Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE on Savoie Child Abduction Case and Japan’s “Disappeared Dads”


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Hi Blog. Here’s the JT version of my column with links to sources. Arudou Debito in Sapporo
The Japan Times, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2009
Savoie case shines spotlight on Japan’s ‘disappeared dads’


Making international (and to a lesser extent, national) news recently has been the Savoie child abduction case. Briefly: After a couple divorced in America, ex-wife Noriko Savoie absconded with their children to Japan. Then ex-husband Christopher, who had been awarded custody in the U.S., came to Japan to take the kids back. On Sept. 28 he tried to get the children into the American Consulate in Fukuoka, but was barred entry and arrested by the Japanese police for kidnapping.

The case is messy (few divorces aren’t), and I haven’t space here to deal with the minutia (e.g. Christopher’s quick remarriage, Noriko’s $800,000 divorce award and ban on international travel, both parents’ dual U.S.-Japan citizenship , etc.). Please read up online.

So let’s go beyond that and focus on how this case highlights why Japan must make fundamental promises and reforms.

In Japan, divorce means that one side (usually the father) can lose all contact with the kids. Thanks to the koseki family registry system, Japan has no joint custody (because you can’t put a child on two people’s koseki). Meanwhile, visitation rights, even if mandated by family court, are unenforceable. This happens in Japan regardless of nationality. (I speak from personal experience: I too am divorced, and have zero contact with my children. I’ve seen one of my daughters only once over the past five years.)

Standard operating procedure is the three Ds: Divorced Daddy Disappears. Add an international dimension to the marriage and it’s stunningly difficult for a non-Japanese parent of either gender to gain child custody (as foreigners, by definition, don’t have a koseki). Add a transnational dimension and the kids are gone: Many left-behind parents overseas receive no communication whatsoever until the children become adults.

There is no recourse. Although Japan has ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), it has not signed the Hague Convention on Child Abductions (the only holdout among the G7 developed countries). If brought to trial in Japan, our judges do not honor overseas court orders granting custody to the non-Japanese parent. In fact, according to the documentary “From the Shadows,” an estimated 300 such children are abducted to or within Japan each year, and none has ever been returned by Japanese authorities to a foreign parent.

Until now this issue received scant media attention. However, with the Savoie case, Japan has earned a worldwide reputation as a safe haven for abductions. This is, given the inhuman North Korean kidnappings of Japanese, an ironic position to be in.

Before we get relativistic, be advised there is no comity here. Although few (I know of none) foreigners have ever won repatriation rights or even custody in Japanese courts, the converse is not true in, for example, American courts. The U.S. recognizes the Hague-mandated concept of “habitual residence,” even if that doesn’t mean America. The most famous abduction-then-repatriation case involved Elian Gonzalez from Cuba.

According to court transcripts, Noriko Savoie did have a fair hearing abroad. The judge heard her out, believed her sworn testimony that she would not abduct the kids, and lifted the restraining order against her. She and the kids could travel to Japan briefly to explore their Japanese heritage.

Then Noriko broke her oath. And Christopher boarded a plane.

The point: Regardless of any extenuating circumstances in this messy affair, the lack of a post-divorce legal framework to prevent abductions, secure joint custody and guarantee visitation rights forced Christopher to take the law into his own hands.

Needless to say it’s the children that get hurt the most in this tug of war. If Japan’s policymakers would secure the right of the child to know both their parents and heritages, this nonsense would cease.

But as with all social problems left to fester, things are only getting worse. U.S. Congressman Chris Smith announced Sept. 29 that reported child abductions have increased “60 percent in the last three years.” No doubt contributing to this rise is the grapevine effect among expat Japanese — a quick Web search shows that all a potential abductor needs do is board a plane to Japan and they’re scot-free.

Injustice breeds drastic actions. How long before a vigilante parent takes the law so far that somebody gets injured or killed?

Japan wants to avoid a demographic nightmare as its population drops. International marriage is one solution. But this threat of abduction is now a prime deterrent to marrying any Japanese. One domestic spat with a threat to kidnap the kids and conjugal trust is permanently destroyed.

But just signing the Hague convention won’t fix things. Japan has, after all, inked umpteen international treaties (like the above-mentioned UNCRC), and ignores them by not enacting enforceable domestic laws. I don’t anticipate any exception here: Japan giving more parental rights to non-Japanese through treaties than they would their own citizens? Inconceivable.

