TOKYO — A year ago, Vincent Fichot came home to an empty house in the Tokyo suburb of Setagaya. The Frenchman’s wife, 3-year-old son and 11-month-old daughter had vanished. All he had done, he said, was suggest that he might want a divorce.

He hasn’t seen or heard from his family since, and every effort to contact his children has been blocked by his wife, the courts and Japanese police. 

“Abduction is child abuse,” he said in the course of several interviews about his case.

Tommaso Perina, an Italian resident of Tokyo, said his wife took their two children for a break at her parents’ house and a few days later decided she wanted a divorce. 

Perina hasn’t seen his son and daughter since August 2017. Although a Japanese court granted him visitation rights, his wife has refused to accept the order, and has moved. The police will not tell him where she now lives, he said, or even talk to Italian Embassy officials.

“It’s not that I’m fighting for my rights. I’m fighting for my children’s rights, because they have every right to be with both of their parents,” he said.

Jeffery Morehouse was living in Washington state, where he had won permanent custody of his son, Mochi. In June 2010, he dropped the 6-year-old off with his Japanese mother for a visit; she promptly took him to Tokyo.

Japan’s government refuses to help, even though its consulate in Portland, Ore., played a key role in the kidnapping by issuing the boy a passport in just one day. The last words Morehouse heard from his son, more than nine years ago, were, “I love you, Daddy.”

The three men are among hundreds of foreigners and hundreds of thousands of Japanese parents who have been kept apart from their children by Japan’s distinctive child custody laws, and they are leading campaigns, one in the United States and two here in Japan, to push for change. 

There have never been so few children in Japan (at least, not since they started counting)

Morehouse has briefed members of Congress six times, most recently in May, and has set up Bring Abducted Children Home, a pressure group representing what he says are more than 400 American children who have been abducted by a Japanese parent. 

Fichot and Perina, who continue to live in Japan and whose children were abducted here, have helped raise awareness in Europe. Last year, 26 E.U. ambassadors wrote a letter pleading with Japan to respect the right of children to see their parents. 

In June, French President Emmanuel Macron met with Fichot and other French fathers and raised their cases with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, describing their situation as “unacceptable.”

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte also spoke with Abe about Italian parents’ rights at the Group of 20 meeting in the Japanese city of Osaka in June. Now, with French and Italian media outlets taking up the issue, the two European leaders are under pressure to speak up again when Group of Seven leaders meet in Biarritz, France, starting Aug. 24.

Last week, Fichot and Perina, along with seven other fathers and one mother, and on behalf of 14 children from the United States, Canada, France, Italy and Japan, filed a formal complaint to the United Nations’ Human Rights Council arguing that Japan was grossly violating the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as the Hague Convention on International Child Abduction.

But it is not only, or even mainly, foreigners who suffer: Lawyer Akira Ueno says tens of thousands of Japanese children a year are effectively kidnapped by one parent, who then cuts off contact with the other parent. The second parent — often but not always the father — has no recourse to the authorities for help seeing their children, he says. 

Japan is unusual among developed nations in not recognizing the concept of joint custody. Instead, courts give custody to one parent, applying what is known as the “continuity principle” — if the child is settled in one household, don’t disturb him or her. Not only does the law not punish a parent who absconds with a child, it rewards them: Once the new household is established, the court unfailingly awards custody to the “kidnapper.”

Ueno says the problem is deeply rooted in Japanese culture. Traditionally, children are not viewed as individuals with rights, or as belonging to their parents, but as the “property of the household” where they live. As soon as children move to a new household, the estranged parent becomes an outsider, with no right to disturb the new one. 

Japan’s Justice Ministry says its rules are designed to work in the best interests of children, and that when marriages end badly, it is more practical to give one parent the sole authority to raise their children. But studies show that depriving children of access to one of their parents can be traumatic and psychologically damaging, says Noriko Odagiri, a professor of clinical psychology at Tokyo International University.

“Children feel like their father abandoned them, that he doesn’t love them anymore,” she said. 

Young children suffer behavioral problems and from a feeling of hopelessness, she said. Teenagers often drop out of school, and many have low self-esteem.

An “uncountable number” of Japanese parents who are deprived of their children suffer in silence, Ueno said, while politicians who defend fathers face criticism from an unlikely coalition of conservatives, who believe women’s place is in the home, and women’s groups defending victims of domestic violence.

Japan, unlike the United States, has no system for evaluating domestic violence accusations, according to Ueno and Odagiri. As a result, such accusations are routine in divorce cases, and although they seldom stick, they buy the accuser vital time to deny their spouse access and establish effective custody, experts say. 

Seiichi Kushida, an opposition lawmaker, says anyone accused of domestic violence is in practice treated as a perpetrator. The fear of stigma, including trouble with employers, is a big reason men don’t fight for joint custody and don’t speak up, he said.

Fichot and Perina were both accused of violence and were able to disprove the claims. Fichot produced receipts, bank statements and photographs to show that his wife was shopping and eating out during a two-week period when she claimed she was locked in the home, and a court ruled that the charges against Perina were false.

Still, in July, a court denied Fichot’s claim for custody. The judge ruled that his wife, having had sole care of the children for more than a year, was more involved in their education and had more of their affection.

Kushida said momentum for change is building. In February, in a response to Kushida in parliament, Abe finally acknowledged that “children would want to see their father and their mother” and asked the Justice Ministry to look into the issue.

Japan signed the Hague Convention in 2014, a move that should have allowed for repatriation of children found to have been kidnapped overseas, but did not enforce its provisions until recently. 

Japan signed abduction treaty but for ‘left-behind’ parents, that doesn’t mean much

The State Department says progress is being made, with new legislation being drawn up to improve enforcement, and 32 kidnapped children returned to the United States since 2014. Still, it remains “highly concerned” about enforcement and about the fact that Japan declined to apply the convention to the “sizable number of cases” that predate 2014. Abductions are also still happening, with eight new cases, involving 16 American children, recorded last year.

None of that helps Morehouse, whose son was kidnapped before 2014, or Fichot and Perina, whose children were taken inside Japan and to whom the convention doesn’t apply. Nor does it help any of the hundreds of thousands of Japanese parents and children whom the system has forced apart. 

Morehouse is frustrated that President Trump has, on Abe’s insistence, advocated strongly for Japanese citizens who were abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s, meeting their families and raising the issue with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but has not done so for hundreds of stranded American children.

The president “ran on a statement and policy of ‘America First,’ ” he said. “He ought to put American kidnapped children first, and bring them home from Japan and other countries.”

Akiko Kashiwagi contributed to this report.

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