Japan approves plan to join child custody pact

Japan's Cabinet approved a plan to join a global child custody treaty Friday, amid foreign pressure on Tokyo to revise policies some say allow Japanese mothers to too easily take their children away from foreign fathers.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan's Cabinet endorsed the move, which would spur changes in Japanese laws to bring them in line with the 1980 Hague Convention on international abduction, said Yusuke Asakura, an official at the Cabinet Office.

Japan is the only Group of Seven nation that hasn't signed the Hague pact. Asakura said the Cabinet plan must be approved by parliament for it to take effect, and it could face resistance there.

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

Japanese law allows only one parent to have custody of children in cases of divorce — nearly always the mother. That's kept some foreign fathers and many Japanese fathers from seeing their children until they are grown. Activists say Japan's court system is tilted against fathers and foreigners.

The Hague convention seeks to ensure that custody decisions are made by the courts in a child's original country of residence and that the rights of access of both parents are protected.

The issue gained attention in 2009, when American Christopher Savoie was arrested in Japan after his Japanese ex-wife accused him of abducting their two children as they walked to school. His ex-wife Noriko Savoie had violated a U.S. court's custody decision by taking the children from Tennessee to Japan.

Japanese prosecutors eventually dropped the case against Savoie.

Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives turned up the 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."

Steve Christie, a 51-year-old Californian who works in Tokyo as a university instructor, said he viewed the move as a positive step, but was skeptical anything would change.

"I'm not holding my breath. I'll believe it when it's actually a done deal and I see it," said Christie, whose wife took his 10-year-old son with her when she left him about six years ago. For three years, he didn't know where his son was.

Now Christie, who has since divorced, manages to see his teenage son occasionally, but is still pushing for Japan to allow joint custody and greater visitation rights.

"I see some major improvement under Justice Minister (Satsuki) Eda, but I still suspect there are deeply entrenched bureaucrats still with the old mindset, sort of like, 'What's the problem? There is no problem,'" he said.

According to the U.S. State Department, there were more than 100 active cases involving 140 children "abducted to or wrongfully retained in Japan as of January 2011."

The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo said there were an additional 31 cases in which both parents and the child or children live in Japan where one parent has been denied access to the kids.


Associated Press writer Malcolm Foster contributed to this report.