“Child abduction” issue in Japan: the turning point?

Marta Barbieri e Federica Galvani

Spring 2017: the issue becomes “hot”

For Japan, 2017 is the third year since ratification of the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.

Over the years, Japan has seen a large number of disputes between mixed couples due to the fact that the Japanese parent (very often the mother) brings children to Japan, preventing the other parent from meeting them. Even today, despite the ratification of the Convention, Japan is considered a “black hole” in cases of child abduction.

This topic has become a “hot” theme from the spring of 2017 when voices of protest were raised against the Japanese approach to the issue that, in the rest of the world, falls under the term “kidnapping”. Although Japan has signed the Convention in 2014, abduction of children in Japan is, in fact, still widely tolerated.

A member of the Japanese Diet, Kenta Matsunami (45) touched on this topic during two sessions of the House of Representatives – Budget and Justice Committees. He asked government officials why the current system relies on assigning custody of children to the parent who kidnaps them first.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (62) responded, “custody is decided by taking the circumstances of each case separately into consideration.”

Matsunami, however, has pointed out that Japan gives too much importance to the “principle of continuity” (from the moment the child was kidnapped, if there are no problems with the new environment, the priority is to leave the situation as it is). The government should therefore recognize that, if they continue to give importance the principle of continuity, kidnappings will continue.

When Matsunami said that this approach is also used in mixed couples and that more than one Japanese woman is on the list of Americans sought for having kidnapped and brought their child to Japan, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida (59) replied by saying that “as of today, there was not a single case in which penalties of the Goldman Act have been applied [1], and, therefore, the probability that Japan would be sanctioned is very low.”

Protests have been raised not only by Japanese citizens but also by foreign nationals. On March 22, 2017, a group of left-behind parents signed a petition to implement policies that stop and deter kidnappings. They required that, as in most developed countries, child abduction be treated as a crime and not a mere “husband-wife issue.”

In the USA on April 6, 2017, there was a hearing on the Goldman Act at the Subcommittee for Human Rights in Congress, and some American citizens submitted stories of kidnapping of their children in various countries, including Japan. At the beginning of this hearing, the Chairman of the Subcommittee [Rep. Chris Smith] called Fumio Kishida’s statement “outrageous” and then said that Japan “should be sanctioned” because it does not respect the Hague Convention and that President Trump should bring this topic to the table of discussions of the next G7.

In Italy too, the topic began to be discussed, as well as various newspapers, including La Stampa, which spoke about the cases of Italian citizens whose children were kidnapped by their Japanese mothers. We have also talked about it here.

This has generated reactions and requests to the Italian government to proceed against Japan.

Faced with these protests, the division for the Hague Convention in the Japanese Foreign Ministry said that “the Hague Convention opens up the possibility of not returning children to their country of residence in the event of a serious risk” and that “not all countries that have ratified the convention make the results public but Japan has certainly not done less than the others with 30% of kidnapped children returned to their home country [2].”

According to the Convention, parents of children who are kidnapped can demand assistance from the institution designated in their country (in Japan the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, while cases are being regulated by the Ministry of Justice) to make sure that the children come back to their country of residence. The establishment provides assistance and negotiations between spouses, but, in the event that these negotiations do not lead to a solution, the court is to decide. In the case of Japan, even if the rule is that the child must go back to the country of origin, if 1) the child has adapted to the new environment; 2) returning to the country of origin can have negative physical or psychological consequences on the child; 3) the child does not want to go back and so on, exceptions can be made to ensure that the child remains in Japan.

The story of Pierluigi: An update

One of the various cases of Italian victims of child kidnapping [3] is about Pierluigi (invented name to protect his family in view of the process in progress). Pierluigi is an Italian citizen who lives and works in Tokyo, is married to a Japanese woman, and is the father of two sons kidnapped by his wife in early 2016.

Pierluigi and his wife, after a few years in Italy and then in Germany, in October of 2015 went to live in Japan, country of origin of his wife. Just after completing the move to Tokyo, however, his wife had decided to go to live in her city of origin, Nagasaki, along with the children (one four and the other two years old). The initial motivation was the ability to access childcare services more easily; in Tokyo waiting lists for kindergartens are long. For a few months, Pierluigi saw the children as soon as he could reach them. However, in September of the same year, he received an email from his wife telling him that he would not be able to see his children again.

From that moment, he moved to enforce his rights as a father starting from the process at the family court in Nagasaki.

During the last year, many events have taken place in the story of Pierluigi and the custody of his children.

In June 2017, for the first time since July last year, he was able to see his children, although in the presence of judicial examiners. After the visit, the examiners confirmed to the judge that followed the case that Pierluigi is perfectly able to take care of the children, with whom he has maintained a great relationship, and how accusations against him made by his wife (including that of domestic violence) are unsubstantiated. For this reason, during the fourth hearing of the process, which took place at the end of June 2017, the judge (which, before the issue of a judgment, may not impose any behavior onto stakeholders) urged Pierluigi’s wife to collaborate and to allow the meetings of the husband with the children, in the interest of the children. Faced with the immovability of the woman, however, the court managed to grant Pierluigi only a telephone conversation with the children, which was held the next month via Skype, and during which, the children asked sixty times for their father to join them.

