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.