TOKYO, Oct 23 — Emmanuel, Stephane, Henrik and James come from very different backgrounds, but they share the same painful experience of battling Japan’s legal system — in vain — for access to their children after divorce.
Tough laws and patriarchal cultural norms that overwhelmingly see mothers granted sole custody after a divorce — 80 per cent of the time, according to official figures — mean that fathers rarely see their children again.
Despite winning a court order in France and filing a case under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction in September 2014, he is still fighting for the right to see his daughter.
His experience is not unusual.
“What kind of justice system is it if decisions are not implemented? There is room to do more and better,” says Richard Yung, a French senator who came to Japan to plead the cases of several French parents.
Although Japan has signed the Hague Convention designed to prevent a parent from moving a child to another country and blocking access for the former partner, Tokyo demonstrates “a pattern of noncompliance” with the pact, according to the US State Department.
For foreign parents, most often fathers, “this poses major problems, because they have a different mentality and they can’t comprehend losing custody or the right to visit their child,” said Nahoko Amemiya, a lawyer for the Tokyo Public Law office.
The State Department’s 2018 report described “limitations” in Japanese law including requirements that “direct enforcement take place in the home and presence of the taking parent, that the child willingly leave the taking parent, and that the child face no risk of psychological harm.”
“It’s not that Japanese courts favour the Japanese parent, it’s that they favour the ‘kidnapper’,” who is living with the child, said John Gomez, founder of the group Kizuna, which advocates for parents separated from their children.
“The majority of the cases in which we intervened have been resolved, but we are aware of six or seven where the return decision could not be implemented,” said Shuji Zushi, a foreign ministry official.
“In these cases, there is a very strong conflict between the two sides and that leads to media attention or political action,” he said.
“I can’t think about my son anymore. Looking at a photo of him tears me apart. I’ve learned to forget him.”
But regardless of changes to the law, the pain of parental separation is always traumatic — as demonstrated by the case of Joichiro Yamada, who was 10 when his Japanese father and American mother split up.