Journalist, newspaper Helsingin Sanomat | World news
(Japan) Thousands of children are taken out of reach of their other parent each year in Japan. Tapio Tarvas lost contact with his daughter. Jeffery Morehouse, an American, did not get his son back even by court order.
In 2008, Tapio Tarvas was waiting for his Japanese spouse and their baby to return to Finland. After weeks of silence, Tarvas received a message: she would stay with their daughter in Japan. Permanently.
"My ex-wife said she might come when the child was four or five. It was a mental breakdown for me." Tarvas only met his daughter again when she was 8 years old.
According to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, a child should have contact with both parents after separation, unless it is harmful to the child.
However, in the case of Mr. Tarvas and thousands of Japanese couples, this agreement is not being honored. In Japan, it is estimated that more than 100,000 children lose contact with one of their parents every year.
There are also shortcomings in their implementation of the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, which Japan ratified in 2014. For example, the United States has repeatedly found Japan in breach of the Hague Abduction Convention.
John Gomez, president of the Kizuna Child-Parent Reunion Organization in Japan, has been helping parents who have lost contact with their children for 12 years.
He says the problem lies at the heart of Japanese law. Japan is the only G7 country and, with Turkey, the only OECD country that does not recognize joint custody after divorce.
"In Japanese family law, custody is in practice always given to the parent who has the children at the time."
In Japan, it is not a crime to take a child away from one parent in secret, although in many other countries it is defined as child abduction. On the contrary, the person who has possession of the child is in practice considered to be the guardian, even if the other parent has not agreed to part with the child.
Gomez stresses that, although the proportion of abductions is unknown, the system that allows the loss of access is a significant problem.
"I estimate that around 150,000 children lose contact with their other parent in Japan every year."
Mr. Gomez's calculation is based on divorce statistics from the Japan administration and surveys of divorced families by various agencies. They show that around 66% of children do not see a non-custodial parent after divorce.
This was also stated by Yuko Nishitani, Professor of International Law at Kyoto University, and Noriko Odagiri, Professor of Clinical Psychology at Tokyo International University, at a seminar of the German Institute for Japanese Studies in 2019.
US citizen John Gomez has been in contact with around 200 Japanese and foreign parents who have lost contact with their child. According to Mr. Gomez, the country's legislation and the loss of access comes as a surprise to many parents.
Tapio Tarvas was not familiar with Japan's family law and did not discuss custody issues with his father before the divorce.
"We were aware of the challenges, because when we had the child we didn't have a long relationship or a common culture."
The couple had met in Finland a few years before the birth of the child, and married after finding out about the pregnancy.
They had planned to live together in Finland, but the mother wanted the child to be born in Japan. The couple returned to Finland together with their newborn.
When they soon travelled to Japan again at his then wife’s request, Tarvas flew home before his family for an entrance exam.
After their child's mother informed him that she was staying in Japan with the child, Tarvas was not able to reach her. He received help from Kaapatut Lapset Ry, the Finnish organization that helps parents and children in abduction cases and other similar cases. Kaapatut Lapset Ry contacted the correct authority, Consular Affairs Unit of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
"The unit was able to contact the mother of my daughter through the Japanese consulate."
Eventually, Tarvas went to Japan to meet his child with his own mother. Contrary to his expectations, they were able to arrange a meeting, and some sort of connection was established. The daughter visited Finland twice before the coronavirus pandemic.
However, contact has been intermittent. She is now thirteen and, contrary to his wishes, her father rarely hears from her.
"Tears come to my eyes every time I think of her."
Tarvas has not sought access to justice. The process would be long and the outcome uncertain.
For US citizen Jeffery Morehouse, even the Japanese court's decision didn't bring a child back, after his Japanese ex-spouse abducted his six-year-old son from the US to Japan in 2010.
Before the parents separated, the family had problems that left Morehouse with custody of the boy.
"She was still allowed to see our son, but the court order would have prevented her from holding his passport or travelling with him out of state," says Jeffery Morehouse of his status with his Japanese ex-wife.
On US Father's Day, 20 June 2010, Morehouse took his son to visit the mother by appointment,
"It was the last time I ever saw him."
According to Morehouse, the mother had obtained a passport for the child from the Japanese consulate in another state and disappeared with the boy to her home country.
In Japan, the mother sought custody of the boy in court. The court rejected Morehouse's ex-wife's claims for legal custody in 2014 and physical custody in 2017.
"However, the court ruled that because the mother has visitation rights, the situation where our son remains held by his mother was left intact," says Morehouse.
John Gomez, chairman of the Kizuna organization, says he knows of many other cases where a Japanese court ruling does not ultimately lead to the children being reunited or returned.
