Left Behind in Japan

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Left-behind parents:

The other victims of child abduction
and Japanese custody laws

Online feature BY CLIVE FRANCE

Japan is the only G8 member besides Russia not to have signed the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, a multilateral treaty “that provides an expeditious method to return a child internationally abducted from one member nation to another.”

Japan’s failure to do so has placed it at the centre of a row over custody of children from failed international marriages and highlighted the issue of parental abduction. Japan has been described as a “black hole” for children abducted from overseas by their Japanese parents.

Now, it seems, Tokyo is prepared to ratify the treaty, a step that would bring it in line with much of Europe, North and South America, and Oceania. Although legislation must be approved by the Japanese Diet, a bastion of opposition to perceived international pressure, the government is moving slowly forward on the issue.

However, ratification of the Hague Abduction Convention is in many ways a smokescreen. While Japan is seen to compromise on the international stage, at home its law on child custody remains rigid, anachronistic and, some would say, cruel.

Under Japan’s sole custody system, only one parent maintains shinken (parental rights) following divorce, while the other is stripped of any and all rights with respect to his or her children. This has created a post-breakup environment in which one parent, typically the father, is often denied all access to his or her children. Indeed, to facilitate a clean break, the left behind parent is expected to forgo entirely his or her relationship with the children from the failed marriage.

More importantly for some, the Hague Abduction Convention is not retroactive. If and when ratified by the Japanese government, it will not address existing cases, such as those of Australian Matt Wyman, whose wife took their two sons “on holiday” to Japan and never returned, and Irishman David Morgan, whose wife moved back to Tokyo with their two children and now denies him all access to them.

Arguably, few married couples in Japan are aware of the child custody issues they face should their marriages fail. Most of the subjects photographed for this project expressed disbelief, frustration and powerlessness with a system that makes little effort to investigate and judge cases on an individual basis. As Japanese society globalizes, variations of the traditional family structure, and even radical shifts away from it, are bound to increase. With these changes come complexities that the country’s simplistic child custody law cannot address with confidence.

As we have seen in other areas, such as nuclear power generation, public awareness and understanding of the issues are paramount. By showing the human face of this creeping tragedy, I hope this project will help highlight the need for a realistic and satisfactory solution.

Clive France
Tokyo, July 2011

See the rest of the project with Japanese translation here.

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