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Japan's International Abduction Policy


Four fathers quietly filed into a theater to watch "Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story," a documentary about North Korea's kidnapping of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s.

If the names Walter Benda, Patrick Braden, Chris Kenyon and Paul Toland don't sound Japanese, it's because they're not. But their children are half-Japanese, and these fathers say Japan has committed the same crime against them that Japan accuses North Korea of committing. Although the North Korean abductions stoked a national frenzy in Japan, the American fathers' cries have fallen on deaf ears both here and in Japan.

"I understand the situation that Megumi's parents find themselves in," said Benda, 49, who has been separated from his children since 1995 when they were taken by his ex-wife, a Japanese citizen. "I just wanted to make a statement that Japan should maybe look inside its own borders."

The fathers came with fliers bearing the faces of their children - heart-breakingly beautiful children with wide almond eyes and wider smiles. The foursome stood in the chilly night for hours handing out fliers and hoping to speak with one of the prominent Japanese officials at the screening, including Ambassador Ryozo Kato. But they were kept away.

"Here they were, co-sponsoring a movie about abduction," Benda said, "yet they are condoning abduction themselves - the abduction of the children of foreign parents." "Like my daughters," he added, softly.

Benda of Max Meadows, Va., has seen his two daughters three times from a distance in the 11 years since he came home to find the door locked and his family gone. He cannot obtain visitation rights to his children in Japan, so he can look forward only to far-off glimpses of them. Braden said a mixture of empathy and frustration overcomes him whenever he sees publicity for the kidnapped Japanese citizens. "Their loss is the same as our loss," he said. "It's just that they're here, asking for our help, and it's kind of a slap in our face."

Many congressional hearings on international custody disputes have been held with few gains, said Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., the rising chair of the House International Relations Committee. "Every single one of these cases is a tragedy," Lantos said. "They are extremely difficult to deal with, because there are differing laws and differing countries."

While not the only country to overrule U.S. custody verdicts, Japan is the No. 1 offender among Asian countries. A State Department spokeswoman said parents like Benda are "severely disadvantaged" in the Japanese court systems, where joint custody is viewed as a psychological burden on the child.

The system instead favors a "clean-cut" approach, in which the non-custodial parent disappears from the child's life as if that parent never existed, international family lawyer Jeremy Morley said.

"The idea of both parents being involved in raising the child is foreign to the Japanese culture," Morley said. "There's been no historic role for both parents being involved, and the legal system makes no provision for any kind of visitation rights."

Japanese judges also demonstrate a clear bias toward awarding their citizens full custody in international divorce cases, he said. Children born in the United States automatically have Japanese citizenship if one of their parents is Japanese.

"A Japanese court will never give custody to a foreign parent," Morley said. "If the child is a Japanese national, the system will only see it as his right to be raised in Japan. They will feel it would be extremely unfair to a child to deprive him of the opportunity to live in a wonderful place like Japan."

Abductors, including parents violating court orders, face up to three years in prison and $250,000 in fines under U.S. federal law, plus state prosecution. Japan does not recognize abduction by a family member as a crime. Japan remains the only Group of 7 nation to abstain from signing the Hague Convention on international child abduction, rendering the U.S. powerless to extradite Japanese citizens charged with violating U.S. courts' custody rulings.

A Japanese embassy spokesman said foreign judgments are recognized in Japan if they meet certain legal criteria under Japanese law. But Japanese judges may disregard a U.S. ruling is if it is not deemed "compatible with public order or good morals of Japan."

The State Department has 32 open cases involving Japanese citizens, all of them mothers. The government cannot claim any success stories, as the one child who returned to his father did so entirely on his own.

Mike Gulbraa's son Chris was that child. After five years in Japan with his abducting mother, Etsuko Tanizaki Allred, Chris learned he could go to a U.S. consulate in Japan and apply for a passport. Chris slipped away on his bike the evening of Aug. 31. Hours later, he was on a plane to the U.S. When Gulbraa saw his son step off the plane, memories of the boy's birth washed over him. "I had that same type of feeling when he walked off that plane," said Gulbraa, a Columbus, Ind. businessman. "It was like a rebirth."

Even pre-emptive efforts by U.S. courts to prevent abduction have failed. Braden, 46, of Los Angeles obtained a temporary restraining order meant to prevent his ex-girlfriend from taking their 11-month-old daughter, Melissa, to Japan. But on March 16, Ryoko Uchiyama got Melissa on a plane anyway. "I couldn't believe that she had really done it," said Braden, an antiques dealer. "I thought there would be police to stop her at the airport, but there was nothing."

Toland, 39, a Navy commander stationed in Arlington, Va., has given up hope of help from the U.S. government in getting back his 4-year-old daughter, Erika. He has spent less than hour with his daughter since his wife, Etsuko Futagi Toland, took her from their home more than three years ago. "The State Department can't do anything for us," Toland said. "I'm kind of tired of sitting on my hands." Because he is in the military, Toland shied away from the limelight, but has decided drawing more attention to his story may be his last shot at seeing Erika again.

"Maybe by getting our story out there, we can finally put pressure on the American government to do something for us," Toland said, "the same way that Megumi's parents put pressure on the Japanese government to do something for them." In the meantime, Toland and the other childless fathers continue to buy tickets to each retelling of Megumi's story.

Information on Japanese Family Law:
Spousal violence constitutes a serious violation of human rights, as well as being a crime  continue

The statutory law in Japan contains no provisions  continue

Family courts and their branch offices are established at the same places where district courts and   continue

Selected excerpts from Japan's Family Registration Law  continue

This case illustrates a stark illustration of the complete failure of the Japanese legal system to protect children  continue

unofficial translation of Book IV; Relatives  continue

Kyogi Rikon (Consent Divorce)  continue

Has anything changed in the fight against international child abduction?  continue

Japan's private international law  continue

Divorce has constantly been on the mind of Imelda (not her real name), a 36-year-old Filipino woman who married a Japanese man seven years ago.  continue

An American Dad is behind bars and his Japanese ex-wife is a fugitive from justice  continue

In the debate about whether Japan should sign the Hague abduction convention, a serious consequence of Japan's failure to ratify the treaty is being overlooked. Japan's failure to sign the convention is extremely damaging to Japanese nationals living overseas, since  continue

It’s been six years, three weeks and one day since Navy Cmdr. Paul Toland last saw his only child, Erika  continue

We have represented many international clients who  continue

Japan is a haven for international child abduction. Now one child who was abducted to Japan is to be returned to Wisconsin, thanks to our team’s non-stop efforts   continue

On April 14, 2014, the Japanese Law implementing the Hague Abduction Convention  continue

A tentative translation of the Rules of the Supreme Court of Japan concerning Personal Status Litigation has been published by Japan’s Ministry of Justice  continue

This article from ABC News (2008) is based in part on an interview with Jeremy Morley.   continue

Four fathers quietly filed into a theater to watch  continue

After several years of struggling to understand the workings of the Japanese family law system on behalf of Japanese clients or non-Japanese clients with Japanese spouses, I have reluctantly concluded  continue

1996 judgment of the Supreme Court of Japan  continue

The Supreme Court of New Jersey has upheld a decision allowing a Japanese mother to relocate with her six-year old child   continue

In Japan since 2003 there have been two ways to calculate child support. The first way  continue

Japanese law enforcement and social service agencies unfortunately seem unable to enforce custody and support orders   continue

Under the Japanese Civil Code, either the husband or wife must change their family name to be married legally. Usually it is the wife who does so.  continue

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