By Michael Inbar
updated 9:27 a.m. ET, Wed., Sept . 30, 2009
An American dad is behind bars and his Japanese ex-wife is a fugitive from justice, due to an epic culture clash between Japan and the United States that is causing untold heartache for families.
Some eight months after her divorce from Christopher Savoie, Noriko Savoie violated a Tennessee court order by absconding with the couple's two children to her native Japan. A month later, Christopher traveled to Japan to fetch 8-year-old son Isaac and 6-year-old daughter Rebecca — and was promptly thrown in jail by Japanese authorities on child abduction charges.
Sadly, it's not a unique case. An estimated 125 American children have been taken from the U.S. to Japan by native Japanese parents, and not one has ever been returned through the Japanese legal system. Japan has not signed Hague Convention laws on child abduction, and it isn't part of the country's culture for parents to share custody of children.
Clash of cultures
Attorney Jeremy Morley, who is representing Christopher Savoie as well as other parents who are trying to bring their children back from Japan, told TODAY's Meredith Vieira Wednesday that lawyers' hands are largely tied in resolving U.S.-Japan custody cases.
“In Japan, there's no shared custody — it's not in their law, it's not in their society, it's not in their history — and the idea of a father participating in the life of the children when the mother has primary custody is alien,” Morley said.
For now, Morley's primary goal is just to get Christopher Savoie out of jail. What began as an all-too-familiar battle between exes over their children took on international significance in August when Noriko Savoie fled with Isaac and Rebecca.
The couple divorced in January. A month later, Christopher remarried, and he and new wife, Amy, blended Christopher's kids with her own three children. Christopher had partial custody of Isaac and Rebecca, but Amy Savoie told Vieira live via satellite from Tennessee that Noriko often made it difficult for them.
“We were always treated as if our love for the children was valueless, was unimportant,” Amy Savoie said. “It could have been more congenial and cooperative. She had always seemed to find Christopher's love for them and their love for him to be very threatening, very annoying.”
Christopher Savoie's ex-wife, Noriko, took their two children to Japan. She is one of a number of Japanese mothers who have brought their children back to Japan and refused to let their ex-husbands visit them.
Christopher and Amy feared Noriko would do exactly what she eventually did — head to her native Japan with the children. The dad and his new wife received a temporary restraining order last spring barring Noriko from leaving the country with the kids, but it was lifted after a hearing in a Tennessee court. Noriko took Isaac and Rebecca to Japan for a court-approved summer vacation, and did return with them. But in late August, the Savoies' greatest fears were realized.
“[Noriko] picked up the kids from my house,” Amy Savoie told Vieira. “She sent me a text message saying she was going to take them back-to-school shopping; it was going to be her custodial time. She picked the children up.
“I never saw them again.”
A desperate measure
Chris Savoie knew all too well that no American parents have been able to get Japanese courts to return children to the U.S., and he made what some believe was a questionable move: He tracked down his ex-wife in the small southern Japanese city of Yanagawa, and followed her as she dropped Isaac and Rebecca off at school.
After Noriko left, Christopher picked the children up — Japanese officials say it was by force — and drove them to the U.S. Consulate in nearby Fukuoka. Police were waiting for him there and arrested him. If convicted on the charge of abduction of minors, Savoie faces five years in prison.
Christopher Savoie's current wife, Amy Savoie, said she has not been able to speak with him since he was jailed in Japan.
Amy Savoie says she has not been able to talk to her husband since his arrest on Monday, although she was informed by the consulate that Christopher had to be taken to the hospital over blood pressure concerns. While remaining composed during most of her interview on TODAY, she broke into tears when she described to Vieira her fears over her husband and stepchildren.
“I'm not holding up well at all,” Amy Savoie acknowledged to Vieira. “I want my husband out of jail. And I'm worried about Isaac and Rebecca. I'm worried about my children, who miss their stepsiblings.
“You can't just rip them away from a loving relationship and think it's not going to have an impact. Our lives are just devastated. We're crushed.”
‘We need diplomatic help'
As for Noriko Savoie, she is now a fugitive from American justice. While her first trip to Japan with the children was approved by the local Tennessee court, the second wasn't. If she ever leaves Japan, she will likely be picked up and returned to the U.S. to face charges.
However, if she stays put, in all likelihood so will the children, Morley said. “[Our] hands are tied by a legal system that doesn't work,” he said. “We need diplomatic help.”
The U.S. Embassy in Japan issued a statement to NBC News saying that it is trying to reach a meeting of the minds on an issue on which the two countries are far apart.
“Japan is an important partner and friend to the United States. However on this issue, our points of view differ,” the statement read. “The State Department has no hesitancy in raising this issue at all appropriate opportunities, with even our allies.”
Christopher Savoie's children, Rebecca (now 6) and Isaac (now 8), were taken to Japan by his ex-wife.
But documentary filmmaker Matt Antell says that when it comes to parents splitting up and sharing children, the Japanese way of life is a world away from the American point of view. Antell directed the film “From the Shadows,” which follows American parents as they fight to bring their children home from Japan.
“[The Japanese] don't understand why the other parent wants to see or visit the kid after divorce,” Antell told NBC. “The norm in Japan is to not do that.”
U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) told NBC that the sad case of Christopher Savoie and other affected families needs to come to an agreeable conclusion with the Japanese government. “Japan is a modern, civil rights-oriented society,” he said. “It ought to join the rest of the industrialized nations and resolve all of these long-standing cases, including Christopher Savoie.”
Morley added it “would be outrageous” if his client Savoie is sentenced to jail time in Japan, but “he's in a very serious situation.”