TOKYO (AP) — Japan's parliament on Wednesday approved joining an international child custody treaty amid foreign pressure for Tokyo to address concerns that Japanese mothers can take children away from foreign fathers without recourse.
The upper house of parliament voted unanimously to join the 1980 Hague Convention on international child abduction following passage by the more powerful lower house last month. Japan is the only Group of Seven nation that has not joined the convention, which has 89 signatories.
The convention will likely take effect later this fiscal year, which ends March 2014, as other steps, including passage of an implementation bill, are needed first, said Tatsushi Nishioka, a Foreign Ministry official.
The United States, Britain, France and other countries have repeatedly urged Japan to join the convention. It seeks to ensure that custody decisions are made by the courts of the country where the abducted child originally resided, and that the rights of access of both parents are protected.
Custody battles between parents of broken international marriages have become a growing problem in recent years, as Japanese mothers bring children home and refuse to let foreign ex-husbands visit or see their children. For years, Japan had resisted joining the convention, citing cases of Japanese women fleeing abusive foreign husbands.
The issue has been an irritant in otherwise close relations between the U.S. and Japan. Secretary of State John Kerry called it a "huge issue" that needs to be resolved.
It 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. He had been granted full custody by a U.S. court, and his ex-wife Noriko Savoie violated that decision by taking the children from Tennessee to Japan.
Amid accusations of kidnapping from both sides, Christopher Savoie was eventually released and allowed to leave the country, on condition he leave his children behind.
That phenomenon has given rise to this group identifying themselves as "left behind" parents.
In 2010, 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."
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.
Adopting the Hague pact wouldn't lead to major changes in Japanese family law, such as allowing joint custody, Nishioka said.
Under the pact, Japan's Foreign Ministry would set up a central authority to handle petitions by the foreign parent to locate or visit the child, and try to work with the parents to settle disputes through consultations. If those fail, family courts would take up the cases and issue rulings, Nishioka said.
American Kevin Brown, whose Japanese wife fled with his 2-year-old son six years ago from where they were living in central Japan, says the decision won't affect his situation, and he holds out little hope for real change for overseas-dwelling "left behind" parents.
Brown, who still lives in Japan, is allowed to see his 8-year-old son once a month for five hours. He has been pushing for Japan to revise its laws to allow joint custody, but that isn't going to happen when Japan officially joins the convention.
Plus, the convention won't apply to past cases, only future ones.
Brown is skeptical that the proposed Foreign Ministry office to handle petitions from foreign parents will have any power to grant them access to their separated children in Japan.
"I think it's just going to be, someone will be there to hear your complaints," he said.