Abducted to Japan: Hundreds of American Children Taken

PHOTO Michael Elias has not seen his two children, Jade and Michael, since 2008.
Share
Copy

A bold-faced lie and a fake name for her child, was all it took for a Japanese mother to abduct her American son to her native country.

"It was very easy to me," she said.

The 37-year-old mother, who detailed the 2008 abduction of her child away from his American father under the condition that her name not be used, told ABC News that she knowingly lied to obtain new passports to get out of the country and that, to her knowledge, no one at the Japanese consulate made any effort to make sure she was telling the truth.

"They just, how do you say, didn't notice," she said, even laughing as she talked about outsmarting the system. "Maybe it was just kind of lucky."

The story provides a rare, inside look at a frustrating diplomatic tangle been two political allies who have spent years in discussions which have produced little action.

The woman's son, Wayne Sawyer, an energetic 4-year-old boy who now speaks virtually no English, is one of hundreds of American children taken to Japan by a parent who seeks refuge in the government's refusal to recognize U.S. child custody laws.

"You wonder, 'What's he going to think?'" Wayne's father, 47-year-old Scott Sawyer said. "He can't fight back. I'm a grown adult. I can fight back. I can go to Congress. I can do all these things, and fight for him. I'm not the victim here. He is. Every child who's been kidnapped is a victim here."

Among the circles of left-behind parents in the U.S., many of them fathers, Japan is known as a safe haven for parental abductions. Once in Japan, the parent who abducted the child is protected by their government's unwillingness to sign the Hague Convention, a treaty that provides for the return of abducted children to the other parent.

The State Department has tried for years to negotiate Japan's signature on the Hague Convention and to try and resolve some of the 321 cases that have been filed with the department during the last 17 years. But not one child has ever been returned to the U.S. from Japan through diplomatic measures.

"That lack of enforcement makes Japan more than just a haven," said Navy Cdr. Paul Toland, whose 8-year-old daughter was abducted as an infant, "it makes it a black hole from which no child has ever returned."

"People want to see action and I don't think it's going to move, if it will ever move as quickly as the left behind parents want it to," said Janice Jacobs, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs.

The State Department, she said, knows the fathers feel ignored.

"Frankly, I don't think that there's anything we can do short of returning their children that is going to be enough," she said.

"It's extremely discouraging," said Brian Prager of New York, who's 5-year-old son Rui was abducted just eight months ago "All of my memories of him are extremely fresh. I can still smell his hair and remember what it's like to kiss him on the neck and carry him to school."

According to Jacobs, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, are well aware of the hundreds of children residing in Japan while the parents left behind – who often have full custody – wait in anguish a half a world away.

"It's a perfect storm of failure at every level of government on this," said Sawyer, an American father whose child was taken.

"It should not be a diplomatic issue. We have laws that need to be enforced," he said. "My child should not be in Japan, and is in Japan as a result of criminal activity. And that's what has to be straightened out here. It's not for a diplomat to go and decide that."

In the case of Sawyer's ex-wife, she admitted to ABC News that she told the Consulate General of Japan in San Francisco that she lost her Japanese passport, when in reality, she had surrendered it in accordance with a U.S. court order.

Though the mother initially declined to tell ABC News how she got the passport for her son – saying she would release the information when he was an adult – she eventually admitted to using the fake name. Documents obtained by ABC News show she requested Wayne's passport using the first name Issa, a name that Sawyer says has never been associated with the boy. She used her maiden name as his last name.

The Japanese Consulate in San Francisco told ABC News that they only issue passports to minors with the consent of both parents.

"When we issue passports to Japanese minors, we will explain to applicants that a passport will be issued when an application is submitted with consent of both parents, and that is against the United States law for a parent to take a child out of the country without consent of the other parent who has the custody of the child. We thus take strict measures in checking on the consent of both parents on the application before issuing passports."

Click here to read the full letter. Click here to read the Japanese Consulate's flier regarding passports.

Still Wayne's mother was able to get one for him.

This could be more than a diplomatic issue. ABC News showed Jacobs, the assistant secretary of state, a video of Sawyer's wife admitting to lying and using a fake name to get passports for herself and her son.

Asked if lying to get a passport could present a national security threat, Jacobs nodded and replied, "That could be."

"It certainly doesn't make me happy," she said.

State Department: 'Japan Has to Do the Right Thing'

Unlike success stories of children being returned from countries like Brazil, Pakistan and Syria, the U.S. has been unable to reach any kind of agreement with the Japanese.

Jacobs said a large part of the problem lays with Japan's domestic custody laws, which do not support giving the left-behind parent access to the child.

"The president considers it a priority. Secretary Clinton considers it a priority," Jacobs said. "It's not a question of power, it's a question of persuasion. Japan has to do the right thing."

The close ties between the U.S. and Japan on issues like economic trade and military policies, Jacobs said, have not affected the State Department's willingness to push Japan to return the American children.

