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FOCUS June 2022 Volume 108

Black Hole of Child Abduction

Find My Parent

Aside from being known as developed and tech-savvy country, Japan is also known as the "black hole of child abduction." The country earned this image years before Hague Convention took effect in Japan in 20141 and continues to be brought up by local and international media today. Japan is accused of turning a blind eye to parental abduction for decades and effectively encouraging it through its sole custody and authority law.

Sole Parental Responsibility

Japan is unusual among developed nations in not recognizing the concept of joint child custody or shared parental responsibility.

When a couple divorces in Japan - regardless of nationality - only one parent can retain sole parental authority and custody unless parents agree on their own to have joint custody. As a result, the non-custodial parent is at the mercy of the custodial parent; the latter can prevent the former from seeing, interacting or even speaking with their children.2 In addition, once separated, the non-custodial parent has no right to make any decision on the children's schooling or healthcare issues.

Japanese courts give custody to one parent by applying?what is known as the "continuity principle" ? which translates to "if the child is settled in one household, he/she should not be disturbed."

As observed by a law professor3

Japanese family court judges thus have tremendous discretion when it comes to making decisions about children and may do so by, for example, completely reversing a foreign custody, refusing to award any visitation to a non-custodial parent, awarding visitation for only a few hours once a year, or ordering the custodial parent to send a few photographs of the child every year in lieu of visitation.

There are also reports of abuse by lawyers and judges in ensuring that the abducted children would not be able to see their left behind parents. They allegedly benefit financially from this scheme.4

Child Alienation

Single parent custody can have significant effect on the socio-economic and psychological well-being of children. In a survey of children of divorced parents, 40 percent of respondents "felt their lives became more difficult after their parents parted." This is one of the results of the "first large-scale survey of children in Japan regarding divorce" undertaken by the Ministry of Justice in 2021.5

Another government survey in 2021 showed that more than 50 percent of single parent households struggle financially.6 Japan also has one of the highest child suicide rates in the world, with most children citing family problems as a reason.7 Recorded child abuse has also hit record highs.8

By having joint custody and authority similar to other countries in the world, children in Japan of separated/divorced parents would be less prone to any form of abuse or suffering due to poverty. A second parent and extended family would be able to follow-up on their children's care and well-being.

Criminal Liability

Article 224 of the Japanese Penal Code provides that abduction of a minor is a criminal offense.9 This criminal provision applies to any parent who abducts his/her child.

However, a parent who tries to find his/her abducted children risks being arrested for attempted kidnapping based on Article 224 of the Penal Code. This can happen even though the left behind parent still possesses full parental authority and has no restrictions on seeing his/her children. The threats are real. A 2005 decision of the Supreme Court illustrates the application of Article 224 to a left behind father:10

Where the father took away by physical force his two-year-old child who was in the custody of the mother living separately from him, if there were no special circumstances in which it was actually necessary for the father to commit such an act and the act was violent and coercive, the father's act of kidnapping the child cannot be justified even though he has parental authority.

Australian Scott McIntyre spent forty-five days in detention cell in Japan in 2019 trying to check on the well-being of his children his wife had kidnapped a few months before.11

In the case of Vincent Fichot, he filed four complaints for child abuse and child abduction with the Japanese police during the last four years. None of his complaints were given due course. Instead, the police threatened to arrest him on kidnapping charges in case he tried to see his children. The irony is that, to this day, he is still married to his estranged Japanese wife and has full parental authority over their children.

Not Limited to Non-Japanese Parents

Parental abduction occurs in every social class, ethnicity, and gender in Japan. Though the international media often focuses attention on the abduction of children of non-Japanese fathers, the reality12 is that most abducted children have two Japanese parents, and a growing number of abductors are Japanese fathers.

With nearly a quarter of international marriages in Japan involving a Filipino wife and Japanese husband,13 it is likely that a significant number of Japanese-Filipino children are a being abducted in Japan as well.

Change Underway?

