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Up until now, international child abduction by a parent was easy. Oh, I know there's a United Nations convention that seeks to require signatory nations to return parentally abducted children to the country from which they were taken. And sometimes that convention works, albeit slowly. In the Sean Goldman case, for example, it took the father five years to get his son back from Brazil. But the easy part has always been taking the children to Japan. That's because Japan has never signed the Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. Add to that the fact that Japanese family courts routinely ignore fathers in deciding custody and you have what amounts to a safe haven for Japanese mothers who want to abduct their children. And many have. I've written on the subject several times over the past year.
Complaints have been growing over cases in which a Japanese parent, often a mother, brings an offspring to Japan without the consent of the foreign parent, or regardless of custody determination in other countries, and denies the other parent access to the child. Japan has come under pressure from the United States and European countries to join the 1980 treaty aimed at preventing one of the parents in a failed international marriage from taking their offspring across national borders against an existing child custody arrangement.
Now the Japanese government has announced that it is finally mending its ways. According to this article, it will both sign the Convention and enact laws that bring Japan into compliance with its provisions (Japan Times, 8/14/10). Will that end the rampant disregard of fathers' rights in Japan? No. Will it mean that a child abducted to Japan by its mother will automatically and timely be returned to its father? I seriously doubt it. After all, as the Goldman case clearly shows, the mere existence of a law may decide a case in the end, but how long does it take to reach that end? The clear intention of the law can be thwarted for years, during which children grow apart from their fathers and courts become ever more amenable to the idea that returning them would be too traumatic and damage existing bonds. Perhaps more importantly, Japan is considering changing its family laws relating to divorce and custody - just not the ones that matter.
For example, on parental rights, Japan's law gives a single parent full custody of children in a divorce, virtually allowing the custodial parent to take the children away without the consent of the noncustodial parent, while the United States and Europe nations allow joint custody. The Civil Code also does not mention visitation rights for noncustodial parents and many Japanese parents awarded custody are known to refuse the other parent access to the child.
Note the scrupulous use of gender-neutral language by the article. Reading it you might think that the "single parent" who receives "full custody" might possibly be the father. But you'd be kidding yourself. Well over 90% of child custody is given to mothers in Japan and, as the above quotation shows, that pretty much cuts dads out of their children's lives if the mother so decides. And apparently the government has no intention of changing that arrangement.
Many civic groups active on the issue are urging the government to amend the Civil Code to allow joint custody but the government is set to forgo such an amendment at this stage, the sources said.
So let's not break out the champagne just yet. Japan is promising to take a tentative step, if not into the 21st century, then perhaps toward the 19th. That's better than the alternative, but the time at which fathers are treated with equal respect and dignity by family laws and family courts is still a long time coming.

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