TOKYO, May 22 – Japan’s parliament on Wednesday approved an international treaty on child abductions after decades of pressure from the United States and other Western nations.
Japan is the only member of the Group of Eight major industrialised nations that has not ratified the 1980 Hague Convention, which requires nations to return snatched children to the countries where they usually reside.
Hundreds of parents, mostly men from North America, Europe and elsewhere have been left without any recourse after their estranged partners took their half-Japanese children back to the country.
Unlike Western nations, Japan does not recognise joint custody and courts almost always order that children of divorcees live with their mothers.
US lawmakers have long demanded Japan fall into line on the issue, one of the few open disputes between the close allies. In February, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promised action after White House talks with US President Barack Obama.
The upper house of parliament on Wednesday voted unanimously for Japan to join the treaty, following a similar move by the more powerful lower house last month.
But Japan must still clear various governmental and legislative hurdles before the Hague Convention can take full effect. The government has said it aims for final ratification by the end of this fiscal year — March 2014.
A central authority will be set up in the foreign ministry to take charge of locating children who have been removed by one parent following the collapse of an international marriage, and to encourage parents to settle disputes voluntarily.
If consultations fail, family courts in Tokyo and Osaka will issue rulings.
The newly enacted law will, however, allow a parent to refuse to return a child if abuse or domestic violence is feared, a provision campaigners say is vital, but which some say risks being exploited.
The law will allow for parents who separated before its enactment to apply to get a child returned, but contains a provision stating that the application can be refused if a child has been resident in the country for a year or more and is happily settled.
Detractors say the lumbering pace of Japan’s justice system, where cases can take months or even years to be heard, will reduce the chance of a foreign parent making a successful applicant to have their child returned.
Under growing pressure from Washington and other Western capitals, Japan has repeatedly pledged to sign the treaty into domestic law, but it has until now never made it through parliament.
Domestic critics of the convention have previously argued that the country needs to protect its women from potentially abusive men, but supporters say this is overblown and point to a cultural reluctance over things foreign.
Japanese courts virtually never grant custody to foreign parents in a divorce.