What’s necessary is more radical: Abolish the koseki system so that legal ties can extend to both parents regardless of nationality after divorce. In addition, our authorities must create more professional domestic-dispute enforcement and mediation mechanisms (consider the farcical chotei pre-divorce process).

Inevitable problems arise in that complicated institution called marriage. Anyone, including Japanese, must have recourse, remedy and redress. Without it people will take matters into their own hands.

There are plenty of times when adults just won’t act like adults. But their children should not have to suffer for it.

Reforms are necessary not just to prevent future cases like the Savoies’; Japan also needs more secure family laws for its own long-suffering, disappeared Japanese parents.


Debito Arudou coauthored the “Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants and Immigrants.” Twitter arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month.

BONUS STATISTICS, Courtesy of RedJoe the Lawyer:

In [Japan] divorces finalized in 2007, fathers got custody 15% of the time, while women got custody 81% of the time. So the system is clearly biased, but men win in a significant (if not fair) number of cases. Interestingly, men used to get custody more often than women. The sexes reached parity in the late 60s and women reached their current ~80% success rate around 2000. Stats are here: http://www.e-stat.go.jp/SG1/estat/List.do?lid=000001032162

US Census figures from 2004 (http://www.census.gov/prod/2008pubs/p70-114.pdf):
58.3% of kids live with both married parents
29.5% live with their mother but not their father

4.7% live with their father but not their mother

Granted, a lot of single-mother families in the US are not formed by a divorce, but rather by the father being incarcerated. Still, that doesn’t account for a 25 percentage point difference across the whole population.


25 comments on “Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE on Savoie Child Abduction Case and Japan’s “Disappeared Dads”

  • RedJoe’s Japan data don’t show how often GAIJIN (or naturalized Japanese) fathers are awarded custody. Betcha that number’s a lot lower than 15%.

    Also, the issue is not so much custody as it is enforceable visitation rights. I am sure a lot of the divorced dads out there would be able to handle the pain of losing custody of their kids if only they were allowed to visit them regularly. In Japan, they may not get to ever see their kids again until the kids reach the age of majority.

  • Here’s something that would be of vital importance to the fight against the unjust nature of parental custody law in Japan:

    How do the abducted children actually grow in these conditions?

    Judges do what they do because they say:

    “It’s for the good of the children”

    They ‘know’ it’s for the good of the children because ‘society’ says so – there seem to be no evidence of check-ups by legal authorities.

    But how many abductees end up as Hikikomoris? Freeters? How many kill themselves? How many are abused in their ‘perfect environment’?

  • great story debito, too bad it wont be translated and put in a japanese newspaper where it needs to be. see we get it, but they dont.

  • There has been a lot of talk/complaining about how NJ can’t get a fair shot at child custody in Japanese courts. While the anecdotal evidence seems clear I wonder if there is any data out there on the largest J/NJ married group and how custody is split up after they divorce. I am speaking of course of J men and NJ women particularly from China/Korea/Philippines. I have to imagine that their divorce rate would be similar to NJ men J women so has anyone managed to compile any research on how the two groups compare?

  • I have always been curios as to what happens overall to the children that are abducted by their mothers? I am referring to the acclimation process. How long do these women stay underground on average before it is “safe” to resurface? Also, is there a certain time frame or limitation as to when the children need to register for school? Are they checked by social services? If anyone has any data about these questions, please let me know.

  • Regarding comment #4 above, I also would be interested to see custody stats on J-NJ divorces. I knew an American woman who had custody of her son here, although as far as I know the Japanese father didn’t WANT custody in that case. The child was still probably on his father’s koseki and I don’t know what her rights would have been if the father had decided he wanted his son back, but at least when I worked with her, her son lived with her and did not see his father much.

    I wonder as well, in how many of the 81% of cases in which the mother got custody did the father actually FIGHT for custody? I don’t know many divorced women in Japan, but the few that I do know ALL have custody of their children, and none of them even made it to the chotei stage of divorce, they just put their hanko on the paperwork and took the kids, and dad was either okay with that, or just resigned to it. Of course it’s hard to turn emotions into statistics, we can’t come up with a definite number of apathetic dads vs. dad who wish they could have custody but don’t think they have a shot and give up, vs. dads who tried to get cutody and failed.

  • I thought the article was strong on the ‘Disappeared Dads’ argument but weak on the Savoie side. I think it would have come off better if it hadn’t sort of tried to argue both at the same time.