In November 2021, five Japanese news channels reported the issue of child abduction for the first time after France issued an Interpol arrest warrant for Vincent Fichot's Japanese wife on kidnapping and abuse charges. Although the children were kidnapped on Japanese soil, Fichot was able to obtain the Interpol arrest warrant because his children possess dual nationality (French and Japanese). This highlighted the weakness in the operation of Japanese law. To date, the Japanese authorities have failed to act on this arrest warrant despite continuous pressure and follow-up from Fichot.

Months after the news came out, the Head of the National Police Agency of Japan made a surprising announcement. He instructed his departments to facilitate the registration of complaints of abduction of minors (unilateral removal of a child from one parent). The instruction included the conduct of awareness-raising activities for police officers in charge of complaints, and the setting up of a dedicated phone number to respond to any report of abduction of children. For the first-time, dozens of left behind parents in Japan went to the police to complain on the abduction of their children by their spouses.

Will the police and the Ministry of Justice act on these child abduction complaints and file criminal charges in court in accordance with the law? This is still to be seen. But members of the Japanese parliament such as Masahiko Shibayama are closely monitoring the situation in Japan and the implementation of existing laws, including Article 224 of the Japanese Penal Code on abduction of minors.

Solutions

Though the current system and cultural norms can be large barriers towards preventing and resolving parental abduction in Japan, Find My Parent (FMP) is confident that change can be achieved through consistent, coordinated and strategic actions. Supporters of the child's right to both parents advocate for change at the local and international levels. They hold regular demonstrations to raise public awareness and pressure the government for action. Many politicians in Japan are also advocating for an end to parental abduction.

Embassies of different countries in Tokyo (in coordination with their Ministries of Foreign Affairs) can put pressure on Japan to prevent as well as resolve parental abduction of children. Honorable Rahm Emanuel, the new U.S. Ambassador to Japan, expressed his plan to raise the issue of implementation of the Hague Convention with the Japanese government during the confirmation hearing at the U.S. Senate of his nomination as ambassador to Japan and in his response (5 April 2022) to the letter of Find My Parent (FMP) regarding child abduction in Japan.14 Consistent pressure must be put on the U.S. Embassy as well as other embassies in Japan to ensure that the abducted children are not forgotten.

Technology can play an important role in supporting families during the divorce process by providing them with the right tools for a positive, child-centered co-parenting relationship. FMP is currently developing a mobile application created and designed for Japanese families for this purpose. The mobile application is expected to be launched in the second half of 2022. Also, left behind parents who want to raise their voices to the decision-makers can do so by visiting the FMP website - https://findmyparent.org/.

For children who have already been abducted, restoring their link with the left-behind parent as soon as possible is key. The bond between a parent and child is necessary to the children's development and success. Since the current mechanisms for child-parent reunification are largely failing children around the world, FMP has developed a mobile application that empowers children and parents to reunite using the latest artificial intelligence (AI) technology. Learn more on YouTube15 about this app, which can be downloaded from the FMP website (https://findmyparent.org/app/).

FMP is using the same powerful technology to help reunite families16 separated during the current war in Ukraine.

Reuniting families after parental abduction is not enough, though. The relationship between a child and his/her parent and between a child and extended family cannot just be put back together like a puzzle. It is a complex relationship that may take years to mend and sometimes it never does. That is why efforts must be focused on the prevention of parental abduction and the promotion of co-parenting. Supporters can contribute by spreading awareness through social media and word of mouth. Most will be surprised to see how many affected people respond once they start talking about the issue. FMP's podcast You're Double17 is a great place to start hearing real stories and expert advice on the issue.

Lastly, it is important that those most affected by parental abduction ? innocent, vulnerable children who are often scarred for life - are not forgotten. We should take time out of our day to check-in on the children in our lives, especially those who have divorced parents. Governments, schools and non-profit organizations need to play their part in making sure these children get the support they need, by providing a safe space for children to express their concerns and by providing access to quality, child-centered mental health services.

Find My Parent is a U.S. registered, international non-profit organization that is committed to empowering and advocating on behalf of abducted children around the world.

