Their children were taken. Now they fight Japanese laws to get them back

Tokyo: In a French theatre in the spring of 2018, a group of parents met with Japanese officials and lawyers. There was nothing on the stage at the Paris Japan Cultural Centre, but plots were unfolding that would have profound consequences for the families gathered.

“It is a bit strange to talk about international divorce and the Hague Convention at this great venue like a movie theatre,” Japanese lawyer Toshiteru Shibaike told the audience.

Catherine Henderson, Izumi Dobashi and Scott McIntyre hold photos up of their children. Credit:Viola Kam

“Some people are here with children; please don’t hesitate to keep staying even if your baby cries. Because it is a story of children.”

This was a seminar to help Japanese parents navigate custody of their children after separation from the other, often foreign-born, parent. It was one of 18 organised by the Japanese government around the world, including in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

Up to 68 Australian-Japanese children have been caught up in parental abduction and child custody disputes, according to Department of Foreign Affairs figures obtained by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

Over the next two hours at the Paris event organised by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs down the road from the Eiffel Tower, the parents would hear how they could navigate the Hague Convention if they wanted to take a child away from their French partner. The convention is a multilateral treaty signed in 1980 that created a pathway for a child abducted by one of their parents to return to his or her home country.

They were told what evidence of domestic violence, drug use and alcoholism was required, and how important it was to demonstrate how the child had been psychologically impacted by it all. They were also told that they could make a stronger case if the child said they no longer wanted to live in France or anywhere else but Japan.

“The seminar was officially to give information on family law in Japan,” French Senator Richard Yung said last week from Paris. “[But] in practice for several attendees, the seminar also gave information on how to keep your child with you in case of divorce.”

The Japanese government has long maintained it is just providing consular assistance to its citizens. “The aim of these seminars is primarily to raise awareness of Japanese nationals living outside Japan about the seriousness of international parental child abduction and thereby prevent future removal of children across borders,” it said in a statement.

But the issue of child abduction in Japan has now morphed into a full-blown diplomatic stand-off for Tokyo, not just with France, but Australia and the United States. French authorities estimate more than 100 children have been caught up in similar circumstances to the 68 Australian children. The United States has 475 children in such situations.

Many of these family disputes are bogged down in claims and counterclaims. There are tales of abuse and violence but also of estrangement and amicable divorces devolving into prolonged court battles. All the dozen Japanese and foreign parents that The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age spoke to denied the allegations of violence or abuse.

What makes the Japanese situation particularly challenging is its legal system does not recognise dual custody and favours continuity for the child over change, even if foreign courts rule against the Japanese parent.

“The problem with Japan is it is a zero-sum game, there can only be a winner and a loser,” said Australian mother-of-two Catherine Henderson who has spent more than two years attempting to see her kids in Tokyo after her Japanese husband packed up and left with them in April 2019.

“There is nothing about the best interests of the child.”

The situation has left foreign and Japanese partners who dispute the claims against them without any guaranteed access to their children and dozens of parents driven to desperation.

Japan, a vital diplomatic ally of most western nations, is now coming under sustained international pressure over its position. During the Olympic Games, French father Vincent Fichot went on an almost three-week hunger strike outside Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium. He had not seen his kids in three years after his wife abruptly disappeared with them.

French resident of Japan Vincent Fichot, left, meets EU ambassadors in front of Sendagaya station while on a hunger strike during the Tokyo Olympics.Credit:Viola Kam

French President Emmanuel Macron was in Tokyo to celebrate the Olympics but raised the issue directly with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga when he visited in July. Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne did the same in her May meetings with her Japanese counterpart Toshimitsu Motegi and Defence Minister Nobuo Kisihi.

“This is an issue where certainly Australian ways and Japanese ways do not align,” an Australian embassy official in Tokyo told parents in June.

The Department of Foreign Affairs updated its travel advice last year to warn that Japan’s custody laws were very different from Australia’s.

“Courts in Japan generally consider that it is in a child’s best interests for them to remain in their ‘usual place of residence’,” it states. “Courts therefore usually give sole custody to the parent that has taken care of the child most recently.”

Vincent Fichot, centre with back to camera, attracted the attention of Western media during his hunger strike in Tokyo. Credit:Viola Kam

But Fichot’s protest at the Olympics, years of lobbying by parents and strong words from its allies are starting to put the heat on Japan’s leaders.

Kishi, the defence minister and younger brother of former prime minister Shinzo Abe, told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in an interview in Tokyo that “if reform is needed, reform must be discussed and debated”.

“And I would say that the government has to discuss and debate what is warranted,” he said.

Japanese Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi. Credit:Viola Kam

Japanese opposition leader Yukio Edano said the pressure was rising. “That a couple of advanced economies including Australia and other countries are pointing this problem out, I take that seriously,” he said.

