Japan is recognized the world over as a major democracy, but when it comes to parents, critics say the country has antiquated laws that deny even basic rights.
Every year in Japan, following a break-up or divorce, 166,000 children are separated, usually definitively, from one of their parents, official statistics demonstrated.
In 80 percent of the cases, it is the father, Japanese or foreign, who loses all his parental rights but is still required to pay financial support to the mother, the statistics show.
In contrast to other developed nations, visitation rights are not enshrined in Japanese law and the abduction of a child by one parent is not considered a crime.
“Under current Japanese law, the parent who’s quickest to take a child gets custody. It’s the law of the jungle,” said Richard Delrieu, a French teacher who was deprived of his child and belongs to the association SOS Parents Japan.
After children have spent six months in their new home, “the judge will consider it’s better not to change their environment again and will give custody of the child to the kidnapping mother,” Delrieu said.
Such abductions also happen abroad, and once back in Japan, the parent has nothing to fear from the judiciary because Japan and Russia are the only members of the G8 industrialized nations that have not signed the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.
The treaty requires a country to expeditiously return abducted children to their country of habitual residence.
Japanese media have said Japan may sign the convention in 2010, but there has been no official confirmation.
“The Ministry of Justice is divided on this question,” said Thierry Consigny of the Assembly for French Overseas Nationals for Japan and North Asia, an informal group that provides support for French nationals overseas.
“And even if Japan signed this convention, it would be necessary next to change the civil law so that it is applied,” he said.
Eighteen Japanese associations of parents deprived of their children are fighting, alongside Japanese lawmakers, for reform of Japanese civil law to allow the sharing of parental authority and visitation rights.
A demonstration, which members of SOS Parents Japan will attend, was planned for yesterday in Tokyo.
In 1994 Japan signed the Convention of New York, which upholds the right of a child to see both parents, but nothing changed, fathers like Delrieu said.
“It’s hypocrisy,” Delrieu said. “What’s the use of signing international conventions if there is no possible legal recourse?”
In the absence of mutual legal conventions between Japan and other countries, it is impossible for a foreign father or mother to ensure parental rights are respected.
The number of abductions known to European and North American consulates is currently 159, of which 40 are from the US, 30 in Britain and 20 in France.
“It’s only the tip of the iceberg,” Delrieu said, adding that the figures exclude many other countries.
Some estimates put the number of children separated from a foreign parent at closer to 10,000.
“The parental system organized around the house is to a large extent inherited from the feudal period,” said Delrieu, who teaches at Kyoto Sangyo University in western Japan.
“The Japanese family can definitively take the children while erasing the name of the father, even having them adopted by another member of the family, without the need for the consent of the other parent,” he said.