Father’s Day is a holiday that celebrates the bond between child and parent. For most of us, that bond is considered to be sacrosanct, and even if a mother and father separate, no one expects one of them to give up their rights and responsibilities to their child. That’s not the case in every country, though. Here in Japan, as a matter of fact, a divorce results in one parent retaining all rights to the children. The noncustodial parent is left with little or no recourse under the law to see their kids. It is a sad situation, not only because many Japanese parents are unwillingly separated from their kids, but also because it is making Japan a haven for international abductions.
This Father’s Day, I joined a protest held by the Japan branch of the group Left Behind Parents. The informal theme of the rally was “Fatherless Day,” as many of the participants were fathers who have been prevented from seeing their children by the outdated and unfair custody laws. We marched for about an hour through the busy streets of Shibuya, one of the most popular shopping districts in Tokyo, and despite our relatively small group, we garnered a lot of attention from both media and passersby. As we marched, we shared the Left Behind Parents’ main complaints.
Domestically, they would like to see laws for divorce and child custody laws changed. Legally, joint custody does not exist here. In the event of a divorce, custody goes to one parent who then has complete control over the child. They do not have to allow for visitation. They do not have to consult with the other parent when making decisions, large or small. They do not even have to inform the other parent if they take the child and move away. There is nothing a noncustodial parent can do to insure access to their child.
The practice of giving all rights to one parent is particularly problematic because the system is strongly biased against fathers and non-Japanese. Custody almost always goes to the mother or to the Japanese parent in the case of international marriages, regardless of his or her financial situation or ability to care for a child.
In one case, the court granted custody of a little girl to the Japanese mother in spite of the fact that she had already abandoned one child with severe disabilities and was not working. The father, meanwhile, was caring for the abandoned child, owned his own business and was willing to relocate to the U.S. to obtain better medical care. The court also allowed the mother to move her daughter to a remote island, making it even harder for the father to see his daughter.
On an international level, the Left Behind Parents would like to see Japan become a signatory to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. Because Japan is not currently a signatory, Japanese parents living abroad can simply return to Japan with their children if a custody ruling goes against them. The Japanese government is under no obligation to and will not return the child to their previous country of residence. Once in Japan, the jurisdiction of the case will fall to the Japanese courts regardless of whether there is an arrest warrant for the Japanese parent issued by another country or even by Interpol. And in thousands of such contested cases, the custody has never been awarded to the non-Japanese parent.
It’s always hard to define success when it comes to protest marches. Certainly Japan’s legal system and international commitments are not going to suddenly change just because of one small group of people holding signs and chanting slogans, but at the same time, if we made a few more people aware of the situation, if we have garnered a few more supporters, then then we’ve made progress. Eventually it will be enough to force real change. So in honor of Father’s Day, think about the cruel situation these parents find themselves in and take a moment to share your support.