The courts have no power to enforce the right of access.
The European Parliament accused Japan of breaching international treaties in a resolution in July 2020, which was worked on by four organizations from different linguistic areas of the EU that assist in child abduction cases.
Björn Echternach from Germany was also involved. He says his wife abducted the couple's two sons to Japan in 2017.
According to Mr. Echternach, the children were ordered to be returned from Japan in September 2018. It was the first Hague Convention return order for children from an EU country. Despite this, Mr. Echternach has not seen his children for four and a half years.
"I don't even know if they are alive," says Echternach.
Tarvas, Morehouse and Echternach all speak of the ongoing trauma of losing contact. They are reminded of their child from various everyday things, which provokes a strong emotional reaction.
Above all, however, they stress the consequences of separation for the child.
"There is a huge body of research evidence that it is better for the child to have contact with both parents," says Echternach.
In Japan, this is beginning to be recognized, although it is being achieved in very small steps, says Kyosuke Morimoto. He is an IT professional who, through divorce and custody disputes, has become a volunteer helping broken families.
Morimoto recognizes the problems in the system and the need for change.
"In Japan, it is very easy to end up in a destructive divorce," says Morimoto.
He highlights the underlying factors: the movement for gender equality has not progressed in the same way as in the West, and there is a fear of losing face.
"In Japan, the man is still seen as the breadwinner and the woman as the caretaker of the home and children. Many also hold on to marriages for a long time because they are afraid of what divorce would look like in the eyes of others."
According to Morimoto, the idea of a father longing for his children is still relatively new in Japan. Joint custody has partly turned into a men's rights issue, driven by conservative parties.
"The only party that has put joint custody on its pamphlet is controversially the conservative party Japan Innovation Party [Nippon Ishin no Kai]," says Morimoto.
On the other hand, liberals and feminists have opposed shared custody, citing intimate partner violence.
"Some opponents of shared custody lump together all parents who have lost contact with their children into one violent group," says Morimoto.
A system for assessing incidents of domestic violence is completely lacking in Japan, said Professor Noriko Odagiri in the Washington Post.
Morimoto himself was constantly at work and otherwise away from home during his marriage. In the end, his wife took their two children to a new home without his knowledge.
The legal proceedings over custody were long and contentious, and also affected the children, whom Morimoto was allowed to see once a month.
After six years, however, the daughter has a room in both parents' homes and relations with the son have also improved.
"Even in this old-fashioned and divisive system, my ex-wife and I were finally able to come to an agreement."
Morimoto believes progress is possible but slow.
For international child abduction cases to Japan a total of 425 Hague Abduction Convention applications were filed with the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs between 2014 and 2020: 271 return applications and 154 applications for access rights. The Finnish Central Authority, Ministry of Justice, is aware of one application for access rights under the Hague Abduction Convention, which was later withdrawn.
The Organization for Abducted Children has four cases from 2013-2021 where a Finnish parent was denied access to a child who had been taken to or left behind in Japan.
The organization Japan Child Abduction, represented by Björn Echternach, represents 9 parents in German-speaking countries in Europe who have lost or fear losing contact with a total of 11 children.
The US Department of State reports several child abductions to Japan each year.
From the annual reports mentioned above, the US-based organization Bring Abducted Children Home has counted around 60 child abduction cases to Japan since 2014.
The same reports indicate that in 2020, a total of 68 abduction cases marked as "resolved" in Japan were not returned.
In total, more than 470 children have been abducted from the US to Japan, according to Bring Abducted Children Home based on US Government data.
According to the organizations, many cases are also not included in the statistics, for example, because of Japan settlement decisions, children coming of age and informal settlements between parents.
► Sources. Abducted Children Association, Björn Echternach, US Department of State, Bring Abducted Children Home.
Japan is bound by international agreements
UN Convention on the Rights of the Child or UNCRC
The agreement was ratified by Japan in 1994.
Articles 9 and 10 require respect for "the right of the child to maintain a personal relationship and direct contact with both parents on a regular basis", unless this is contrary to the best interests of the child.
The right also applies when the parents live in different states.
Applies to children under 18 years of age.
Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction or Hague Abduction Convention
Japan ratified the agreement in 2014.
Applies to cases where a child has been removed from his or her country of habitual residence to another country without authorization or is not being returned to his or her country of residence.
The parent can apply for the return of the child or arranging and securing the rights to access.
Does not take a position on child custody.
Applies to children under 16 years of age.
► Sources: Unicef, Hague Conference on Private International Law, Ministry of Justice of Finland
 Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare