Shane Clarke had no reason to be suspicious when his wife took their two children to Japan to see their ill grandmother in January.
The couple had married four years earlier after meeting online, and settled down with their daughters, aged three and one, in the west Midlands. Clarke, they agreed, would join his family in Japan in May for a holiday, and they would all return together.
Last week, however, he faced his wife and her lawyer in a Japanese courtroom, uncertain if he would ever see his children again. When his wife left the UK, Clarke now believes, she never had any intention of returning with him, or of letting her children see him.
« From the moment I met her at Narita airport I knew something was wrong, » Clarke told the Guardian before a custody hearing in Mito, north of Tokyo. « I soon realised she’d played me like a grand piano. The whole thing had been orchestrated, » he claims.
Clarke, a 38-year-old management consultant from West Bromwich, has gone to great lengths to win custody. The Crown Prosecution Service said his wife could be prosecuted in the UK under the 1984 child abduction act.
However, he can expect little sympathy from Japanese courts, which do not recognise parental child abduction as a crime and habitually rule in favour of the custodial – Japanese – parent.
Japan is the only G7 nation not to have signed the 1980 Hague convention on civil aspects of child abduction, which requires parents accused of abducting their children to return them to their country of habitual residence. He is one of an estimated 10,000 parents, divorced or separated from their Japanese spouses, who have been denied access to their children. Since the Hague treaty came into effect, not a single ruling in Japan has gone in favour of the foreign parent.
Campaigners say Japan’s refusal to join the treaty’s 80 other signatories has turned it into a haven for child abductors.
The European Union, Canada and the US have urged Japan to sign, but Takao Tanase, a law professor at Chuo University, says international pressure is unlikely to have much impact. « In Japan, if the child is secure in its new environment and doesn’t want more disruption, family courts don’t believe that it is in the child’s best interest to force it to see the non-custodial parent, » he said.
Japanese courts prefer to leave it to divorced couples to negotiate custody arrangements, Takase said. Officials say the government is looking at signing the Hague treaty, though not soon.
« We recognise that the convention is a useful tool to secure children’s rights and we are seriously considering the possibility of signing the convention, but we’ve yet to reach a conclusion, » said Yasuhisa Kawamura, a foreign ministry spokesman.
« We understand the anxieties of international parents, but there is no difference between the western approach and ours. »
Clarke’s two custody hearings this week did not go well. An interpreter arranged by the foreign office failed to materialise. The British embassy in Tokyo provided him with a list of alternative interpreters but said it could offer no more help.
The judge was forced to postpone his ruling, but Clarke is convinced he will never see his daughters again.
« We are talking about two British citizens, and no one will help me. The message our government is sending out to foreign nationals is that it’s perfectly all right for them to commit a crime on British soil, and as long as they leave the country quickly enough, they’ll get away scot-free. »
The rise in the number of parental child abductions has been fuelled by a dramatic increase in marriages between Japanese and foreign nationals. According to the health and welfare ministry, there were 44,701 such marriages in 2006, compared with 7,261 in 1980, the vast majority between Japanese and Chinese, Koreans and Filipinos. An estimated 20,000 children are born to Japanese-foreign couples every year. Though Japan does not keep an official count, there are 47 unresolved cases of US children being taken to Japan – only Mexico and India are more popular destinations – and 30 involving Canadian citizens. British officials are dealing with 10 cases, a foreign office spokeswoman told the Guardian, including that of Shane Clarke.