updated 11 Feb 2010, 23:00
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Thu, Feb 11, 2010
The Yomiuri Shimbun/Asia News Network
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Japan - where some parents never see their kids

In Japan, a couple gets divorced every two minutes. There is also a growing number of conflicts resulting from breakups of couples from different countries.

This is the third and final installment in a series looking at some of the problems divorced parents face as they struggle to reunite with their children.

A new dispute has erupted over parent-child relations as murmurs spread in Western nations that Japan does not allow parents to see their children if they live apart from them after separation or divorce.

The primary school-age son of a 46-year-old company employee from the Tokai region has not returned to Japan since the boy went to see his father in the United States 1-1/2 years ago.

The woman, who asked not to be identified, began living separately from her husband five years ago. Based on an agreement signed by both of them, their son travels between the two countries every six months to visit each parent. In summer 2008, however, her son did not come back to Japan after six months, and she was unable to contact him or her husband.

She hired a lawyer in the United States and tried to contact her husband to get her son to return to Japan. Negotiations with her husband began recently, but he has strongly rejected any possibility of their son returning to Japan, saying that his son might never return to the United States since Japan is not a signatory of The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.

The convention stipulates that a child brought from one country to another by either parent without the consent of his or her spouse or former spouse is to be returned to the country of origin.

"I don't understand why my husband is doing this. He suddenly started keeping our son at his place. I've faithfully kept the visitation promises," the woman said. Her husband recently sent her a photograph of their son, who has grown since she last saw him.

"I was surprised to see the picture. I was like, 'Is this my son?' I realized how long it had been since I'd been with him," she said.

Lawyer Mikiko Otani, an expert on divorces between international couples, said signatory countries of The Hague Convention, such as the United States and European nations, are growing critical of Japan. Otani said there were several cases similar to the woman's, in which parents living outside Japan refused to have their children set foot in Japan because it had not signed the convention.

Otani said there were even cases in which a Japanese national could not sit down at the negotiating table with those from signatory countries "because it's thought there's no reason to discuss the matter with anyone from a country that refuses to allow parents to see their children."

"Japanese parents may be at a disadvantage if things are left this way," Otani said.

In one case, a Japanese woman asked her U.S. husband during their divorce suit while both of them were living in the United States to let her and their daughter go to Japan temporarily to see the woman's ailing father. After the husband refused and the lawsuit became prolonged, she took their daughter to Japan without the consent of her husband.

"He'd have allowed us to come to Japan if Japan had signed The Hague Convention. I also would have told him I was going back to Japan," she said.

This issue has been raised mainly by foreign nationals whose children have been brought to Japan by their Japanese spouses or former spouses and cannot get their children back. They say Japan not being a convention signatory poses a problem.

The United States and European nations have urged Japan to sign the convention by making the issue a diplomatic one.

Moves to have Japan sign the convention began accelerating in the country as the number of cases grows in which the Japanese side has been put in a disadvantage.

In response, the Foreign Ministry late last year set up an office to deal with parental rights issues with the aim of handling international child abductions. Since there also are cases in which children are brought to Japan for the purpose of saving them from child abuse, there are opinions that Japan should carefully examine the convention before signing it.

In 2008, there were about 37,000 international marriages in Japan, while about 19,000 international couples divorced, marking a nearly twofold increase from 10 years ago. Efforts of those involved are expected to continue to ensure better post-divorce parent-child relations as the march toward internationalization brings people with different systems and different values together.

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