For further information about child abduction in Japan or supporting efforts that advocate for the children of Japan, please visit findmyparent.org or download the Find My Parent mobile app in the Google Play Store or Apple Store to start searching for your missing loved ones.

Endnotes
1 See Ministry of Foreign Affairs, www.mofa.go.jp/fp/hr_ha/page22e_000249.html.
2 Story of Japanese mother Emi presented in Find My Parent You're Double podcast https://findmyparent.org/japanese-government-politicians-judges-and-lawyers-dont-care-about-children-emi-left-behind-parent-from-japan/.
3 Colin P.A. Jones, Divorce and Child Custody Issues in the Japanese Legal System, Official Magazine, U.S. Embassy Japan, https://amview.japan.usembassy.gov/en/divorce-law-in-japan/.
4 See Nozomi Makino, The Darkness of the Real Child Kidnapping Business: Human rights lawyers' crazy tricks, https://hanada-plus.jp/articles/323, and Yoshiko Ikeda, Darkness of child abduction business continued - Here are the "Villains" who killed the Hague Convention, https://hanada-plus.jp/articles/328. See also Current Situation of Child Abduction in Japan, written statement submitted by the International Career Support Association, a non-governmental organization to the United Nations, UNGA, A/HRC/39/NGO/86, 31 August 2018, available at https://findmyparent.org/knowledge-base/19752/.
5 "1,000 people in their 20s and 30s" participated in this survey via the Ministry of Justice website. "Over 40% polled in Japan say parents' divorce, separation made life harder," Mainichi Japan, 12 March 2021, https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20210312/p2a/00m/0na/004000c.
6 "50% of single-parent households in Japan struggle financially: study," KYODO NEWS, 24 December 2021, https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2021/12/d8b8b4ab2cc1-50-of-single-parent-households-in-japan-struggle-financially-study.html.
7 See "Suicide Data and Trends in Japan," Tokyo Mental Health, https://www.tokyomentalhealth.com/suicide-data-and-trends-in-japan/. Also, "Main reasons for committing suicide among students in Japan in 2020," statista, www.statista.com/statistics/1068645/japan-reason-committing-suicide-among-students/.
8 "Child-abuse cases topped 200,000 in Japan in fiscal year to March 2021," Japan Times, www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/08/27/national/child-abuse-cases-japan/.
9 Chapter XXXIII. Crimes of Kidnapping and Buying or Selling of Human Beings
Article 224. (Kidnapping of Minors)
A person who kidnaps a minor by force or enticement shall be punished by imprisonment with work for not less than 3 months but not more than 7 years. PENAL CODE (Act No. 45 of 1907), www.cas.go.jp/jp/seisaku/hourei/data/PC.pdf.
10 2004 (A) 2199, Keishu Vol. 59, No. 10, 2005.12.06, Judgments of the Supreme Court, www.courts.go.jp/app/hanrei_en/detail?id=793.
11 "Australian journalist freed in Japan after arrest for trying to see his children," BBC,
15 January 2020, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-51129580.
12 See Washington Post article www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/japan-children-custody-divorce/2020/10/18/f7421d62-077f-11eb-8719-0df159d14794_story.html.
13 See International Marriage in Japan: Trends in Nationality of Spouses, nippon.com, 13 April 2018, www.nippon.com/en/features/h00174/.
14 Demand that the US Ambassador to Japan proactively encourage Japan to respect the Hague Convention, https://findmyparent.org/ambassador-emanuel-stand-up-for-american-children-abducted-in-japan/ and response to letter of Vincent Fichot and Deanielle Dawra of Find My Parents,
www.facebook.com/findmyparent.org/photos/pcb.512483287190111/512483193856787.
15 Who is FMP and how does it reunite families with AI technology?, www.youtube.com/supported_browsers?next_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3D4QKVqVhqVIs.
16 Empowering Ukrainians through real-time family tracing and reunification, https://reunite-ukraine.com/.
17 You're Double, https://findmyparent.org/category/youre-double/.