Japan’s Cabinet Submits Plan to Adopt Hague Treaty Regarding Child Custody

Today, Japan’s cabinet, under Prime Minister Naoto Kan, endorsed a plan to adopt the Hague Treaty regarding international child custody issues. The decision resulted from foreign pressure to revise policies which many critics have said favored Japanese mothers and allowed them to easily take children away from foreign fathers.

The adoption of the treaty will require changes in Japanese law to bring the country in line with the 1980 Hague Convention on international abduction, said Yusuke Asakura, an official at the Cabinet Office.

Japan is the only nation in the industrialized Group of Seven which hasn’t signed the Hague pact. Asakura said the Cabinet’s proposal must be adopted by Parliament for it to take effect, and there is concern there may be some resistance by members.

The United States, Britain, France and other countries have repeatedly urged Japan to join the Hague convention and recognize the international law.

Japanese law allows only one parent to have custody of children in divorce cases – nearly always the mother. The law has prevented many foreign fathers from seeing their children until they are grown. Japanese mothers living abroad have taken advantage of the law by returning to Japan in divorce proceedings – a move that is prohibited in countries which are parties to the Hague Treaty. Activists say Japan’s court system is biased against fathers and foreigners.

The Hague Treaty requires that custody decisions are made by the courts in a child’s original country of residence and ensures protection of both parents’ rights to equal access.

Japan’s failure to join the Hague convention has been an issue in other cases but most recently received significant media attention in 2009 when an American father, Christopher Savoie, was arrested and jailed in Japan after he attempted to retrieve his children from his ex-wife, Noriko Savoie, who had taken the children from Tennessee to her native Japan. Noriko had accused Christopher of abducting the children, despite the fact that he had been granted custody by the U.S. family court handling the parties’ divorce. Under Hague laws, custody decisions belonged in the children’s country of origin, the United States, and Noriko’s unauthorized move of the children to Japan was the actual abduction.

With the media flurry and public backlash, Japanese prosecutors eventually dropped the case against Christopher Savoie.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spoken out on a number of abduction cases involving children born in the US, including the Sean Goldman case in Brazil which ultimately resulted in the successful reunion of Sean with his father, after years of frustrating litigation and denials by the Brazilian government to comply with Hague. The publicity surrounding the Goldman and Savoie cases influenced the U.S. House of Representatives to apply more pressure on Japan by voting overwhelmingly for a nonbinding resolution that “condemns the abduction and retention” of children held in Japan “in violation of their human rights and United States and international law.” In the wake of the devastating earthquakes in Japan, and the nation’s need for international aid and support, it appears that the Japanese government may finally adopt the Hague Treaty.