During the hearing of August 2017, the fifth and last before the ruling was issued, the Court expressed important considerations. Firstly, the judge admitted that she had not yet understood the real reasons why Pierluigi’s wife did not want to allow her husband to see her children (to the point that she kept the video off during the Skype connection with her husband in the month of July, for fear that, seeing the house they were living in, he could understand where they were). In addition, the social services of Nagasaki (where the woman and children live) have confirmed with neighbors of the wife who hear the children cry 3-4 times a week, for more than twenty minutes. Nevertheless, the judge does not seem to intend to remove the children from his wife: as also explained by Diet member Kenta Matsunami of the Japan Restoration Party during the two sessions of the Diet in which the problem was discussed, “In cases of disputes regarding custody of children, Japan gives too much importance to the ‘continuity principle’”. [4] The Japanese judicial system recognizes that it is in the interests of the child not so much to maintain relations with both parents, but to have a stable and untroubled life. This is why the Japanese system does not recognize the institution of shared custody.

Following the fifth hearing, the process involving Pierluigi and his wife has concluded, and judgments relating to return of the children and visits Pierluigi can do arrived in December of 2017. The judge has confirmed once again the totally unfounded accusations facing Pierluigi, including that of domestic violence, in addition, has confirmed that between Pierluigi and his children there is a good relationship, and that he is able to take care of them. That said, however, the accusations made by Pierluigi about the inadequacy of his wife to raise the children were not considered sufficient to remove them, also in consideration of the fact that, during the period when Pierluigi worked in Germany, she had spent more time than him with their eldest son (the second was not yet born).

Pierluigi, clearly, has now appealed, while recognizing that such ruling, in a country as Japan, should be recognized as a partial victory. The judge, in fact, has put the wife of Pierluigi with her back to the wall: she has indeed recognized Pierluigi’s right to see his children two Sundays a month, for four hours at a time. [5] She also explained that, if the mother should continue to refuse the visits that the father is entitled to, she should no longer be considered suitable to have custody of the children in the future.

Pierluigi, therefore, believes that the judge has tried to compel the wife to show him the children, knowing that, in the meantime, he will continue the process of appeal to the High Court in Fukuoka. If the court had given the children to him, an appeal of his wife would have prolonged the process for another year, during which time Pierluigi would have kept not being able to meet his children. In the period of Easter 2018, however, the Fukuoka High Court confirmed the children should stay with Pierluigi’s wife. The children in fact, now live a stable life with the woman, who is also receiving care at a psychiatric clinic. They have therefore not recognized extreme grounds to remove the children from her.
Pierluigi has confirmed the appeal to the Supreme Court, using the [UN] Convention on the Rights of the Child.

What have Italian institutions done to help Pierluigi in recent months?

In October 2017, an inquiry was held at a Committee of the Italian Senate, during which the government was called to respond to how it was moving to resolve the case of Pierluigi.

Following the reception of the two rulings of December 2017, obviously, Pierluigi immediately informed the Italian Embassy in Tokyo. There are seven Italian fathers, including him, who are in the same situation. Nine Italian-Japanese children are involved. On 7 December, these fathers wrote to President Mattarella requesting a strong and timely intervention to “save several Italian children kidnapped and held hostage for years by Japanese parents.” [6]

On March 4, 2018, the Ambassadors of Italy and of the other European Union countries addressed a letter to Yoko Kamikawa, Japanese Minister of Justice, in order to sensitize Japan and the Japanese Authorities to the enforcement of court rulings in cases of disputed minors. In fact, there are many cases in which parents are not allowed to see their children even when the rulings issued by the Japanese courts had recognized this right. [7]

At the end of April, Pierluigi, along with 11 other fathers from Italy, France, USA, Canada, Great Britain and Germany, sent a letter to the authorities of all the countries of the G7 to request that the issue is discussed during the G7 Summit that will take place in Canada June 8-9.


[1] The law passed in USA on August 8, 2014 is the first American law to prevent the international kidnapping of children. This law introduces 8 levels of sanctions against countries that do not want to cooperate to resolve cases of international kidnapping involving American children. However, these sanctions have never been used to date.
To learn more about the Goldman Act:

[2] Since 2014, the number of requests for assistance to bring their children back from Japan to another country has been 68, while 56 have been made to return children from foreign countries to Japan. Among these, 20 children were returned from Japan to their country of origin and 19 from the foreign country to Japan. Hence the 30% figure.
There were, however, 16 cases of children not returned to their country of origin and 8 not returned to Japan.

[3] There are 9 cases of Italians who have been kidnapped by their Japanese wife.

[4] 親 権 紛争 の 際, 日本 が 「継 続 性 の 原則,

[5] According to the story of Pierluigi, the Japanese fathers with whom he is in contact and who are in similar situations to his were amazed by this result: in general, fathers are granted no more than two hours of visitation once a month.

[6] You can see the text of the letter, together with the case of Tommaso Perina, similar to that of Pierluigi, in the Sky TG24 video:

[7] Link to the Communication from the Italian Consulate of Osaka:

​This dossier is the English translation of the Italian “Questione “Figli contesi” in Giappone: il momento della svolta?” Read the Italian version!

For the English translation we thank Kizuna Child’Parent Reunion

Featured Image Source: Public domain pictures