"We have many important bilateral issues," she said. "I think we need to take this one, separate it and tackle it from a diplomatic perspective and also really work with the Japanese to find out what really is in the best interest of the children involved."

But some of the fathers say attempts at persuasion are not enough.

"We tend to try to judge the State Department success by whether or not we get to have our children returned or at a minimum see our children," Toland said. "And none of that criteria has been met."

Toland's daughter, Erika, was taken in 2003 by his former wife, Etsuko Futagi, from U.S. military housing in Japan, where he was stationed.

"I was at work one day and I got a phone call from my neighbors saying 'Are you moving back to the States?'" Toland said, recalling how his neighbor told him there was a moving van parked outside the base housing he shared with Futagi and then 9-month-old Erika. "When I got home, my wife and my daughter and all our stuff was gone."

Futagi would later commit suicide, in 2007. At that point, Toland began negotiating with his former wife's family for Erika's return. But Futagi's mother, Akiko Futagi, quickly took guardianship and cut off all contact between father and daughter.

The most recent image Toland has seen of Erika is a picture snapped in 2009 by a private investigator as she walked to school in northern Tokyo.

Futagi told ABC News that Toland had refused to contribute any money to the upbringing of his daughter.

"Actually he doesn't pay anything to bring her up," she said.

But Toland was able to provide ABC News with documentation showing that, as recently as 2009, he had attempted contact with Futagi to put money into a bank account for Erika and that, he says, Fugtagi refused.

When asked whether she would allow Erika to visit her father in the U.S., Futagi responded, "no passport."

When pressed on whether she would allow the visit if Toland were to get Erika a passport, she replied, "That's another problem," before walking away.

ABC News spoke with more than two dozen fathers whose American children were abducted by their mothers, and now live somewhere in Japan. A common thread among some was the request for large sums of money in exchange for even just a Web chat with the child.

The fathers by and large, have refused to pay.

In Sawyer's case, his ex-wife sent him an e-mail one day after she spirited Wayne away from their Los Angeles home, demanding $3,000 if he wanted to see his son via Web video.

Sawyer called it extortion. His ex-wife called it an attempt at getting child support.

"If Scott wants to see him [Wayne] on the website, I say 'It's okay every time, every day,'" she said. "It's okay. But pay child support. Just a responsibility as a father."

As she spoke, Wayne, a precocious little boy with reddish-brown hair and a striking resemblance to his father, played nearby with a soccer ball and picked up sticks with a neighborhood child.

"And after he grown up for example … my son want to see my ex, his father, it's okay," she said.

New Jersey attorney Patricia Apy, who specializes in international abductions, said getting an abducted child back from Japan is "a daunting proposition."

"But I believe in order to do that there's going to have to be a concrete commitment on the part of the United States Department of State and the Congress of the United States, obviously, and the administration to work together to have a protocol for how they're going to deal with the cases," Apy said, "and deal not just with the treaty issue but also deal with individual cases and placing pressure on the Japanese government to become actively involved in a resolution."

Wounded Marine Fighting for Contact With Abducted Children

Apy is currently fighting for the return of two children taken to Japan from their father – a 26-year-old former Marine sergeant, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in Iraq four years ago.

Michael Elias met Mayumi in 2OO4 while he was stationed in Japan. They dated, but separated amicably when Elias came back to the U.S. Mayumi called not long after he returned to tell him she was pregnant with his child.

They married and welcomed daughter Jade in January 2006. They made their home in Elias' hometown of Rutherford, N.J. A son, Michael, followed a year later, born while Elias was serving in Iraq. But Elias said his marriage had changed after he returned home from Iraq.

"It was like a different feeling," he said."It wasn't the same as when I had left."

They separated a short time later and began dating other people. Elias said Mayumi's boyfriend was a Japanese national who worked as a travel agent.

Like the Sawyer kidnapping, Elias and Apy believe his children – Jade, now 5, and Michael, 3 and a half, – were abducted after some questionable activity at a Japanese consulate.

Though Mayumi – who worked at the visa and passport desk at the Japanese consulate in New York – had been ordered by a New Jersey judge to surrender all four of her children's passports just two months before the abduction, airline records show she boarded a Japan Airlines flight out of Chicago using duplicate passports.

"Her going to Chicago and the motivation for doing that is part of the very important question we're trying to find out – whether or not the government, i.e. employees, knowing that the passports had been surrendered, issued them anyway," Apy said. "Or in the alternative she lied to that government and induced them to provide duplicate passports."

ABC News was unable to locate Mayumi for comment.

Elias has left Jade's bedroom untouched, except to hang more family pictures. Rows of shoes and racks of stylish little girls' clothing fill the closet. Her favorite pair of frog-adorned rain boots sits on the shelf next to shoes.

"I cannot stop crying every time I think of them," Elias' mother, Nancy Elias, said. "We have so much love, and it's been taken away. My soul has been taken from me."

Both of his children's names have been tattooed on Elias' arms as a reminder of what he's fighting for.

