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Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2011

THE ZEIT GIST

'My children are my everything — the reason I'm alive'

Left-behind father makes desperate journey to Fukushima to reunite with kids


By SIMON SCOTT

On Bruce Gherbetti's right forearm, the names of his three lost children are permanently inscribed in a swirling script of dark blue tattoo ink.

News photo
Canadian Bruce Gherbetti is reunited with his eldest daughter in Fukushima Prefecture in September after a difficult two years apart. SIMON SCOTT

"They go with me everywhere I go," he says, smiling. "It is a physical representation of the fact that my children and I will never be separated. They are my everything — the reason I am alive."

It was a very long, painful two years and two weeks before Gherbetti, a Canadian, was finally reunited with his children in Japan this September and was able, if only briefly, to see and speak with them again.

Tears in his eyes, Gherbetti described the reaction of his oldest daughter, now 8, when she saw him standing in the backyard of the house where the children now live.

"(She) saw me and it registered in about four seconds, and she said 'Dada.'

"I opened my arms and she came running into my arms. I was afraid that wouldn't happen, but also I was quietly confident in my heart that it would.

"I visualized that whole scenario every day for the last two years. It's gold — it's absolute gold."

The journey from his home in Vancouver to a small town in Fukushima Prefecture just 50 km from the leaking No.1 nuclear plant has been a long and arduous one. In September 2009, during the breakdown of their marriage, Gherbetti's wife took their three children — then 6, 4 and 2 years old — to Japan.

"I was absolutely devastated." explains Gherbetti. "I arrived home and the house was utterly empty and devoid of all traces of my family and children. I felt at a loss and confused, but at the same time there was a realization that my children were gone — overseas, back to Japan."

News photo
Gherbetti and a supporter celebrate after the surprise visit to his estranged wife's home. SIMON SCOTT

Gherbetti's wife accused him of domestic violence shortly before taking the children — an allegation he vehemently denies.

After his children were taken, Gherbetti suffered from severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, for which he underwent counseling in Canada. He also joined a number of web-based support groups for left-behind parents and gradually, over time, built up the confidence to come to Japan to find his kids.

On Sept. 21 this year he flew to Japan, and within two days of arriving in the country he travelled up to tsunami-hit Fukushima, accompanied by a group of supporters, in search of his lost children.

All previous attempts Gherbetti had made to contact his children had been blocked by his wife, whom he has only spoken to once since she took the kids to Japan. Gherbetti says that during that conversation, his wife chillingly told him she wanted to "erase Canada from the children's memories."

Gherbetti says he can understand and accept that his estranged wife wants to bury the past, but he believes it is his children who will ultimately suffer by being alienated from their natural father.

"None of this is about me, this is about my children," he says. "I feel what she has done is essentially denied them knowing half of who they are. It is not fair — it is simply not fair."

Having lost his own father to cancer when he was only 17, Gherbetti, now 41, says he is only too aware of how important it is for children to have both parents in their lives.

"I know what it is to struggle without a father — to make your way in this life without the competence and guidance of a father. It made me realize that if I am ever in the position where I have children, I just want to emulate what he was able to give me. He was a very good man — a good father."

Treaty is step in right direction, but won't aid many kids, parents

There are currently 34 Canadian parents listed as having lost access to their children after a Japanese spouse unilaterally took the kids to Japan, according to the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo. This number does not include Canadians resident in Japan who have lost contact with their children within the country.

Figures for the United States are much higher, with 100 American left-behind parents fighting to see their children as of January, according to the U.S. State Department.

The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo reports an additional 31 cases in which both parents and the children reside in Japan but one parent has been denied access.

Yet "parental child abduction" is not just a problem for foreign spouses of Japanese. Untold numbers of children of Japanese marriages never get to know both parents.

Japan is the only G-7 member nation that hasn't signed the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, a treaty designed to protect the rights of child victims of international abduction by returning them to their place of habitual residence.

