In the last 18 years, Walter Benda has only managed to see his two daughters once. That was for a few moments on a street in a Japanese town in 1998 after a private investigator managed to track down the girls and their mother.
His Japanese wife disappeared from their home in Chiba Prefecture, just outside Tokyo, after seeing him off to work one morning and rebuffed all his efforts to make contact with them. And as soon as he did find them again, they vanished once more.
Benda's case is far from unusual. Critics of the Japanese judicial system accuse it of abetting Japanese nationals who want to leave their foreign spouse abroad and prevent them from staying in touch as the children grow up. And as Japan is not a signatory to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, Japanese courts set the rules on access.
The situation is largely about foreigners living abroad with their Japanese partners who return to Japan, but the issue also affects foreign nationals who marry Japanese and opt to live in Japan. Unsurprisingly, foreign parents have been given short shrift in legal efforts to see their children in Japan. An estimated 20,000 children are born to mixed-nationality couples here every year.
Currently, Washington is dealing with 100 cases of US children being abducted to Japan, 30 cases involve Canadian citizens and British officials admit to dealing with around 10 cases.
Promises from Tokyo
When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with US President Barack Obama during his recent trip to Washington, the issue came up. The Japanese leader promised that politicians in Tokyo would soon sign the Hague Convention into law, bringing the country into line with 89 other signatory states.
Of the Group of Eight nations, Japan is the only one not to have signed the agreement. But even if Tokyo does sign the pact, foreign parents do not believe that Japanese courts will be even-handed.
"I believe it is quite possible Japan will sign it this year, but I feel it will just be window dressing, as is the case with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child that Japan ratified in its entirety in 1994," said Benda, the joint founder of the Japan chapter of the US-based Children's Rights Council (CRC). "That agreement provides for regular, direct contact between children and both parents, but Japan does not honor it.
"I'm not very optimistic. I believe Japan is doing this more for symbolic reasons to satisfy its foreign allies rather than out of sincere concern about children's rights."
Benda's experience with Japan's appalling track record on child abduction dates back to July 21, 1995.
A normal farewell
"I had no clue that this was going to happen," he explained. "It was the first day of school vacation, so the children were still at home when I left for work in the morning.
"I remember hugging both my daughters at the front door of our house before I left. When I returned home that evening, I immediately sensed something was wrong when I noticed that the children's bicycles, which were normally parked in front of the house, were gone, and their shoes, and their mother's shoes, were all gone.
"As I walked into the house I noticed a lot of the furniture, paintings and appliances were gone as well," he said. "There was a note from my wife, along with a business card for an attorney, on the dining room table. In the note, my wife asked me to forgive her for leaving me."
Talking to Japanese friends, however, he felt confident that he would be seeing his children soon and that the system would handle the situation in a similar way as is done in the US.
He was quickly to come face-to-face with the rules of parental abduction in Japan. Even though he remained legally married and shared equal custody of the children, it took Benda three-and-a-half years to even find out where they were living as none of the Japanese authorities would help locate them or provide information about their health or school situations.
He approached the local police, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police, the local city office, the health and welfare ministry, schools and education officials, the US Embassy, INTERPOL and various other organizations set up to assist foreigners in Japan. None were willing or able to help and he was forced to approach authorities in the US to have his children registered as missing and have an international arrest warrant issued against his wife for kidnapping.
No visits with daughters
"I have pursued custody and visitation rights through the Japanese courts twice now, each time appealing my case all the way to the Japanese Supreme Court," said Benda. "I have never been granted a single scheduled visit with my daughters."
In the US, the Justice Department has indicted his former wife under the International Parental Kidnapping Act as the girls are US citizens being retained overseas. The Japanese government, however, refuses to recognize the charge and will not take any action on the extradition request.
"I feel very angry and misled by the Japanese legal system," he explained. "The Japanese Constitution guarantees the husband and wife equal rights in family matters and the Japanese have signed international treaties which guarantee children regular direct access with both parents.
"The reality is, the Japanese courts thumb their noses at these legal obligations."
At the root of the problem, CRC of Japan believes, is that Japanese judges do not have very strong enforcement authority in family law cases. That means that even if the abducting parent is ordered by the court to ensure the other biological parent has access to the child, the court is essentially powerless if that arrangement is not adhered to. In other jurisdictions, if a parent is ordered to allow visitation and refuses to do so, that person can be charged with contempt of court and be imprisoned.
Pressure on Japan
CRC believes it is only the cumulative effect of international publicity and increased public awareness that have led the US and other foreign governments to put pressure on Japan.
In many ways, CRC Japan co-founder Brian Thomas admits, he and Benda are relatively lucky as they have at least sufficient financial resources to contest the legal cases through the courts and devote time to supporting other parents in similar situations. The majority of international marriages in Japan are between Japanese men and foreign women from other Asian nations. When those relationships hit the rocks, the women have fewer resources to fight for their right to see their children.
Parental abduction not only affects international marriages. Because there is no equivalent organization to fight for the rights of parents, CRC of Japan has several cases on its books of Japanese couples seeking access to their children as well.
Thomas moved to Japan from South Wales in 1988, two years after meeting his wife Mikako. Their son, Graham Hajime, was born in January 1990, but Thomas has not been permitted to see him since April 1993. He carries his son's photo with him at all times.
And he is not optimistic that Japan signing the agreement will bring about meaningful change for him or other parents in his predicament.
"I hope that Japan can change for the better, for the sake of its own people, and I would like to be optimistic," he said. "But history does not lend itself to optimism when dealing with Japanese matters of this nature."