Japan remains a haven for parental child abductions and a U.S. lawmaker Wednesday urged the Trump administration to do more to pressure the country to fulfill its obligations under international law.
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., said during congressional testimony that between 300 and 400 children of international marriages have been abducted from the U.S. to Japan since 1994, and that more than 35 are still awaiting reunification with their American parents.
“Every day these children are separated from their U.S. parent, the damage compounds,” Smith said before a Congressional subcommittee on global human rights. “We must do better. We must not leave any child behind.”
Under international pressure, in 2014 Japan signed The Hague Convention on International Child Abduction. The treaty requires the government to set up a process to allow foreign parents to appeal for visitation or return of their children. But Japan has been slack in administering the convention, according to Smith.
“How many of these children have come home four years later?” asked Smith. “How many even have access to their left behind parent now? Almost zero.”
James Cook, a Minnesota medical device specialist trying to gain custody of his four minor children from his estranged Japanese wife, also testified before Congress.
In July 2014, his Japanese wife Hitomi Arimitsu took their children to Japan to visit her family and refused to return. Cook submitted an application for return under the Hague treaty and the case has made its way through both the Japanese and American court system, but Cook has still not been able to see his children.
A Minnesota court ordered the return of Cook’s children in 2017, but the ruling wasn’t carried out in Japan.
A key issue is that Japan does not have a way of enforcing its Hague commitments. It requires the abducting parent to voluntarily turn the children over and doesn’t allow the use of force in extracting the children. There have been numerous cases of parents simply refusing to comply with the Hague rulings.
Cook’s wife petitioned a Japanese court against the ruling to return the children and it was overturned, a decision which Japan’s Supreme Court upheld in December 2017.
“[My wife] has achieved the perfect consequence-free abduction with the aid of Japan’s systemic non-compliance and [the US Department of State’s] inaction,” Cook said in his testimony.
“After over 2.5 years in this process, I have nothing,” he said. “This process has cost me everything.”
Attention to the issue within Japan has been growing in recent weeks. Last month, all EU Ambassadors to Japan signed an official letter of diplomatic protest to pressure Japan to follow international law and enforce decisions which give an international parent custody or visitation rights.
Also in March, Japan’s Supreme Court ruled that a Japanese mother who is refusing to return her child to their father in the United States is “illegally restraining” the child under the Hague Convention.
It was the first such ruling by a Japanese court.
The court ruling and international pressure are a cause for optimism, according to John Gomez, an American who is chairman of the Kizuna Child-Parent Reunion group in Japan.
Gomez said that barriers remain, including an underlying “continuity principle” in Japanese courts means that the abducted child stays with the abducting parent.
“Until the ‘continuity principle’ by which judges in Japan issue rulings is actually discarded and kidnapped children are returned, we must keep pushing to the utmost for the children to be returned to their loving parents,” said Gomez.
Rep. Smith said in his testimony that the State Department needs to apply more pressure on Japan and other countries that have refused to cooperate in returning abducted children. A 2014 law that Smith sponsored, the Goldman Act, requires the State Department to develop an agreement with Japan about children that had been abducted and to hold Japan accountable.
However, Smith said that no action has been taken against Japan for past or current cases, and the State Department hasn’t even listed Japan as “non-compliant” in its annual report on the Hague convention.
“We hope that the State Department will do its job and implement the Goldman Act,” Smith said. “We hope that the Trump Administration will be different than the last.”