  • Hi Frodis,
    Let me try to elaborate something you might know.
    I believe most of ppl who are aware of this kind of issue already know the root cause of these disasters, which is the injustice/unfair 19th century Japanese family law. For years, japanese kids are used to the life without dad after divorce, and few ppl feel the pain of the kids felt. That is why we see to have affair outside marriage is tolerant by wives, as long as he brings the paycheck every month.

    We have seen and read so many Savoie’s cases already and it is time to deal with the root cause ,to urge Japan join the civilized industry world, not only material wise, but more human rights and morality.

  • Kakui Kujira says:

    I did not realise how lucky I am. My ex-wife is, admittedly by my own account, a horrible person, but at least she let’s me see my boys!

  • Ray,

    I don’t get your point. Sorry. I said I thought the article was good on the underlying issues and not so good in relation to Debito’s take on the Savoie case and you attempt to school me on the underlying issues. What is the point you are trying to make with me that you feel I obviously didn’t get?

  • I think this topic shows how the Japanese government is quick to please the international political arena, but it shows how far behind they are at following up such policies on their domestic side. This topic brings to light so many other issues that are affecting mostly foreigners living in Japan.

    Japan should seriously consider how it’s domestic issues are tainting their international reputation. Such issues if addressed would do heaps of good for everyone involved here.

  • Responding to Joek,

    I don’t think the Japanese government (Jiminto up until last month), has been “quick to please” the international community at all.

    My feeling is that Japan signs international treaties and then promptly ignores them. But it by no means rushes to sign anything that can be construed as disadvantageous or a submission, so to speak, to foreigners. The old regime hadn’t quite gotten over September 2, 1945 (when they gave it all up except the Emperor.)

    The good this news is doing is that its creating an environment that the Japan’s Children Rights Network, that I blog about today
    http://wp.me/pAT5P-Ut . The people behind that group have been on the issue for years now, and more than the Savoies, I feel they deserve attention about how the overall issue endures.

    I agree that more attention should be given to how these matters play out in reporting in other arenas. But I think that’s one of the satisfactions,/i> to the Old Guard within Japan. They get to say, “see, we’re spiting these international conventions that do no benefit to Great Japan!”

  • Since the mother fled the US in contravention of an agreement with the judge, I suppose it’s possible he will issue a bench warrant for her arrest for contempt of court. I’d like to see what the local police will do then!

    — Local police where? If you mean Japan, nothing.

  • It would be nice if factual errors and distortions of logic were not needed to drive home a point about how screwed up Japan is…

    1. Noriko Savoie is not a US citizen, she was (not sure about her status now) a permanent resident. It doesn’t make a big difference but in this case only Christopher Savoie took on a second nationality when legally required to drop his previous nationality. In addition, I don’t think what either of them did was right but it could be argued that she broke the law of a country she wasn’t a citizen of while he broke the law of a country in which he was. He tried to get into the Consulate but they wouldn’t let him in. He wasn’t blocked by the police he was turned away by the Consulate guards.

    2. You say it’s ironic that Japan allows parental abductions when they have had citizens abducted by North Korea? How is that ironic at all? North Korea did not have anything to do with birthing or bringing up the children it took from Japan. They were snatched from the street, not taken while in the custody of a parent. It’s more ironic (not particularly ironic, just more than your example) that the United States protests Japan following its own family laws when the US allows its citizens to keep their citizenship when according to Japanese law they were supposed to revoke it.

    3. It would be nice to see some facts to back up the claim that parental abductions have jumped 60% in the last 3 years. As we all know, a politician saying it doesn’t make it true.

    4. “She and the kids could travel to Japan briefly to explore their Japanese heritage.” Explore their Japanese heritage? They grew up in Japan. They’d been in the United States for a year. This kind of statement propagates the mistaken notion that this was their “home”.

    You say the case is messy and you don’t have the time to get into the details, but you did have the time to mention things (some accurate, some not) that make her out to be the bad guy. While she broke US law (and he broke Japanese law) and took her kids to Japan without notifying the father (coming from a broken home I don’t think that was right) there is no reason to try to make a point with incorrect information and generalizations.

    — Read the source materials more closely (I linked to them). Not to mention my article more carefully, please.

