TOKYO (Reuters) - A growing number of foreigners in Japan are speaking out against what they say is a little-known but entrenched system that allows one parent in a broken relationship to take away the children and block the other from visiting them.
The issue of what media in Japan and overseas call parental child “abduction” has regained international attention recently, particularly in Europe where documentaries have been made about European fathers whose children were taken by their Japanese wives.
Japan’s judicial system has drawn global attention with the lengthy detention - and subsequent fleeing - of former auto executive Carlos Ghosn in what critics have characterised as a “hostage justice” system.
Australian Scott McIntyre was the latest foreigner to raise his voice against the estrangement of separated parents from their children in Japan.
McIntyre was detained for 1-1/2 months in Tokyo for trespassing when he went to his in-laws’ apartment to seek information on his two children. He remains married, has no restraining order against him, retains full parental rights, but has not been able to see his children since May, when his wife left with them.
“Sitting here today, I don’t know if my children are alive or dead,” McIntyre told a news conference on Thursday, a day after he received a six-month suspended sentence.
He said he had made numerous requests to the police and his wife’s lawyers - the two are going through a divorce mediation - to let him know whether the children are safe, but that those were ignored.
The wife’s legal representative, Jun Kajita, said he could not go into specifics but there were some facts that were “not consistent” in McIntyre’s claims.
“This is only going to change when Japanese parents speak out as well,” McIntyre said, adding that he had received many letters of support from local parents suffering the same plight. “Children should have access to both parents - it’s a fundamental human right.”
No official statistics exist on how widespread the issue is. But non-profit organisation Kizuna Child-Parent Reunion estimates that roughly 150,000 children lose contact with a parent every year in Japan because of estrangement from the non-custodial parent.
Although divorce is increasingly common in Japan - about one in three marriages end in one - it’s still stigmatised, and Japanese society generally accepts the alienation of the non-custodial parent, largely because there is no joint-custody system after divorce.
Many parents say there is a pattern to the problem: one day, your spouse leaves with the children; you go to the police asking for help; they refuse, saying it’s a “family matter”. In some cases, a domestic violence claim is made against you, accepted as fact and never investigated. Your children’s school can also shut you out because the wishes of the co-habiting parent - usually the mother - are uncontested.
Justice ministry officials have said in parliament that the abduction of a child by a parent is a crime, but that individual cases were up to the family courts to deliberate.
Asked about the legality of one parent taking away a child without the other’s consent, a Tokyo Metropolitan Police spokesman said the agency “could not state in general whether it was illegal.”
He said police could also not say in general whether they needed to respond to an estranged parent’s request to investigate an alleged abduction of the children.
“For anyone outside Japan, it’s a crazy system,” said opposition lawmaker Seiichi Kushida, who has been fighting for a joint-custody system in parliament.
The plight of such parents last year prompted French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Giuseppe Conte to raise their concerns with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Some Japanese and foreign parents have collectively launched a complaint to the United Nations’ human rights body.
“It’s heartening to see all the attention foreign parents are bringing to this issue,” said Kenjiro Hara, director at non-profit activist group Convention on the Rights of the Child Japan.
“It’s thanks to them that more Japanese people feel emboldened to take action,” he said, noting that several class-action lawsuits have been filed against the government seeking legislation to help reunite parents with their children.
Reporting by Chang-Ran Kim; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan