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The U.S. Japan child-custody spat

The U.S. Japan child-custody spat

While most recent news and commentary about Japan has understandably been focused on that country’s dramatic election results, the U.S. government has been quietly working on a parental-custody case that has become an irritant in the budding relationship between the new Japanese and American administrations.

State Department officials in Japan met yesterday with Christopher Savoie, an American citizen whose recent attempt to reassert custody of his children landed him in a Japanese prison under investigation for kidnapping.

The prospects are not good for Savoie. Local prosecutors in Fukuoka, the western Japanese prefecture where Savoie is being held, are nearing a deadline to decide what charges to bring against the Tennessee native, who traveled to Japan to take back the children his Japanese ex-wife Noriko absconded with in August. He faces deportation at best, five years in a claustrophobic Japanese prison at worst, and the chances that the Japanese legal system will ever grant him rights to see, much less be a parent to, his 8-year-old son Isaac and 6-year-old daughter Rebecca are slim to none.

State Department officials have been intimately involved in the Savoie case, even before Savoie traveled to Japan, but their ability to sway local Japanese officials is negligible. They point to Japan’s cultural and legal aversion to cooperating at all on international child-abduction cases, while expressing very cautious hope that the new Japanese government might relax that country’s famously intransigent stance on such issues.

In interviews with The Cable, three State Department officials detailed the extensive set of interactions between the U.S. government and Savoie and the ongoing efforts to advocate for him and the dozens of other Americans fighting custody battles in Japan.

Savoie’s communication and coordination with State began shortly after Noriko left for Japan with the children on Aug. 13, never to return. A longtime former resident of Japan, he knew what he what was up against and tried to plan a trip to Japan and then return to the United States with the children.

Even before Savoie traveled to Japan, he contacted the State Department’s Office for Citizen Services to ask for advice on how to get his children out of Japan. State Department officials advised Savoie that because a U.S. court had awarded him sole custody on Aug. 17, he could apply for new passports for the children if he could get them to the Fukuoka consulate.

On Sept. 28, Savoie drove alongside his ex-wife and children while they were walking to school, forced the children into his car, and headed for the consulate. By the time he got there, his wife had alerted the local police, who arrested him on the spot and placed him under investigation for "kidnapping minors by force," according to the officials.

U.S. consular officials met with Savoie the next day, gave him legal advice, and passed some messages back to his family in the States. Since then, State Department officials have brought up the Savoie case "at the highest levels" of their interactions with Japanese officials, including between the embassy in Tokyo and the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, officials said, but to no avail.

In addition to working with Savoie’s Japanese and American lawyers, consular officials also approached Savoie’s ex-wife after yesterday’s meeting and asked for permission to visit the children to check on their welfare. She declined. The embassy plans to ask the Tokyo government to compel her to make the children available, officials said.

Multiple units within the State Department have some activity ongoing in the Savoie case, including the Office of Children’s Issues, the section of the Office of Citizen’s Services that overseas Asia cases, the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, the consulate in Fukuoka, and even the East Asian and Pacific Bureau in Washington.

But since Japan is not a signatory to the Hague Convention on Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, which would have given jurisdiction to the American court system, there is little the U.S. government can do.

"Japan stands alone as the only G-7 country that is not a signatory to the convention," said one official, adding that even if the country had signed it, local laws in Japan would still have to be altered to allow implementation.

There are 82 outstanding child abduction cases in Japan, and U.S. officials are constantly trying to press the Japanese to change their approach. "Every time there is a meeting the issues get raised," one official said.

U.S. Amb. John Roos told reporters last week, "This is an important disagreement between our two countries."

But the State Department has said it is not aware of any case where the Japanese courts have returned a child abducted to Japan to the United States. And besides, Japanese cultural and legal norms often result in custody being assigned to one parent only, usually the mother.

But State Department officials point to an interview new Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama gave in July, where he said he supports signing the convention and giving fathers visitation rights.

"That issue affects not just foreign national fathers, but Japanese fathers as well. I believe in this change," Hatoyama said.

Back in Washington, New Jersey Congressman Chris Smith has called on Hatoyama to follow through with this promise. Supporters of Savoy staged a small protest at the Japanese Embassy in Washington on Monday.

The view from Foggy Bottom is one of very guarded optimism.

"We have received communications from the Japanese government through the embassy in Washington that they are seriously looking at it … we are very hopeful," one official said, adding, "At this point it’s wait and see."