Children in Limbo: The Cruelty Of Single Parent Custody In Japan. In Japan, what happens to children after their parents divorce?
“There is no winner or loser, but the victims are always the children*,” said filmmaker David Hearn commenting on his recent documentary, From the Shadows, a work in progress.
After divorce, Japan’s family court grants the custody to one parent only. It is the rule of the “single parent,” or the single custody. In cases where a child is born to a couple, where one parent is a Japanese national, that child can be taken away by that Japanese parent–without the consent of the other parent.
We asked a famous legal expert, Colin P. A. Jones, Professor of Law at Doshisa University Law School in Kyoto, on how it is decided as to which parent has the custody in a divorce case.
His answer was as follows: “The starting point is that parents are free to decide custody. This is done in most cases, which are “uncontested divorce” (協議離婚/kyougi rikon). If the parents cannot agree on a divorce (or one of them doesn’t want to get a divorce), then they must go to family court and try to mediate their differences. This may result in a “divorce mediation” (調停離婚/choutei rikon) , in which case the parties will again agree on the custody arrangements, but they will have been “helped” by the court. 90% of divorces are resolved this way. If the parents are not able to agree upon a divorce or custody arrangements, then the court may issue a decree deciding physical custody. Physical custody determines who raises and educates the child, but is not a decision on legal custody, which cannot be awarded until the divorce proceedings are completed. If the parties continue their dispute there will be a divorce trial where the judge will decide on legal custody if he/she awards a divorce. However, if physical custody has already been decided, it would be exceptionally rare for a judge to award legal custody to someone different. Litigated divorces are a small minority of the cases, so situations where the judge takes responsibility for the decision as to what happens with the children are similarly rare.”
There is a presumption that parents are acting in the best interests of the child, but if they have a dispute then a court will decide.
Two months ago, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s cabinet agreed to sign the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspect of International Child Abduction. Admittedly, in the wake of the 3/11 disaster, the Japanese government has a lot of work on its agenda, however it is no excuse for neglecting to take action on this problem. It affects more than 58 % of the Japanese population, according to a report released by NHK in 2010. The Economist wrote recently: “Every year as many as 150,000 divorced parents in Japan lose contact with their children, according to estimates gleaned from official data. Some do so of their own accord, but most have no say in the matter.”
In April last year, Civil Code 766, which says “divorced parents have to arrange child visitations,” has been amended.
The International La Hague Convention is an international treaty signed by more than 80 countries, and Japan was the last G8 country to finally consider signing it: “We’re not yet there,” Professor Colin Jones says.
“Although Japan is a Buddhist country, the tremendously old fashioned laws denies visitation permits to the parent who is left behind. Buddhism never teaches people to fight a war for the right to be with their children,” says Rina Furuichi. She is a Japanese mother was left behind and became a Buddhist nun.
The Supreme Court decided to grant her a 3 hours visitation every month and 5 hours every April, August and December. Sometimes her husband and her husband’s family didn’t let her meet her child pretending that the child was sick. The court never rescheduled the visits. The husband decided himself that the visitation to the mother was becoming too complicated and inconvenient and therefore a 2 hours visit was “enough.” The court has no power to force the other parent to follow the requests given by “the left-behind parent.”
Mrs. Rina Furuichi got married in 2004, after she met her husband at her working place. The court acknowledged the divorce in early 2005. Her daughter is now seven years old, and the custody has been granted to her husband, who had “no particular trouble with regard to the child’s educational environment,” and because he could support the child better than she could. For two years, she was allowed to look after her child, alone, once a year, for 45 minutes, at the family court. Before that, she had to meet her child once every one or two months, in the presence of a lawyer or of a third party. Currently, she is allowed to meet her daughter “few times a month”, however, it was “officially decided by the family court,” that she could meet the child “for 3 hours each month.”
Mrs. Furuichi became a Buddhist nun in June 2011, after she has realized that it is a reality in Japan, that a separation within a couple means “separation with your own child.” Because she wanted to understand the psychology of children whose parents are in conflict, she decided to create a mediation group where visits and support can be exchanged. She wanted to create a group where divorced couples can still raise their children “in cooperation with a child care support,” if the couple has a some sense of trust remaining. Mrs. Furuichi says that parents should think about what is best for their children. She added that “unfortunately, parents who divorce have a strong feeling of anger against each other, it is very difficult for them to accept the separation.
In order to accept this hard reality, Mrs. Furuichi said she felt the importance of the Buddhist teachings.
“In Japan, meeting with your own child is not perceived as a part of the education of the child. Meeting your child for only three hours a month is totally insane!”
“At worse, some parents refuse to even meet their own children; this is Japan’s understanding of separation. The words ‘single mother’ and ‘single father’ comes from the fact that the parents do not raise their children together,” Mrs. Furuichi believes.
“This could be perceived as bullying the child, from the point of view of people who come from double custody states. I felt very ashamed of my own country.”
Mrs Furuichi says that there is many sorts of backgrounds and reasons for the couple to finally take the decision of divorce, however which parent is good or bad is not the main point. “Instead of choosing which parent can have the custody, we have to make sure the children don’t suffer from their parents’ fighting. We have to find a solution for that,” she said. “The necessary condition for joint custody is the awareness of not being a couple anymore, and the capacity to treat the other with the same courtesy and respect, as human beings. We should act without hurting each other, for the sake of our children.”