  • Dunno if anyone saw or posted this yet, but there was an interesting Yahoo article this morning. It’s mostly about J fathers but mentions the Savoie case, as well. J and NJ “disappeared dads” should work together on this issue:

    Divorced fathers in Japan fight to see children

    TOKYO – On Christmas Eve two years ago, Masahiro Yoshida returned to his home to find it empty. His wife had fled with their 2-year-old daughter, seeking a divorce.

    Since then, he’s rarely seen his child because Japanese law grants custody to only one parent — almost always the mother. His wife has refused to allow him regular visits, accusing him of emotional swings and past verbal and sometimes physical abuse.

    Yoshida, a 58-year-old musician, is among a small but growing number of divorced or separated fathers who have turned to the courts to get custody, or at least gain a right to see their children. More broadly, many are demanding a change in Japanese law to allow joint custody, as is the case in most developed countries.

    “I think about my daughter all the time. I can’t believe the courts allow this,” said Yoshida, who admits hitting his wife twice but otherwise denies her claims. “This is a country that allows kidnapping.”

    The law was thrown into the international spotlight last week when an American was arrested for allegedly snatching his children from his Japanese ex-wife as they walked to school in southern Japan. Christopher Savoie, a 38-year-old Tennessee man, remains in custody in the city of Fukuoka while prosecutors decide whether to press charges.

    His case has received little attention in Japan, a reflection of how widely accepted it is that young children should remain with their mother in divorces or separations. The law doesn’t explicitly say mothers should get custody — only that one parent should, and by cultural default, that’s the mother.

    “In Japan, nobody thinks it’s a problem if a mother takes away her children without consent,” said Hideki Tani, a lawyer who has taken on cases of fathers seeking access to their children. “Here, it’s common for either parent to completely lose contact with children, but people outside Japan find it outrageous.”

    Tani did acknowledge a need to address problems like domestic violence that can contribute to broken families.

    Lately, the number of custody battles has risen as overall divorce cases have climbed and more men have become involved in child-rearing and homemaking. Divorced men also say that children should have a right to see their fathers — and that too often the kids’ interests are neglected.

    “Nobody thinks about children’s well-being,” Yoshida said. “They are the victims.”

    Last year, there were more than 20,000 child custody cases in Japanese family courts, up from less than 17,000 in 2000, Ministry of Justice statistics show. About 90 percent of those decisions favored the mothers — as in Yoshida’s case.

    In December, a court ruled against his petition for custody of — or rights to visit — his daughter, now 4, who lives with his ex-wife and her parents.

    “I’m outraged by a society that allows this,” Yoshida said.

    His ex-wife, Akemi Kurahashi, 44, says she left Yoshida because she and her child needed legal protection from an abusive husband. She says most of it was verbal, but that once her eardrum burst when he hit her.

    She twice left Yoshida, but returned when he begged and apologized, she said. Worn down, she eventually fled with their daughter that Christmas Eve when he was out performing with his jazz band.

    Kurahashi says she is willing to consider letting him visit once a month on the condition he is emotionally stable and the visit takes place in public and in her presence. She is even open to the principle of joint custody in Japan, though she said the law must guarantee protection against domestic violence.

    “I will swallow my own feelings if my daughter is happy seeing her dad,” she said. “But I still fear he may end up hurting me or her someday.”

    There have also been a few cases of fathers forcibly keeping children away from their ex-wives. In June, a 48-year-old man was arrested in Tochigi prefecture, northeast of Tokyo, after refusing to hand over his 3-year-old son to his wife, who had left them, despite a court decision that the son should be legally in the care of his former wife.

    Yoshida has banded together with other divorced fathers to form a support group, one of several that have sprung up in recent years.

    A few lawyers and lawmakers have showed support for their cause. A bar association group is studying parenting and visitation arrangements in other countries such as Australia.

    Japan also faces a growing number of international custody disputes. The U.S., Britain, France and Canada have urged Japan to sign the 1980 Hague Convention on International Child Abduction, which has been signed by 80 countries. It seeks to standardize laws among participating countries to ensure that custody decisions can be made by appropriate courts and protect the rights of access of both parents.

    Japan’s government has argued that signing the convention may not protect Japanese women and their children from abusive foreign husbands. Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada said this week that officials were reviewing the matter.

    Divorced fathers say that joining the Hague convention would be a major step toward bringing the possibility of joint custody to Japan because it would require a major overhaul of the country’s family laws.

    “For us it’s not a diplomatic issue. It’s a problem at home that Japan should correct,” said Mitsuru Munakata, a 34-year-old freelance writer who has seen his 3-year-old daughter only twice in the last two years.