Earlier this year Japan made a commitment to eventually ratify the treaty, and this is clearly a step in the right direction, but for many victims of the country's much-criticized custody laws, it will be too little too late.

The treaty only covers cross-border cases of child abduction and will do nothing to help children spirited away within Japan or the left-behind parents who want to be part of their lives.

In addition, the convention will not be applied retroactively, so it won't alleviate the suffering of thousands of children already abducted to Japan who have no contact with their foreign parent. (Simon Scott)

Gherbetti believes his wife is a good mother and loves their children very much, but he doesn't understand how she can deny them access to a person in their life who is critical to their development — namely, their father.

"There are definitely things I can bring to the table — as a male, as a father, and as a Westerner even — that are relevant and useful, I'm sure, for these children," he says.

"The kids might want to talk to me about things that they are experiencing. 'Maybe I'll just talk to Dad about this situation and see what he has to say about this' — rudimentary stuff but, that said, crucial to the emotional well-being and development of a child."

Gherbetti acknowledges that he doesn't know his estranged wife's motives for denying him the right to play a part in his children's lives, because she refuses to communicate with him, but he suspects that, beyond feelings of bitterness relating to the breakup of their marriage, they hold different values regarding the importance both parents can play in a child's upbringing.

"I think there is a cultural issue at play here," he says. "When the marriage fails, as far as I understand it, in Japan, traditionally access and contact with the left-behind parent is viewed as an inconvenience. It is so completely different from our Western philosophies — that children have the right to know both their parents, a right to know their whole family."

Armed with only the old address of his wife's family home and a lot of faith, Gherbetti made the journey from Tokyo up to Fukushima to seek out his kids. Prior to being reunited with his children, Gherbetti described his motivation for the surprise visit.

"I would simply like for the children to realize that I am still alive. I don't know what they have been told. I don't know what they believe or what they know at this point. I just want to arrive and give them the opportunity to see that I am here."

Attempts by left-behind parents to reunite with their children in Japan are rarely successful and sometimes result in arrest for the alienated parent, particularly if they attempt to retake custody of their children.

In 2009, U.S. citizen Christopher Savoie was arrested and imprisoned in Fukuoka when he attempted to retrieve his two abducted children while they were walking to school. Savoie, who had been awarded legal custody of the children in the United States before their abduction to Japan, attempted to take them to the U.S. consulate in Fukuoka but was arrested by Japanese police outside the gates. He was detained for two weeks and released without charge, but never regained custody of his children.

Gherbetti says he has no intention of trying to take back his children and is not even seeking custody. He just wants to visit them from time to time and to communicate with them on a regular basis via telephone or Skype — something his wife will not allow him to do.

News photo
Gherbetti holds up a note apparently written by his 6-year-old daughter, handed to him by his eldest daughter during their brief reunion. SIMON SCOTT

Gherbetti's wife was not at home on the day of his surprise visit to Fukushima, and his children were at home with their extended family, which he suspects may have been why things went so smoothly. Also fortuitously, his 6-year-old daughter was playing in the backyard when he arrived at the house.

He called out to her, and when she came over he passed a bunch of flowers to her across the fence, but — overwhelmed and confused after seeing her father for the first time in two years — she quickly ran back inside.

"Seeing me brought forward a flood of emotions that she probably couldn't deal with at her 6-year-old age," he says. "She was only 4 when she was abducted, so there is some confusion."

She didn't reappear in person, but Gherbetti's eldest daughter delivered a note from the 6-year-old just before the visit ended.

"I think (she) was able to express her feelings the best way she knew how, and whether or not she or (her older sister) wrote the note, the expression is clear: 'Dady Love' — I love my daddy."

Getting to see his three children again after over two years, even if only for a short moment, means the world to Gherbetti, and it has reaffirmed his commitment to his children despite the uncertain future.

"The hug . . . and the note . . . have provided me the fuel required to see this journey on to the end," he says. "I'm willing to do anything and everything to reconnect with my children."

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