As he sat waiting in a van near his estranged wife’s family home in Nara, where his four children were living, James Cook felt very alone. It was an emotion he’d become all too accustomed to in the years since his wife had taken the children on a holiday to Japan and never returned, leaving him the sole inhabitant of their former family home in Minnesota.
“I was alone in our family’s home,” Cook says. “Alone with our children’s rooms just as they left them on July 13, 2014. My location was different, but the feelings of being all alone were the same.”
Meanwhile, at the Arimitsu family home just across the road, the most important thing in Cook’s life — whether or not he would be reunited with his children — was being determined in his absence. It was Sept. 13, 2016, and after years of seemingly endless court motions, filings, petitions, decisions and appeals in both the U.S. and Japan, finally, in theory at least, he would have his children — two pairs of twins, now aged 9 and 14 — returned to him.
Through the Hague Convention on International Child Abduction, Cook had successfully petitioned to have his children returned to their home in the United States and a “return order” had been issued by the Osaka High Court. However, the children’s mother, Hitomi Arimitsu, was still refusing to hand the children over, so the case had moved to the final “direct enforcement” phase.
The day before, Cook and his mother, who had come with him to Japan to help with the children, met with officials from the Japanese Central Authority (JCA), the Foreign Ministry agency responsible for handling Hague-related matters, at Nara District Court to formulate a strategy to ensure the handover of the children.
“Maps of streets and the neighborhood with locations of each group were displayed on the large conference table in the NDC conference room,” Cook recalls. “It looked very well planned and gave me a sense of hope that we might be successful.”
Cook and his mother departed their hotel in Osaka before dawn to make the 5:25 a.m. train that would take them, accompanied by their lawyers, to Gakuen-mae Station in Nara.
At a rendezvous point, Cook’s party met with JCA officials, got into a van and waited for instructions. Shortly after, a call came through to Cook’s attorney that Nara court enforcement officers had approached the house and confirmed that Hitomi and the four children were present. At 6:55 a.m. they entered the building.
While Cook and his mother waited in the van, a total of 17 people were now present at the Arimitsu property just down the street: Hitomi, the four children, their Japanese grandparents, two police officers, Cook’s two attorneys, a JCA official, two JCA-appointed psychologists, a Nara court bailiff and two officials from the U.S. consulate in Osaka.
At around 8 a.m., Cook’s attorney delivered the news that the children were very upset and did not want to see him, although later they did agree to see Cook’s mother. Cook was left alone in the van with his thoughts.
At 10 a.m., Cook’s mother returned looking “very traumatized,” but he still believed that finally, his turn to see the children must have arrived. “My emotions were welling up and I was putting on my emotional armor in preparation. As I looked up to find my way out of the van, I was stopped by a sad look on my attorney’s face. She told me our children still refused to see me and that NDC officers had called off enforcement already. I was a block away for three hours from my children, waiting for my turn. I was in shock and just sat in my seat.”
Shackled by legal limits
Three years have passed since Japan became a signatory to the Hague Convention, which is designed to ensure the timely return of children to their country of residence after abduction by one parent to another member country.
The Foreign Ministry’s Hague Convention Division is quick to point out that of the requests to repatriate children from Japan made in the first two years after signing the convention, about 90 percent have been resolved. But the details of how these cases were “resolved” are less clear, as judgments are not published and the ministry will not comment on specific cases.
According to the ministry, of the 68 requests to return children to a foreign country under the convention in the past three years, 18 have resulted in returns. Twelve more requests were “dismissed,” 19 have been “settled not to return the child to a foreign state” and another 19 cases are still open. In other words, just under 30 percent of requests for the return of children made in the past three years have resulted in children leaving Japan.
The ministry confirmed that in two cases during the first two years of Japan having signed the Hague, direct enforcement was carried out successfully. It added that there had been a “limited number of cases in which the children’s release has not been achieved” through direct enforcement, without offering exact figures. Based on these unsuccessful attempts, the Hague Convention Division said by email, “We will keep monitoring these cases and continue to review our implementation of the Hague Convention closely as necessary.”
