Dozens of fathers say estranged spouses have used Japan as a safe haven after taking a child. On Wednesday, a group of congressmen, including New Jersey Republican Rep. Chris Smith, introduced a resolution calling on Japan to revamp its laws to allow parents to have access and visitation rights to children and to bring its family law system in compliance with international norms.
The State Department estimates that 121 American children are currently living in Japan under such circumstances.
"These American children are in Japan as a result of kidnapping. That's what we have to call it," said Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., a lead sponsor of the resolution, at a news conference Wednesday.
Last year, Tennessee resident Christopher Savoie was arrested after going to Japan to reclaim his two children. Savoie was released after about two weeks, and the case against him dropped. But the children remain in Japan.
Japan has refused to sign a 1980 international convention on child abduction. Japanese law allows only one parent to have custody in cases of divorce, almost always the mother. Activists say the court system there is tilted against fathers and foreigners.
The Japanese embassy issued a statement on Wednesday saying it is "aware and sympathetic to the plight of children and families who have been affected by unfortunate child custody issues involving Japanese and American citizens."
The statement says the government is considering joining the 1980 convention. The Japanese government has issued similar statements in the past.
Toland was living with his wife Etsuko and baby daughter Erika in 2003 in Navy family housing in Yokohama. His wife, suffering from depression, moved out and took Erika with her.
Toland pursued custody in the Japanese legal system and says a judge and attorneys laughed at him when he requested weekend visitation.
Toland was denied custody or visitation even after his wife committed suicide in 2007. Erika is cared for by Toland's mother-in-law.
"Japan's supposed to be an ally. How can another country do this to an ally?" asked Toland.