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Parental rights not respected in Japan 親権が尊重されない日本

I attended court in Tokyo one day last year wearing one of my habitual bright pink tops even though as the only non-Japanese in court that day I probably didn't need clothing to draw attention to myself. I had a photo of each of my children on the plaintiff’s table in front of me, and I stared defiantly with frustration at the young lawyers on the other side of the court who were representing the Japanese Government in the class action.

As we waited for the three judges to enter the courtroom, I hoped that the opposing lawyers could feel my piercing glare, which was meant to let them know my displeasure at the fact they were representing the outdated Japanese family court system. A system that we were hoping to change. The thought, 'you guys are on the wrong side of history' was in my mind.

Sadness overtook defiance once one of my fellow plaintiffs, Hiroshi, testified. I found myself in tears listening to the details of his case. Warm, fat tears rolled down my cheeks and began to soak the mask I was wearing. I moved the photos of my children out of harm's way as Hiroshi explained the biological bond between parent and child and its importance in child development.

He is a brain surgeon and his wife, also a doctor, had taken their young daughter from their home when she was just three months old. As I listened to his story, I cried for him, his daughter, my children, myself, for all of us caught up in this system.

Australian family law states that children have a right to have a meaningful relationship with both parents provided they are protected from harm. In most cases, this means that both parents spend significant time, called parenting time, with their children post divorce. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Japan.

Hiroshi explained that he was allowed, just once since she was taken six years ago, to see his daughter through a one-way mirror window for five minutes. She was one metre away from him, but he was unable to communicate with her and let her know that he was there. I feared losing all control of my emotions as I felt the pain of knowing your children are there but just out of reach. A pain I know very well.

Like me, Hiroshi currently doesn't have any parenting time with his daughter, but even if he did, the average visitation in Japan is usually just a few hours once a month.

My own children were taken from our family home in Tokyo nearly four years ago by their Japanese father without my consent and he was subsequently granted custody on the basis that he was living with the children when the decision was made. Not one single opportunity to meet them has been provided to me since then by either my ex-husband or the Tokyo Family Court.

Unfortunately there are too many parents like Hiroshi and myself in Japan. John Gomez of Kizuna Child-Parent Reunion Organization in Japan estimates that the number of parents not meeting their children after divorce is as high as 66%. He used Japanese government statistics to estimate that over two million children under the age of 18 in Japan are currently disconnected from one parent and their side of the family.

All of this is despite the fact that, like Australia, Japan is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. When a country makes this promise to children they are expected to enact laws and procedures to ensure that the spirit of the convention is respected. Japan has failed to do so.

In Japan many people are unaware of the situation. A survey on divorce and child rearing conducted in February 2022 found that 90% of people believe it is desirable in most cases for both parents to be involved in raising their children, however this is just not happening in practice.

The Tokyo District Court ruled against our class action for visitation in November last year. Seventeen plaintiffs sued the Japanese government for their failure to provide adequate visitation laws. The court's ruling stated that visitation is not guaranteed under the Japanese Constitution.

In January this year the court ruled on another class action brought by fourteen plaintiffs including myself. We sued the government for pain and suffering due to the abduction of our children and the government's failure to prevent it. In response to this class action the court ruled that, although Japan should bring its laws in line with the treaties it has signed, the government was not at fault for not having done so and for not having laws to prevent the kidnapping of children relating to divorce proceedings.

I had secretly hoped that my bright pink tops could have been retired, but they will journey with me as we appeal these two class actions in the High Court. Positive outcomes could give Hiroshi, other parents and me stronger legal standing from which to seek access to our children, whose absence from our lives is an inescapable and intolerable emptiness.

Children in Japan deserve a system that respects their right to have both parents in their lives. My pink tops and I will continue to fight so that other children and parents don't have to deal with this terrible system.

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