“On the other hand, overwhelmingly, most of these cases involving the Japanese families is that it is the mother or the woman who escapes the domestic violence. So if we try to barge through or push it through to recognise joint parenthood, for example, then we could end up with increasing domestic violence, victims and more problems,” Edano added.

Internally, Japan is littered with its own cases of parents obtaining custody of their kids and the other parent being banned from speaking to their children.

Izumi Dobashi last saw her 13-year-old daughter, 12-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter 4½ years ago.

Dobashi, who asked to only be known by her maiden name, had confronted her Japanese husband about his multiple affairs, but after 13 years of marriage, he would not stop. “No matter how much he talked about ending the affairs, he refused,” she said.

Izumi Dobashi with a photo of her three children. Credit:Viola Kam

Eventually, she made the decision to leave him and to take the kids with her. Her husband realised what was happening and confronted her at school.

The police decided two of her children should stay with the father’s mother down the road while the dispute was resolved. Her youngest daughter missed her siblings and figured out that they were staying at their grandmother’s house. Once she visited, she never left.

“That was the last time I saw her,” said Dobashi.

Because of the way Japanese laws are structured visitation rights are negotiated by the parent who was with the children when the parents separated. Like many other parents both Japanese and foreign, Dobashi got 12 postcards a year to send to her kids. No meetings, no phone calls.

She hand-made every one of her cards and filled them with pandas and bears. They would pop up when her kids opened them. In May 2018, she received a photo from her husband.

“The kids were ripping them up,” she said. “One of them held up a card saying “die you old hag”.

Her cards have since been cut to six a year, but the 39-year-old has not stopped trying to reach her kids.

“I wanted them to know that as a mother, I have always loved them, I always wanted to meet them and didn’t blame them,” she said. “It’s not your fault. We know it’s not your fault.”

Australian father-of-two Scott McIntyre, a former SBS journalist, has not seen his kids since May 2019. He won’t leave Japan, fearful this will give his Japanese former wife the power to divorce him and cut off any chance of seeing his kids at all.

“I can’t remember what my kids look like, I can’t remember the sound of their voice, I can’t remember their smell,” he said.

“To not remember the sight of your own children, the pain and the grief it causes you is indescribable.”

Australian woman Catherine Henderson was living in Tokyo when she says she came home from work to find that her husband had abducted their daughter and son.

Henderson, like many of the parents, is continuing to pursue her case through the Japanese courts and is part of several class actions. The 50-year-old English teacher holds little hope of winning but does it to make sure her kids know she did everything she could. She pays their school fees but is not allowed to see a report card.

“You forget how old your kids are because you have not spent their birthdays with them,” she said.

All the parents are working to a time limit. Once the children reach 16, there are no more custody rights to be gained under the Hague Convention. With no access to them, they are worried they are being turned against them, or may not know that they exist.

“Often they are told the other parent doesn’t want you, or you were conceived in a Petri dish, or they are dead,” said Jeffery Morehouse, who runs the US advocacy group Bring Abducted Children Home.

Morehouse has won two custody cases in the US against his Japanese wife but has not seen his son Mochi in more than a decade.

“They erase the other parent,” he said. “When a child is kidnapped their whole life is built on a foundation of lies.”

It has now been so long that the only option Morehouse has left is to litter the internet with clues in Japanese and English, hoping his son finds him when he wants to, but he knows there are some cases where the child has been so poisoned that they may not reach out at all.

“There are still moments when I wake up, and I think I hear his voice. It’s time to get ready for school, to take him down the street and catch the bus,” he said.

“We all have to go shopping, but most people don’t have the experience of going around a grocery store and hearing a voice that reminds them of their child. It drops you to your knees.”

In Shinto Village, an hour outside Tokyo by bullet train, Australian father Kav, who asked only to be referred to by his nickname, has not seen his daughter in three years. She lives just 3.6 kilometres down the road.

“At the moment it is as if she has passed, and I haven’t been able to grieve at all,” he said.

Kav sits next to one of his eucalyptus trees in Shinto Village. Credit:Din Eugenio

The former Australian taekwondo fighter is building a reconciliation hub filled with eucalyptus trees, banksias and acacias. He has rented out a 1000-square-metre warehouse and is now filling it with the colours, shapes and scents of the Outback that many of these Australian-Japanese children may never get to see again.

It is a place that he hopes will bring Japanese and Australian parents together, to talk and try to find a way through disputes that he says are ruining the lives of both parents and their children.

“I want to give myself every chance possible to see my daughter,” he said. “Even if it was only two or three hours a month it would be great.

“It’s not just me, the village, Japan Agriculture and locals are helping out,” he said. “They want to see this happen too.”

Morehouse says he is still holding on to a final shred of optimism. As part of the last custody court case that he won in 2017, he saw a video from his son. Mochi was asked if he ever thought of his father.

“He responded that he sometimes dreamed of me,” said Morehouse. “Then he started crying. I thought here is this boy who was kidnapped as a six-year-old, and he is still holding on to a memory of me. That is such a great sign of hope.”

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