In its 2016 Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction, the U.S. government concluded that “Japan failed to comply with its obligations under the Hague Abduction Convention in the area of enforcement of return orders.” Citing a case in which a Japanese return order issued in early 2015 was still unresolved by the end of the year, the report raises concern that there may be “a systemic flaw in Japan’s ability to enforce return orders.”
Bruce Gherbetti, a director with the Kizuna Child-Parent Reunion nonprofit organization, believes that failed direct enforcement procedures are inevitable considering the legal limitations placed on officials charged with carrying them out.
“They are following … Japanese domestic law, which is tied to the Hague Convention, and they are doing everything within their power, but their power is so extremely limited that … they are either requesting of the taking parent or requesting of the abducted child that they come voluntarily,” he explains. “So it is essentially asking permission of the kidnapper in order to enforce the return order. I mean it is a court order, yet they are begging and pleading.”
Under domestic legislation introduced to help Japanese authorities implement Hague returns, the only physical contact permitted is for a court bailiff to restrain the abducting parent if he or she tries to stop the child from voluntarily leaving.
Last year, the justice minister asked an advisory panel to look into revising the Civil Execution Law to set down specific procedures for enforcing court orders on the handover of children between divorced parents. The government is expected to submit a bill based on the committee’s findings next year.
However, Colin P.A. Jones, a professor at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto, doubts this process will result in more Hague returns. “I think experts expected the enforcement procedures adopted for Hague cases would ultimately become the standard for domestic cases as well. So I don’t expect much more than that. I certainly don’t expect it to result in any improvements in enforcement of Hague return orders,” Jones says. “Absent a significant change of policy — starting to impose criminal sanctions for noncompliance, for example — the basic limits on how to forcefully transfer ‘possession’ of a child without harming the child physically or emotionally will always apply, and taking parents will continue to be able to effectively use the children as ‘human shields’ against the judicial process.”
Time is on the abductor’s side
Gherbetti believes time is a critical factor in abduction cases, and this issue is at the heart of Japan’s failure to successfully return abducted children.
The Hague treaty “calls for six weeks of adjudication because they don’t want the child held outside their habitual residence longer than that,” he says.
Gherbetti says that although the international standard for Hague returns tends to be closer to six months than six weeks, in Japan the process often takes considerably longer — around 18 months or more — giving the abducting parent time to bond with the children and acclimatize them to their unfamiliar new surroundings.
Gherbetti blames an over-emphasis in Japan on the mediation portion of the convention for drawing out the process.
“So, similar to their domestic system, they try to have an amicable resolution,” he argues. “They much prefer mediation and an agreed-upon solution than an actual court order.”
Article 13 of the Hague Convention outlines situations where signatory states are not bound to order the return of a child. One such situation outlined in Clause B of the article is when “there is a grave risk that his or her return would expose the child to physical or psychological harm or otherwise place the child in an intolerable situation.”
When crafting domestic legislation to handle Hague cases, Japan’s lawmakers “came up with a document that allows them to greatly expand the 13B grave-risk category, and they have created a number of loopholes that ensure they don’t actually have to be in compliance with the convention,” Gherbetti says. “The ‘grave risk of return’ is originally intended for situations where you have a child abuser — you are not going to return a child to someone who has physically or emotionally, etc., abused that child and there is clear evidence of such. To say that someone has habituated to the new environment doesn’t fall under the original intention of 13B. That is for certain.”
Parental alienation syndrome
On Sept. 15, two days after the unsuccessful attempt to enforce the return order in the Cook case, a second direct enforcement attempt was carried out at the Arimitsu house.
This time, Cook’s two youngest children were away on a school camping trip, but Cook was allowed into the house on the condition he would not take the children back to the U.S. that day. Cook says he spoke to his two older sons from a distance, although did not actually see them, as they were hidden elsewhere in the house.
Cook says the boys called out “You’re not my father anymore,” “I don’t want to know you” and “Can’t you see we are happy here and don’t want anything to do with you anymore?”
Cook believes his wife and her family deliberately turned the children against him, a classic case of parental alienation syndrome. He also thinks they coached his children to make these types of statements, which are similar to those they used in interviews with court officials during the mediation process.
Noriko Odagiri, a professor of clinical psychology at Tokyo International University, says that although she is unable to comment on specific cases, the risk of children who are victims of parental abduction developing parental alienation syndrome is very high, and children up to the age of 12 are especially vulnerable.