According to some legal experts, the Japanese court never takes into account the psychological state of the children themselves, who end up becoming the victims of the system. The health care system for children and the laws, which protect them in case their parents divorce, are very old fashioned and have not been revised for 50 years.
Professor Colin P. A. Jones claims that in most countries the law provides guidelines for courts as to how ensure the best interests of the children are realized (visitation, joint custody, etc.). But in Japan it is reversed, with only parents being told to act in the best interests of the child but courts are not given any guidance in what constitutes the best interests of the child. “Courts use their own internal guidelines, but these are not made public.” (Professor Jones).
He also said that other countries generally “have a presumption that continued and frequent contact between a child and both parents is in the child’s best interests. Japan lacks such a notion in any statutory guidelines.”
“I think it is great that Japan will sign the Hague Convention, but I am not sure if it will make much difference,” Professor Jones said.
Some Japanese officials argue that, “the Japanese perceptions of marriage and family, and the legal framework for them, are very different from those of other countries.” They also say that “the circumstances of Japanese women who come back to Japan with their children to escape abusive partners in other countries need to be taken into account,” according to a report by NHK.
At a meeting in Tokyo on this issue on April 9th, which brought together many victims of child abduction, Joey, a 14-year-old boy talked to the audience. His Japanese father has abducted him in Tokyo when he was 9 years old, after his American mother and his Japanese father had divorced. His father told him: “You will never see your mother again.”
Joey went to visit his father one afternoon, like he did usually with his sister, however that day he went to his father’s place alone and the next time he was able to see his mother was at the family court and in the presence of lawyers. Joey said he felt “very uncomfortable” and didn’t like the attitude of his father, but he couldn’t hate him either. “I wanted to be with my mother, but I was only allowed to see her for 20 minutes, at the court. When I was taken away again after that meeting, I was scared of my dad.” He added that he was very confused by his father’s attitude, and did not understand why he did not let him see his mother again. “When I was sent back to my mother, I felt very happy again. I agreed to meet my father even after what he did. I was very afraid to meet him again, but after I met him, I felt relieved.
A child psychologist who also participated in the meeting, Dr. Akiko J. Ohnogi, explained what being abducted by your own parent means: “Whoever your parent is, for a child, both are the most important beings in the world, whether one or the other is unstable.” According to her, it is very important that both parents have an involvement in the child’s life. The reason for this is because children tend to think that if one parent is not there anymore, it is because they are “unlovable” or “abandoned.” Their self-esteem goes down, and they start to believe that they are responsible for being “abandoned” by their parents. When an abduction occurs, the feeling of safety, the fear of being abandoned, all the mixed feelings go “out of control” for the child, and “it has an impact on their lives.” “Children cannot trust themselves, when they are abducted, or when their parents divorce,” she added. Dr. Akiko Ohnogi said that many times she felt she was “feared” by small abducted children she has talked to, because most of the time, it is the Japanese mother who tends to abduct the child from her foreign ex-husband. She noticed that these children tend to be “reluctant to talk with Asian adult women.” The most difficult feeling to cope with, in case of abduction, is the feeling of hatred and love toward the “taking parent.” The feeling that the child develops is: “I hate myself because I cannot deal with this problem.”
After the discussions, what came out of the meeting overall was that the issue should be studied more deeply and more internationally. The Japanese and the foreign nationals should overcome language and cultural barriers.
Mr. Seiji Tashima (61) is an unusual case. He met his Russian wife on a meeting website called SenseiSagasu.com because he wanted to learn the Russian language and married her in 2006. According to him, Alexandra told him she has never been married before, however, he discovered after she disappeared, that she had been married to a rich man called Yoshikazu Ninobe in 2003 and divorced him in 2005. The reason for the divorce, acknowledged by the court, was that she wanted to go back to her country. However she remained in Japan. Mr. Tashima married her in 2006, and their daughter Tamami Tashima was born in 2008. The small family lived altogether during one year and 3 months only. In 2009, Alexandra, according to Mr. Tashima, “tricked” him, and “disappeared” from Hiroshima, with their daughter. At this point, Alexandra was accused of child abduction by the criminal courts, but the prosecution was suspended. However, she was granted the custody of their child because she claimed to the police that she was a victim of domestic violence. In Japan, the police handle cases of domestic violence, whether the claim is true or false. “Therefore many people in Japan use this ‘trick’ to get rid of their partners and take way their children,” Mr. Tashima said. At the family court, Alexandra said that she demanded divorce “because she did not feel tenderness for her husband anymore,” he explained. Seiji Tashima’s daughter is now four years old, and had many times told him that her mother left her alone very often, and hit her feet with her fists very often. The reason why the police do not listen to Mr. Tashima’s side of the story is because “there is no danger of murder” in this case, they told Mr. Tashima.
“All I want is to be able to see my daughter grow up.” “I feel angry because I was tricked, when my wife took my daughter away. I have been fighting for my rights as a father for more than 3 years now.”
Tamami Tashima, age 4, lives currently in Japan with her mother, however her father is not allowed to meet them, and he has no right to even know which kindergarten she attends. All he recalls is that he heard his daughter telling him over the telephone that she “wished to see mother, but she wanted to live with her father every day.” Alexandra currently seems to earn money by letting Tamami work as a child model.
Author’s note: It is very difficult to cover two or more sides of the stories in each of the cases we have discussed here, because very often one party does not wish to comment or take interviews with the media. Thank you.