested in Japan as he attempted to bring his children back to the United States. (2) Chris had expressed fear that his ex-wife, and Japanese-native, Noriko Savoie might permanently take their children to Japan during U.S. custody proceedings, and as predicted, she abducted the children in August 2009 in violation of the U.S. court order. (3) Chris was released from jail on the condition he does not return to Japan or contact his children, (4) and Noriko, still facing U.S. charges for child abduction, lives with the couple's children in Japan. (5) Japan still considers Noriko and Chris married. (6)

Though U.S. courts recognize the couple as divorced and have granted Chris full custody of the children, (7) he has no way to enforce his visitation rights in Japan. (8) Unfortunately, Japan is now home to 139 children abducted from a U.S. parent. (9)

Well-aware of Mr. Savoie's situation, U.S. policymakers hoped Japan's 2009 elections would end decades of conservative power and provide an opportunity to discuss parental child abduction. (10) In a November 5, 2009 letter to President Barack Obama, U.S. Senators noted their concern that Japan does not criminalize parental abduction and is the only "Group of Seven" industrialized nations which has not signed the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction ("Hague Convention"). (11) The letter stressed that, though Japan's accession to the Hague Convention is a worthy goal, (12) the United States cannot simply wait for Japanese accession while abducted children grow up without one parent. (13)

On December 1, 2009, in response to criticism expressed by America and Europe, Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada unveiled a new Division for Issues Related to Child Custody to recommend whether Japan should sign the Hague Convention. (14) Although critics questioned Japan's willingness to stray from its customs, it appeared Japan was at least attempting to address the international crisis. (15)

Months later, however, Congress was still not satisfied. On May 5, 2010, U.S. lawmakers introduced H.R. 1326, a nonbinding resolution condemning Japan for being an international safe haven for child abductors, and calling on the U.S. government to pressure Japan to join the Hague Convention. (16) After months of uncertainty, (17) H.R. 1326 was passed by a House vote of 416 to 1 on September 28, 2010. (18)

Following the passage of H.R. 1326, the Japanese Embassy issued a statement alleging Japan is sympathetic to the plight of children caught in U.S.-Japan custody battles and is "continuing to make sincere efforts to deal with the issue from the standpoint that the welfare of the child should be of the utmost importance." (19) Japan's deputy press secretary indicated Japan was seriously considering signing the Hague Convention, but needs time to prepare domestic laws on the issue. (20)

It is unclear how much time Japan will need to prepare these domestic laws and whether the country is truly willing to transform the established customs and values of its family law system to avoid international conflict. Moreover, many critics fear that, even if Japan reforms its domestic laws and signs the Hague Convention, Japanese parents could avoid the Convention's requirements by simply claiming that returning the children would expose the children to a risk of physical or psychological harm. (21) For example, attorney Kensuke Onuki opposes Japanese accession to the Hague Convention because most of the cases he's seen involve "domestic violence, unjust control[,] and verbal abuse." (22) Where those circumstances exist, the Hague Convention does not force the return of children. (23)

Regardless of when--or whether--Japan signs the Hague Convention, U.S. …