Odagiri says this condition, which she calls a form of “brainwashing,” develops due to the material circumstances the child is forced into, and also the behavior and attitudes of the taking parent. She adds that it is a violation of the will of the child. “The child has no choice because they are dependent on the alienating parent both financially and emotionally,” Odagiri says. “They come to believe the alienating parent is the best parent and they can’t live without them.”
Odagiri believes this is a form of child abuse that can have a serious, long-term negative impact on mental health that can remain through adulthood. “When they grow older they recognize the whole map of their life and what happened to them as a child,” she says.
Arimitsu failed to comply with a Minnesota court order to surrender the children’s passports to the U.S. Consulate in Osaka by April 7 and release them into Cook’s care by April 23. Cook flew to Japan and was present at the consulate in the hope that he would be reunited with his children. But again, he left alone.
“I am a loving parent and a loving parent never gives up, never gives in, never manipulates their children and, above all, recognizes that their children possess the same human rights as they do,” he says. “Children are not property, children love both their parents and a part of a child dies when they are denied the other parent.”
The Japan Times made a number of attempts to contact Arimitsu for comment by telephone but she could not be reached, and no replies to emails sent to her address were received. An attempt was also made to reach her through her lawyer, Tomoko Kamikawa. Kamikawa declined to comment and said she was unable to assist with contacting Arimitsu, because she was not representing Arimitsu in relation to her communications with the media.
Loving from a distance
Paul Halton’s children were abducted to Japan from the U.K. by his Japanese ex-wife in 2014, a year after the couple divorced. Dual custody of the three children was awarded in the English courts during divorce proceedings.
The courts also stipulated that the children should live in the U.K. and placed a travel embargo on the mother taking the children to Japan that applied until the country implemented the Hague Convention. Japan signed the convention on April 1, 2014, and in August of that year the children were abducted. On March 31, 2015, the Osaka Family Court ruled that the children should be returned to the U.K. under the Hague Convention . The mother’s appeal was rejected three months later and a return order was issued by the courts.
After Halton’s ex-wife continued to refuse to comply and return the children to the U.K., an order for “indirect enforcement” was carried out. Indirect enforcement, a mandatory part of the Hague return process, involves attempting to make the abductor pay fines to the other parent, usually ¥5,000 per day per child. This step must be carried out before direct enforcement is attempted. Halton says he never received any money from the mother, as she was able to avoid making payments by claiming welfare and thereby obtaining beneficiary status.
With two years having passed since he’d seen his children — now 12, 10 and 7 — Halton decided to take the next step and proceed with direct enforcement. This was attempted on Nov. 29 and Dec. 1 of last year.
Officials and social workers were unsuccessful in executing the return order. However, they did manage to persuade his ex-wife to let Halton take the children for a day trip to Universal Studios Japan in Osaka a few days later, which he says was “a fantastic moment to spend some time with the children.”
Halton says he was tempted not to hand the children back at the end of their day trip, as he had the backing of both the Japanese and British governments to legally return home to the U.K. with his children. “But what would that do to my children?” he asks. “I couldn’t force them, rip them from their mother and for a second time turn their world upside down.”
Halton says that since this visit the situation has improved a little. Skype chat sessions have resumed, and gifts and cards to the children in Japan seem to get through, but the situation is still very fragile and out of his control. He and his ex-wife are supposed to be negotiating long-term, fixed arrangements about contact with his children, but no real progress is being made.
“Since I’ve reached the end of the current legal road, I fear that the children will have to grow up without me in their lives,” Halton says. “I hang on to the hope that one day my ex-wife will agree that the children and I can visit each other, at least in that I will have a few weeks a year to help them grow and learn, as a father should be doing.
“It’s a horrible reality to think that I will miss my three kids’ childhoods,” he says. “The next time I see them could be when they’re old enough to break free from their mother and independently seek me out, by which time they will be adults potentially with careers and families of their own. We’ll know each other but we won’t be close as nature intended.
“The likelihood is that they will remain in Japan for the rest of their lives and so even my unborn grandchildren will be distant and possibly unknown to me,” Halton says. “This is a thought that haunts my everyday life and I doubt will ever fade.”