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Parental child abductions create a diplomatic headache for Japan

An increasing number of foreign nationals are claiming that their children have been abducted by their current or former Japanese spouse, following the breakdown of their marriage. Not allowing a child to see one of their parents is considered a criminal act in major European countries and the United States, leading to a diplomatic conflict in which Japan is being called on to revise its laws.

An Italian man in his 40s who lives in the Kanto region recently told The Yomiuri Shimbun that his wife, who lives in a regional area, "kidnapped" their child. His wife took the child back to her parents' home at the end of 2016 and never returned, claiming that the man had subjected her to domestic violence.

The man denied this allegation during his interview with the Yomiuri. He stressed that although he regrets that he was too busy with his work to be there for his wife when she was mentally overwhelmed by child-rearing, that does not justify her kidnapping the child.

He said he wants his child to have contact with his homeland and family, and to know that they have roots in Italy, too. The man also said he wants to live with his child.

In 2017, the man filed a petition with a family court and was given permission to see his child for two hours every month. When his wife still refused to allow them to meet, the family court ordered her to pay a fine in autumn 2021. The man finally was able to see his child for the first time in a long while at the end of November.

However, as a condition for future visits, the wife told the man not to ask the child how he or she has been, or give the child a gift. Ill feelings still remain between the man and his wife.

Many foreigners claim their children were abducted by their Japanese former spouse or another person.

Bring Abducted Children Home, a U.S. nongovernmental organization established in 2011, says that at least 475 American children have been abducted. A British NGO claims that about 1,400 British children have been removed from their parents.

These cases include situations in which both parents were living in Japan, and those in which a Japanese spouse took a child to Japan after his or her marriage with an American or a British person broke down overseas.

The Tokyo-based NPO Kizuna Child-Parent Reunion said it has been consulted by about 100 people in 10 countries over the abduction issue. Chairman John Gomez said neither the government nor the people of Japan are aware that taking a child away from a parent is wrong.

Behind this problem are differences in the legal systems of Japan and other countries regarding the custody of children.

Under Japan's Civil Code, only one parent is allowed to have custody after a divorce. However, in the United States and many European countries, parents retain joint custody over their children and share the responsibility for raising them even after a divorce. If one parent takes the child away and refuses to allow the other to see them, it is often considered a criminal act.

There are also differences in how problems related to child custody are handled.

According to Masayuki Tanamura, a professor of family law at Waseda University, in countries with a joint custody system, the police intervene when a child is abducted by one parent or another person, and criminal penalties can be applied if a parent is prevented from seeing a child.

"In the United States and European countries, divorce is concluded with the involvement of the court, but in Japan, divorce is largely left up to the couples. This makes it difficult to apply criminal penalties even if a problem occurs, such as the abduction of a child by one of the parents. It's dismissed as a 'family problem,'" Tanamura said.

Some countries are applying diplomatic pressure on Japan at the strong request of NGOs and other groups.

At the end of September, U.S. Republican congressman Chris Smith said at a public hearing that Japanese laws do not punish parents who abscond with their children, but even reward them with custody.

Smith also said legislation is being prepared that will allow the United States to take action against Japan, including sanctions.

In July 2020, the EU's European Parliament adopted a resolution urging the Japanese government to introduce a joint custody system, saying it is concerned about the high number of child abductions by Japanese people.

France has also taken a tough stance. At the end of November, a French court issued an arrest warrant for a Japanese woman who used to be married to a French man living in Japan, on the grounds that her failure to allow the man to visit their child for many years after the breakdown of their marriage can be considered a form of kidnapping.

Shinji Nozawa, a professor of family sociology at Meiji Gakuin University, has called for the introduction of a joint custody system in Japan, saying that the single custody system symbolizes the "Galapagos syndrome" in Japan, as it deviates from global standards.

Since around the 1980s, many countries have introduced joint custody systems from the perspective of respecting the rights of children. They are believed to have taken into consideration the fact that if only one parent has custody, the child may suffer financial or psychological harm.

In Japan, the division of labor based on gender progressed during the period of rapid economic growth, and the perception that only the mother is responsible for child-rearing took root. Nozawa said, "The misconception that children should be raised alone after the breakdown of a marriage has spread in society."

There is no lack of discussion in Japan on introducing a joint custody system. Since March, the Family Law Subcommittee of the Legislative Council has been holding regular meetings to review the Civil Code and divorce systems.

However, there is strong opinion that the matter should be considered carefully, mainly because the introduction of a joint custody system will make it difficult to protect victims of domestic violence. Under such a system, a perpetrator of domestic violence could learn where their victims live, for example, when a child is brought to meet the perpetrator.

According to lawyer Makiko Ishii, even if domestic violence occurs, it usually takes a long time in Japan to get court-imposed protection orders that prohibit offenders from approaching the victim's home or place of work, based on the law on the prevention of spousal violence and protection of victims. And with only a few exceptions, psychological abuse is not used as grounds for protection orders,

"We need adequate support for domestic violence victims first. Introducing a joint custody system without such support would be very harmful," Ishii said.

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