Tag Archives: Japan

Mayor of Rikuzentakata Balances Bitterness and Hope


Today I attended a lunch with the mayor of Rikuzentakata, Futoshi Toba. His town was almost completely destroyed in the 3/11 disaster. In the almost two years that have followed, he has gained a reputation as a fierce fighter for rebuilding efforts, often butting heads with the national government about how things are being done–or more commonly, not being done. Continue reading


A New Old Tokyo Station

Tokyo Station soon after completion

On Monday, I attended a press tour of portions of the newly renovated and restored Tokyo Station. Although I was a little disappointed to discover that the bulk of the tour had to do with the soon-to-reopen Tokyo Station Hotel, rather than the changes to the station itself, it was nonetheless interesting. Continue reading

Ishihara Defends Purchase of Senkaku Islands

Today, I attended a press conference with the controversial Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara. He is infamous for his blunt, very non-PC way of speaking and highly conservative views. He seems to enjoy this reputation quite a bit, as he laughingly commented when a gaggle of photographers began snapping away at the initial photo opportunity, “I’m so notorious!” Indeed. Continue reading

An Illuminating Date in Sagamiko

A couple snuggles up while enjoying the lights.

If you live in or near Tokyo and are trying to come up with some Valentine date ideas, let me recommend the Sagamiko Illumillion at Pleasure Forest. The organizers have created a fantasy world out of 3 million LED lights. The park has been separated into different themes, including a section that models our solar system.

There are also amusement park rides to enjoy, including a Ferris wheel lit up like Mt. Fuji. You have to take a ski lift over the lit fields to get there, which is almost worth it in and of itself. Other attractions include the largest mirror maze in Japan, a snow field for the kids, and a variety of food stalls.

The illumination is set to continue until early April, so you have plenty of time to visit. But be sure to dress warmly when you do, because it gets darn cold atop that mountian!

Jessica from CNN

So, I just started writing for CNN Go, and I’m pretty excited about it.  You’ll have to excuse my shameless self-promotion, but I’m just going to link to my first article here. It’s about Burmese refugees living in Tokyo.

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If I Were Religious, I Would Say I Was Blessed

The sunset from Mt. Sinai

It’s a little cliche for someone who is relatively well-off, white, and a Westerner to talk about how travel changed their perspective. Goodness knows I wouldn’t want to get all Eat, Pray, Love on you. Since my most recent trip, however, I can’t stop thinking about what an amazing thing a US passport is. This little blue book entitles you to effortless passage into 159 countries, and with a little planning ahead and an application for a tourist visa, you can get access to almost all others. No wonder I feel a sense of infinite possibility when it comes time to plan a new trip.

But for many others, the possibilities for travel are not nearly so limitless. Let me share two recent experiences.

While I was in Egypt last month, I met with a local man through a tour. Despite his good job and economic stability, despite the fact that he has a wife and children and deep roots in the community, and despite the fact that he is fluent in English and works in tourism, he has tried and failed several times to get tourist visas to go abroad. When it comes to visiting countries like the US and Australia, it turns out that even middle-class Egyptians may find it close to impossible. So my friend has never left his country and has become resigned to refusing the invitations of his international acquaintances.

Back in Japan, I started working on an article about Burmese refugees living in Tokyo. I interviewed several of them, and almost everyone mentioned the difficulty of travel. Particularly before they are granted refugee status, a process which can take decades and is far from certain, it is not feasible to leave Japan. Often, they do not even have a passport and cannot obtain one because of the political situation in Burma. Of course, even if they had permission to travel and could afford to do so, they couldn’t go to the one place they most want to go: back home.

In meeting a man who cannot leave his home and people who cannot return to theirs, it struck me what an under-appreciated liberty the freedom of movement is. With my American passport and nationality, I have been invited to make a home for myself here in Japan, yet I can freely travel back and forth to the country of my birth. I’m free to pack my bag and leave on a grand adventure round the world tomorrow, and if some far-flung destination appealed to me, I would probably be able to find a way to stay there and make yet another place my home. All because I am lucky enough to hold a US passport.

The unfairness of it is staggering. It makes me want to grab every American without a passport by the scruff of the neck and shake them, screaming, “Don’t you know how lucky you are?!” And to my less-fortunate international friends, I can only apologize and offer to write a letter for your latest visa application.

Left Behind Parents

Left Behind Parents protest

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.