November 12th, 2009 09:13 EST
President Obama Visits Japan Part 3 of 3 (Child Abductions Issue)
President Obama Visits Japan Part 1 (The Futenma Base Issue)
President Obama Visits Japan Part 2 (East Asian Community Plan)
Bill and Megumi started out happy enough as an international couple living in Texas and for several years, things went well. Following the birth of two kids and some financial difficulties, however the marriage gradually fell apart. Megumi took the kids home to Japan for a final visit with the grandparents (Bill had gained primary custody of the kids). And she never came back. When pressed, the Japanese court system ruled that she could keep the kids and that Bill would never be allowed to see them again.
I just made Bill and Megumi but similar stories have been filling the pages of the Japan Times, Japan`s leading English newspaper, of late. Couples break up, the Japanese spouse (almost always the mother) brings the kids to Japan illegally, the father is denied access by the Japanese legal system, end of story.
At a time when there are many other issues bedeviling the usually placid US-Japan relationship, such as the Futenma base issue, renegotiating the SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) concerning American soldiers in Japan, the East Asian Community proposal, and others, the question of Japanese "child abductions" has become another issue. Urged on by Senator Kerry of Massachusetts among others, President Obama is likely to breach the topic with newly minted Prime Minister Hatoyama.
As an American, living in Tokyo, with a Japanese wife and two kids, ripe for abduction, (My wife and I get along fine as we have for 14 years and have no plans to divorce. Thanks for asking.) This issue has a potential to be a very personal one. If my wife were to decide to divorce me and take the kids, there is an excellent chance that courts here would decide that I could never see them again. According to, again, Senator Kerry, there are some 100 or so cases involving American kids "abducted" along with many more of other nationalities.
This issue is especially contentious as for Japanese people, the word "abduction" automatically brings to mind the Japanese people abducted by North Korea, a sticking point and open wound that lingers to this day. To feel compared to North Korea in any way, for Japan, is extremely incendiary. (Of course, the US has made no such comparison but words have resonance).
There are some cultural differences at work here, too.
For instance, the idea of "joint custody", well established in the states, is considered controversial and often unwise in Japan. While many Americans (I generalize for lack of data) consider it important for a child to have time with both divorced parents, many Japanese people (strike 2) consider this destabilizing. Almost always (no data again-strike three, I`m outta there!), Japanese courts grant custody to one parent and this is almost always the mother.
This is another cultural difference, at least, in my experience. Most Japanese adults tend to view the mother as the one to raise children, the father as the one to provide income. This is changing, of course, as more women work and more men get involved in child rearing but it is a well entrenched idea. My own experience when attending various school functions of my daughters is to hear the school principal in his or her opening remarks thank the "mothers" for taking the time to be here today. When I point out that there are some fathers here, too, the principal switches to "parents" but soon is back to thanking the "conscientious mothers" and the "diligent mothers" for doing a good job raising their kids. Since most international marriages (strike four!) involving Japanese people consist of a Japanese wife and a "foreign" husband, the courts normally grant custody to the mother.
Furthermore, some say, Japanese courts think it better that children with some Japanese blood be raised by a Japanese parent than a non-Japanese one. As one student of mine put it, "It is very difficult to learn the Japanese language and culture. It must be done while still a child. Other languages and cultures can be learned as an adult. So they should be raised by their Japanese parent for the child`s sake." While this may be a shockingly condescending point of view to some, I daresay, in Japan, it is not at all rare.
Finally, Japanese courts often allow passion and emotion to overrule law. For instance, in a recent case, a Brazilian man`s children were abducted by his Japanese ex-wife. She brought them to Japan illegally where she was promptly granted custody. She remarried, this time with a Japanese man, and then shortly thereafter, she passed away. The Brazilian father pressed for the return of his children. But instead, custody was granted to the second husband, no blood relation at all. When asked about his decision, the judge said that while legally the children should be returned to Brazil, he was concerned about the damage to their development of changing countries yet again. To "avoid confusion", he categorically denied the father any visitation rights. Most of the people I talked with here about it, felt compassion for the father but thought that ultimately the judge had done the right thing.
Many people have made fun of President Obama`s Nobel Peace Prize victory and I, while a supporter of the President, agree that it was probably premature. This weekend, my President will visit my adopted homeland and get a chance to start working on earning that prize. Oh, and by the way, Mr. President, if you happen to be reading this, our PTA basketball team will have a workout and game from 4 to 6:30PM on Saturday at Matsuzawa Elementary School, Setagaya, Tokyo. If you have any free time, drop by and let`s shoot some hoops.