Walter Benda had no inkling of what was to happen after he and his Japanese wife and their two small daughters moved from Minnesota to Tokyo in 1992.
Three years later, Mr. Benda returned home from his job at a trading company one evening to find his wife and children gone. For the next three-and-a half-years he had no idea of their whereabouts. He did not know it then, but his wife had taken their daughters, then aged 6 and 4, effectively ending their 13-year-marriage and Benda's relationship with his children.
Benda is one of hundreds of foreign spouses of Japanese citizens who -- after a marriage breaks down -- are denied all access to their children.
But now after years of pressure from "left-behind" parents, human rights activists, and several governments, Japan's parliament on Wednesday unanimously approved a bill paving the way to join the 1980 Hague convention on international child abductions. That brings Japan in line with 89 other signatories. With the unanimous agreement, Japan is expected to become a signatory by the end of March 2014.
Under the treaty, children under 16 who are taken away by one parent after a failed marriage must be returned to the country in which they normally live, if action is requested by the other parent. It also protects the access rights of both parents.
"I have never had a scheduled face-to-face meeting with my daughters since they were abducted and have not been able to communicate with them by phone or online," Benda told the Monitor. "I have mailed them hundreds of letters, cards, and gifts over the years, but have never received a personal reply."
During his search for his family, Benda received no help from the Japanese police and authorities. He took his case all the way to the Japanese Supreme Court, without success. Unable to find a new sponsor for his visa, he was forced to return empty-handed to the US, where a federal grand jury indicted his wife, in absentia, on charges of international parental abduction.
"Even though US law enforcement authorities have sought the return of my ex-wife to face the international parental kidnapping charge in the US, the Japanese police authorities refuse to cooperate because Japan does not consider parental kidnapping a crime covered under the extradition treaty it has with the US," he said.
But it may soon.
Good news, but loopholes remain
Legal experts welcomed Wednesday's decision, but said the treaty would have little effect unless it is accompanied by changes in Japan's domestic law. Courts in Japan routinely favor the Japanese parent – usually the mother – in custody cases involving international marriages.
"I am concerned that Japan won't implement the convention at face value," says Takao Tanase, a law professor at Chuo University in Tokyo. Mr. Tanase points to numerous loopholes in Japanese family law that could be cited to prevent the return of children to their original country of residence, including the suspicion – without any burden of proof – that the child could be exposed to harm or that the mother's welfare could be affected.
"Japanese law and the convention contradict each other, and this can be used as an excuse not to return the child," he said. "The tradition of awarding sole custody was introduced 60 years ago, but Japanese society has changed dramatically since then."
Yuichi Mayama, an upper house politician who has pushed for the legal change, was more optimistic. "This is a meaningful development," he said. "I'm delighted that Japan is finally catching up with the rest of the world."
But he added: "The tradition in Japan is to award sole custody, and that's supported by the law. Unless we change that we won't be able to use the convention properly. We take a very traditional view of the family in Japan, and changing that is going to take time."
The number of foreign parents who are denied access to their children in Japan has increased along with a rise in the number of international marriages to around 40,000, according to Mr. Mayama. Inevitably, the trend has resulted in more divorces: Almost 18,000 Japanese and international couples divorced in 2011, according to government statistics.
The US, which is pursuing at least 100 recognized abduction cases involving its nationals, has worked alongside Canada and the UK in pressuring Japan, the only nonsignatory among the G8 nations, to fall into line. In February prime minister Shinzo Abe told President Obama that Japan was moving toward ratification during their summit in Washington.
Tokyo previously refused to sign the treaty, citing the need to protect Japanese mothers from abusive foreign husbands. Japan's resistance earned it a reputation as a haven for child abductors, and in 2010 prompted the US House of Representatives to pass a nonbinding resolution condemning the retention of children in Japan "in violation of their human rights and United States and international law."
The momentum for change grew in 2009 when Christopher Savoie, a US citizen, was arrested in Japan after trying to take back his children as they walked to school. Although Mr. Savoie had been granted full custody by a US court, his ex-wife took their children from their home in Tennessee back to her native Japan.
Savoie's case and others have been taken up by the Children's Rights Council Japan [www.crcjapan.com], a nonprofit organization launched in 1996 to offer support and resources to affected parents. The council has submitted a proposal to the Japan's justice ministry and the US State Department calling for a humanitarian access program that would grant left-behind parents regular and meaningful contact with their children.
In 1998, a private investigator located Benda's daughters, who are now in their 20s. He has seen them only twice since they were taken and for only brief periods on the street. "But they have always resisted my efforts to communicate and I have been unable to speak with them," he said.
He agrees with skeptics that Japan's belated about-turn will do little to help him and countless other foreign parents. "While it does reflect the fact that the Japanese government is finally recognizing that there is a problem, I am doubtful it will have any immediate, noticeable effect on cases such as mine," he said.
"International pressure must continue until all loving parents who are separated from their children in Japan are able to have direct and meaningful access to them."