    Although he recently won court permission for a two-hour meeting with his daughter every other month, he is concerned because his ex-partner is now remarried — and if she dies the custody right would go to her new husband.

    “Then I’m totally out of the picture,” Munakata said. “When I have an urge to see my daughter, I worry that I might get arrested someday.”

  • Just saw this on the Mainichi Daily, “Divorced fathers in Japan fight to see children” http://mdn.mainichi.jp/mdnnews/news/20091008p2g00m0dm002000c.html

    TOKYO (AP) — On Christmas Eve two years ago, Masahiro Yoshida returned to his home to find it empty. His wife had fled with their 2-year-old daughter, seeking a divorce.

    (snip, this article was posted here earlier today; the fact that it hit the Mainichi is good news)

    (Mainichi Japan) October 8, 2009

  • Eamon,
    The children have duel nationality, as the father is an American, so japan is part of their culture and heritage, just as the US is.You are playing on words.Poor form and it goes against the goodwill that the judge was showing.( I don’t think a Japanese judge would pass the same judgment,would you?)Their home is where the family/ caregiver is,and the judge ruled that that is in the US.
    The point Debito is making is how can japan take the high road on kidnapping regarding its nationals, and yet allow Japanese to kidnap their children against the laws of the country they reside in. I think the pot calling the kettle black comes to mind.

  • “Read the source materials more closely (I linked to them). Not to mention my article more carefully, please”

    I DID read the source materials. Before I found my way here in fact. I’ve read court transcripts, and articles from pretty much every source I can find on this issue. It would be nice if you pointed out what in my comment was inaccurate compared to either the source or your article. I completely understand what you are saying in your article. But a lot of people take what you write as the truth without looking into it themselves. My 1st and 3rd points were factual errors. You link to sources that are incorrect or don’t back up their assertions. Once again just because a politician says it’s so doesn’t make it so. My 2nd and 4th were about generalizations and misconstruing of details.

    I agree completely that the law should change in Japan. I don’t agree that it is OK to use factual errors and generalizations to rile emotions.

    — 1) a) CNN said Noriko was a dual national, if you’d follow the provided link. The error, if any, is theirs first, made at the time I was writing this article. Take it up with CNN and get it corrected if it is incorrect.

    b) Add a comma (which was taken out in the editing process) between “but was barred entry, and was arrested by the Japanese police”). He was barred entry. And he was arrested.

    2) It is ironic. That is my opinion.

    3) That is the claim made by a public official on the public record, whom I assume did his homework. If you have an issue with it, take it up with the source. If that source is proven incorrect, I will issue a correction. How can you claim it is a factual error when you have no proof that it is?

    4) Read the court transcript, as that is the context of the paragraph. I am quoting the judge’s opinion when he lifted Noriko’s restraining order (pp 119-120).

    Again, as I said, read my article and the source materials more carefully. And make fewer assumptions and quibbles.

  • Finally I saw this on Japanese news this Evening to my surprise when I was passing the TV section in my local Best Denki here in Fukuoka. At about 6:30pm it was on a news program, It ran for about 10min or more complete with little illustrations about dual custody in the U.S. and one parent in Japan. It Showed all the parties involved, but only Mr.Savoie’s was not blurred out the rest were, I had no Idea if it told the truth or something else.

  • Just about to leave for work, but I saw on CNN that Savoie’s lawyer is accusing Japanese police of depriving his client of sleep and health care and that this amounts to torture. Seems like just another day for the Japanese police.

  • Eamon,

    Regarding Noriko’s US citizenship, as Debito already pointed out, this is according to CNN. There is conflicting or at least unequal accounts in the media coverage so it is hard to be sure either way. Precise details may also be lost in interpretation between two different languages as well.

    But this is a type of error that I have personally run into many times, at least in Japan. There are three major categorizes:
    1) Common belief that permanent residency (永住権) or the US greencard is equivalent to naturalization (帰化).
    2) Common believe that marrying a Japanese citizen automatically gets to permanent residency and hence naturalization.
    3) Common belief that foreigners whose name is in kanji (->registered alias) have naturalized.

    Needless to say here that none of these are true, but I have had countless conversations with Japanese friends and colleagues who believed otherwise. But then it is a little much to expect your average citizen who has not gone through immigrations to fully understand all of these things. I certainly do not know too much about US immigration.

    Perhaps there is similar confusion and misinformation occurring in the media as well.


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