TOKYO (AP) - Steve Christie cannot see his son because his Japanese ex-wife has sole custody, a typical arrangement in Japan. He is one of about 70 American parents in that position, and the U.S. warned Tokyo on Tuesday that it must revise its family laws or risk hurting ties between the two longtime allies.
Laws that allow only one parent to have custody of children in
cases of divorce - nearly always the mother - set Japan apart from
most other developed countries. They also leave most fathers,
including foreigners, unable to see their children until they are
"This matter has raised very real concerns among senior and
prominent Americans in Congress, on Capitol Hill and elsewhere,"
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell told reporters in
Tokyo after meeting with affected American parents in Japan. He
called their predicament "heartbreaking."
Campbell's comments are the sternest warning yet from Washington
on the issue and signal that it has risen on the U.S. government's
priority list - at a time when ties are already strained by a
dispute over moving a U.S. Marine base on the Japanese island of
"It's been striking to me at how rapidly this issue has gained
support in Congress," he said.
While affirming the importance of Washington's ties with Tokyo,
Campbell said Japan needs to take steps to "avoid a situation
where this in any way complicates the smooth running and the
important nature of our overall strategic relationship."
In some cases, when marriages have soured, Japanese mothers
living overseas with their foreign husbands have returned home with
their children and kept the fathers from having any contact with
the kids, even if court rulings abroad ordered joint custody - an
act Campbell likened to "kidnapping."
The issue gained attention last fall when American Christopher
Savoie, whose Japanese ex-wife Noriko fled Tennessee with their
kids without telling him or getting court permission. Savoie was
arrested last fall after he snatched the children from her on a
He was eventually released and allowed to return to the U.S. on
condition he leave his children behind even though a U.S. court
gave him full custody of the kids when Noriko fled.
The new priority placed on the matter by Washington is welcomed
by Christie, an American university instructor in Japan who met
with Campbell Tuesday. He has rarely seen his son since his wife,
with whom he has since divorced, suddenly left with the boy four
years ago. The first three years, he had no idea where his son was,
"This is our life and blood, this is our offspring, and we're
being denied a chance to see them," said Christie, 50. "It's not
right, it's immoral, it's unethical. What amazes me is for how long
it's been going on in this country."
Japanese fathers are largely resigned to this setup because of
the cultural assumption that kids should be raised by mothers,
although some are starting to push for changes to Japanese family
law to allow joint custody.
Campbell urged that Japan join the Hague Convention on
International Child Abduction, signed by 80 nations, which is meant
to address international custody battles, adding to recent pressure
from Britain, Australia, France and several other countries.
Japan is the only Group of Seven nation that hasn't signed the
convention, arguing that it could endanger Japanese women and their
children trying to flee abusive foreign husbands.
But Campbell said that based on U.S. examination of
international custody cases, "that allegation is used very loosely
and often inappropriately without any supporting criteria
Kazuaki Kameda, who heads a department of child custody issues
set up at the Foreign Ministry in December, declined to comment on
During his meeting with the American "left-behind" parents, as
they call themselves, Campbell said that if Japan didn't make
changes within four months on the issue, Washington would ratchet
up the pressure on the Japanese government, Christie said.
"He said that we should be expecting changes, and that if we
don't see significant changes, more actions will be taken,"
U.S. Embassy officials declined to confirm Campbell's comments,
but the secretary said he raised the issue with Japanese
counterparts Tuesday, and said he sensed a recognition in Tokyo's
new government, which replaced the long-ruling conservatives last
fall, that steps needed to be taken. He said the two countries had
set up a series of meetings to address the issue.
"Japan's new leadership is willing to look at these things in a
new light," he said.
Christie said he was encouraged that Washington was taking up
the issue more seriously.
"We're hopeful now because we're getting a much more
appropriate response from our government," he said.