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Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2008
THE ZEIT GIST
Coming out of the shadows
Filmmakers tackle contentious issue of parents' abduction of children to Japan
By MICHAEL HASSETT
Special to The Japan Times
"We judge that it will be best for the child that the (parent) pray from the shadows for his healthy upbringing. If worried about the child, ask about him through others, secretly watch him from behind a wall, and be satisfied with what is heard about the way he is growing up. Acting in accordance with emotion, even if based on love, will cause the child misfortune. Suppressing emotions for the sake of one's child — that is the true love of a (parent) toward a child.'
Imagine the trauma of the mother being permanently denied visitation with her own children in this family court decision handed down by the Tokyo High Court. Being told to pray, watch and love "from the shadows."
Imagine losing contact with your children after your spouse files a domestic-abuse grievance, causing an immediate and renewable six-month restraining order to be issued in response to real or fabricated "abuse" for which not an iota of evidence is required. Next, imagine permanently losing custody of, and contact with, your children when the ruling favors your spouse because he or she has been caring for the children while these orders have kept you away.
As a 4-year-old child, imagine being told that your father murdered your mother by creating and then releasing into her body a demonic bug that crawled up inside of her and festered on her innards.
Sound awful? Well, welcome to the hell of parental child abduction and custody battles, Japanese style.
In January 2006, David Hearn, Matthew Antell and Sean Nichols began research on a documentary film that would dramatically affect their lives over the next few years.
They had heard about high-profile cases of parental child abduction, such as the two children of Murray Wood being abducted from their home in Canada by their Japanese mother, but these filmmakers had not yet realized all the muck they would have to work through in order to gain a clearer understanding of what has increasingly become Japan's own scarlet letter.
For those new to the topic of child abduction, here are the basics:
The parent who has physical custody of the children and has established a routine for them for the duration of at least a few weeks when divorce is filed is granted custody in virtually every case.
Japan has neither statutes nor judicial precedents providing for joint custody. When divorce occurs, either the father or mother receives custody. Visitation is not a substantive right that can be asserted by parents.
In 2006, there were 257,475 divorces involving 150,050 children. Fathers maintained custody of all children 14.9 percent of the time, down from 48.7 percent in 1950, and custody of at least one of several children 3.6 percent of the time, down from 11 percent in 1950.
A parent attempting to take children outside Japan can possibly be arrested if charges are processed before the children exit the country. A married Dutchman was arrested in 2000 and sentenced the following year for doing exactly that after his Japanese wife objected to him taking their daughter to visit the young girl's dying grandfather. If children are unlawfully removed from Japan, every attempt will usually be made by law enforcement in the destination country to return the children to Japan if the destination country is a signatory to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.
Japan has not signed this treaty so children abducted to Japan are not returned. One source has reported that Japan plans to sign this treaty by 2010.
Now, back to the movie.
Earlier this month, I sat down with director David Hearn to inquire about the progress of his documentary on this most contentious subject.
What is the working title for the film and when do you expect to have it completed?
We initially titled the film "For Taka and Mana" in response to the unlimited access and cooperation so generously provided to us by Murray Wood. We have since changed the title to "From the Shadows" because we will also be highlighting cases involving many others who have had to endure the tragedy of losing a child in this often cruel manner.
We have conducted scores of interviews with those involved in these tragedies — parents, children, government officials, and experts on the subject — and we hope to complete the film in time to enter it in several film festivals next year. We have been humbled by the generosity of so many, but how quickly we can finish and the quality of the film is dependent on our fundraising from here forward, so we ask that people do what they can do to be of assistance. Information and clips can be found at our Web site, www.fromtheshadowsmovie.com.
In custody cases in Japan, possession is actually more than nine-tenths of the law, isn't it?
Certainly. The parent who has the children keeps them 99 percent of the time.
Before divorce occurs, lawyers, divorce advisers and legal experts routinely advise their clients to get the kids and run. The application for divorce can then be submitted from the new setup, and the left-behind parent can be left with absolutely no information about the relocation of the children.
Once the divorce process has begun, the court will all too commonly ignore how the new setup was achieved, and instead justify it as now being "in the best interests of the child" so that a stable environment can be maintained.
And even if the court were to rule in favor of the noncustodial side, there is no legal entity, such as police or a child welfare agency, to enforce the ruling if one side does not live up to its responsibilities as dictated by the court. So, in the very rare case when the court does rule in favor of the noncustodial parent, it can be worth no more than the paper it is printed on if the physical custody-holder simply holds on to the children.
According to Colin P. A. Jones, a professor at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto, "With little or no enforcement mechanisms, the family court fails to protect children and their parents."
How are the children affected by these highly emotional clashes?
We have interviewed a number of children involved in these battles, and sadly what is most often lost in the shuffle is the psychological damage done to these children caught in the middle. There are numerous horror stories. Unfortunately, the custodial parent often abuses his or her authority by dispensing information to the children about the other parent to paint a scenario that works best for the custodial parent no matter how devious or outright false the information is. This behavior is defined widely as parental alienation syndrome. Despite its acceptance in courts in most Western countries, it is entirely unrecognized in Japan.
Aren't some parents able to individually agree on and work out visitation arrangements?
For those custodial parents who permit it, the standard of one visit for a couple of hours a month is about average. Though considerably less than Western standards, most participating parents agree it is better than nothing. This might be the one silver lining of this entire issue. Slowly, more custodial parents are seeing the benefits for the child to meet the noncustodial parent even when by law they are not required to do so.
However, the legal shortcomings make visitation for the noncustodial parent a very touchy situation. He or she must play by the rules of the custodial parent, and visitation is often changed or simply halted, many times for very frivolous reasons, such as if the noncustodial parent begins dating.
How did you react to the report that Japan may become a signatory to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction by 2010?
Hopeful, but not yet convinced. This was reported by only one news outlet and the details of the source were very vague. We do not know the source, and we have not been able to confirm the report. But, we remain hopeful.
The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo puts the number of active abduction cases involving American children at 80. That's just from the United States. So we have hundreds, if not thousands, of children in this country who have had to endure the loss of a living, usually loving, parent — one who desires to see and interact with his or her children. Our film aims to inspire an open discussion on this issue and encourage a more critical review of this "take the kids and run" mentality that has become so prevalent.
Children are losing contact with their parents every day and one has to wonder, is this the best Japan can do? Do we want to continue to hurt the children involved and push loving parents off into the shadows?
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