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Tuesday, July 29, 2003

THE ZEIT GIST

Foreign mom chases after deadbeat dad

System does little to protect rights of single mothers


By DAVID NEILL

Jessica Lankester is furious. She's so angry she can barely get her story out fast enough as she pulls court documents from her bag and spreads them on the table. One letter from her lawyer reads like something from the pages of Joseph Heller's famous satire "Catch 22":

News photo
Jessica Lankaster and her daughter, Romy, have found out the hard way how Japan's legal system fails to protect single mothers.

"Dear Ms. Lankester,

1. Japanese police refrain from being involved in civil disputes, therefore visiting the police will not work.

2. If Mr. X does not obey the court judgment, you will be able to attach his assets through the court's enforcement officer. However, it is not likely he will pay it voluntarily.

3. If he does not, then see 1. above."

"It's almost funny, isn't it," says Jessica, who looks closer to tears than laughter.

Mr. X is the father of Jessica's 5-year-old child, Romy, and the source of her fury.

A handsome, urbane, English-speaking Japanese dentist, Jessica met him soon after she came to Japan from Holland in 1997. "I was 28 and blonde," she says. "He was 42, very outgoing, relaxed and sure of himself. He kept calling me so I said, what harm can it do? And I went out with him."

When Jessica said she was going to Hawaii to renew her visa, Mr. X suggested he make a job for her at his practice, where she could put her multilingual secretarial skills to use dealing with his foreign clients.

"I felt a little pressured because, what if I didn't like the job, you know? And it made me very dependent on him. But I liked him, so I started working for him in July 1997."

Jessica moved into an apartment that he provided and he began introducing her to his friends as "his new girlfriend." Then she got pregnant.

"When I told him, he was shocked. He was spaced out for a few days. He told me later that he had been married twice and had three children, and that he had abandoned them, so I was a little freaked out, but he said 'Jess, I love you. I'm going to help you.' "

After Jessica's daughter, Romy, was born, however, her lover's visits to the apartment grew less frequent. Then one day the landlady called looking for the rent, which was six months in arrears.

"Even now I cry when I think about it," says Jessica. "I thought: What am I going to do? I had a baby and no money, no job. But I still loved him and could not face the kind of man he was, so I called him again and again, and went to his clinic, but he avoided me for months."

After much agonizing, Jessica decided to get a lawyer and take her former lover to a family court, in a bid to force him to recognize his child by putting her in his family register ( the "koseki"), and to pay support.

Then the story really gets nasty.

"The first thing he said was 'I'm not the father. I met the mother in Roppongi, so maybe she was sleeping with everyone,' " says Jessica. "It was like a bucket of cold water in my face." When he faced having to pay for the cost of the test, he admitted the child was his but argued he was almost bankrupt.

"I could honestly accept this if it was proven," says Jessica. "But he submitted no evidence except a list of anonymous debtors. For the first time in my life I started to stand up for myself and argue that he should have to produce evidence, but the judge said, 'Ms. Lankester, you must be quiet.' "

With the toothless court focusing on his alleged looming bankruptcy, Romy Lankester's father, who in the meantime had remarried to a wealthy Japanese businesswoman, was asked to pay the princely sum of 10,000 yen a month, until 2004. And he hasn't even paid that, hence the letter from Jessica's lawyer, who has since told her he wants nothing more to do with the case.

"The judges, the lawyer, everybody wants me to go back to Holland, and maybe I will, but not until I can face my child and tell her I did my best," says Jessica.

When contacted on the phone by the Japan Times, Mr. X. indeed said that Jessica "should go back home," adding that "she has no reason to stay in Japan." He argued, as he did in court, that he was broke. "I have my own difficult situation. She's a tough lady so she can survive," he said. "She doesn't need my support."

Jessica's story is "very common," says Yuko Takei, a legal interpreter who has handled 20 similar cases, mainly involving women from the Philippines and the rest of Asia. Most of these cases, she says, hinge around efforts to force the male partner to recognize the child and register it with the local ward office.

"Many women don't pursue it and take money instead. The court cannot force the man to recognize the child because of privacy laws."

Deadbeat dads are, of course, hardly unique to Japan, but the all-important "koseki," which links the child to a family lineage, means being born here is not enough to bestow Japanese citizenship, making it easier for men to chase their problems out of the country.

"At the moment, my daughter is just a foreigner," says Jessica. "She doesn't have any rights here."

Romy's dad, who owes 200,000 yen to Jessica, is, needless to say, well aware of this point of local law. "In this country, even if the father is Japanese the child cannot be Japanese," he said. "It might be different in America or elsewhere, but that's the way it is here."

Tokyo civil rights lawyer Kiichiro Ichinose says Jessica's case is particularly complicated because she was never Mr. X's spouse. "In Japan you cannot register a baby after it is born when the couple are not married. It's an unfair system and clearly needs to be changed, as this case shows."

With no child support, Jessica is back at work in a Tokyo kindergarten. Any thought of going home, however, is far from her mind.

"You know, my lawyer said, 'Forget about him. You're still young and beautiful. Make a new life.'

"But I want Romy's father to think about her, even if he tries to erase her existence. It takes about one minute to do a bank transfer and just for that minute I'd like him to remember in the back of his little brain that he has a daughter."



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