"Everything that I do, I always see it," he said. "When I talk to people and they ask me and it's the same response that I tell them, that I'm fighting for my kids."

Nancy Elias wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to bring her grandchildren home.

"She said once it takes a village," Nancy Elias said, "Well this is my village and we need her."

Some of the fathers ABC News spoke to, including Dr. Moises Garcia of Milwaukee, have fought their ex-wives in Japanese courts. In Garcia's case the Japanese courts made the rare move of recognizing U.S. court orders that granted him custody of his daughter.

Yet he hasn't been able to take his children home.

"I still have Karina's room, like when she left it. She left a puzzle there, unfinished. And it's still there," he said.

Garcia, who is recognized in Japan as the custodial parent, yet still has little access to 8-year-old Karina, visited Japan seven times last year. He was allowed to see his daughter twice for short, court-monitored visits in a room with a two-way mirror.

On the last trip, for Karina's birthday, he drew a picture of her when he was not allowed to take one with his camera.

"Every time I go to Japan I just feel happy to be there, walk on the same streets," Garcia said, as his voice cracked.

For Sam Lui, coming home to an empty New York City apartment is still wrenching even after more than a decade. His son Ezra was abducted in 1999. Lui said Ezra's mother has since changed his son's name. The father said the e-mails he receives from his now 13-year-old son are typically requests for money and expensive gifts.

"There's no closure to this issue. It's not like as if someone died where you find the closure. There's no closure," Lui said. "My kid's been gone for 11 years. Do I have hatred for my ex-wife? Of course I do."

For all of the fathers' efforts to find and communicate with their children, many of their ex-wives are living openly in Japan.

It took ABC News less than 24 hours to locate Ryoko Uchiyama, a woman who is on the FBI's Most Wanted list for parental kidnapping, after she fled in 2006 to Japan with baby daughter Melissa, from the California home she shared with American Patrick Braden.

Uchiyama's mother confirmed over the house intercom at their front gate that Ryoko Uchiyama lived there, but said Ryoko was not home. She also confirmed that Melissa, who is now 5 years old and goes by the name Hinako, lived there as well. As ABC News was speaking with Uchiyama's mother via an interpreter, a little girl's voice was briefly heard calling for her grandmother over the intercom.

Ryoko Uchiyama's sister, Seiko Azuma, who lives within walking distance, told ABC News that there was a story to tell, but that she had to follow the wishes of her parents and remain silent.

Japanese Police Refused to Look for Woman on FBI Most Wanted List for Parental Kidnapping

South of Tokyo, in a more rural town in the Chiba prefecture, ABC News found the family of Reiko Nakata Greenburg Collins, who is also listed on the FBI's Most Wanted list for the 2008 kidnapping of Keisuke Collins, now 7 years old. They declined to comment.

A neighbor confirmed that Nakata and Keisuke had moved from the family home in a suburb west of Tokyo, but returned for visits.

When local police were called to investigate ABC News' filming in the neighborhood, they were shown a copy of Nakata's wanted poster and Keisuke's abduction poster. When asked whether they would do anything about it, they said no -- that Nakata, despite an active federal U.S. arrest warrant, was not violating Japanese law.

Keisuke's father, Randy Collins, who has not seen or heard from his son since Nakata disappeared with him from their southern California home, called on President Obama to get involved.

"He took an oath to protect the citizens of this country. Why are our children not a priority to you?" he asked. "Please explain to me why my son doesn't mean anything to you."

For Braden, who also hasn't seen even a picture of his daughter since her abduction, the solution starts on U.S. soil.

"If we can break the back of this issue by enforcing the laws that are broken by Japanese citizens on U.S. soil and returning those citizens to face justice … it can be very simple," he said. "And that will open the floodgate to resolve every single case and it will help worldwide."

Though several of the fathers admitted to fleeting moments where they considered hopping on a plane to Japan and getting their children back, only one has tried it -- and failed.

Christopher Savoie, whose children were abducted by his ex-wife Noriko in 2009, was arrested by Japanese police as he tried to take Rebecca, now 8, and Isaac, 10, to an American consulate in southern Japan.

He was detained on suspicion of attempted kidnapping and released more than two weeks later without being formally indicted.

"If there were some other remedy there could be some other rational decision," he said. "But as a father, from my perspective, it was the only rational thing to do."

Others hold out hope that one day, their children will come looking for them.

Walter Benda's daughters were abducted more than 15 years ago. Now adults in their early 20's, the girls have not yet reached out to their father. But he's waiting.

In 15 years, he said, the State Department has conducted just four welfare visits. The last time he saw his children, he got a glimpse of his older daughter in 2005 as he stood on the street in Japan in an attempt to talk to her. As he approached, she took off running.

"I know they're totally set against me now. They've just heard the mothers' side of the story, never got a chance to talk to them in 15 years," he said.

"Ultimately I'm a hopeful person and I do think eventually as they grow older they're going to seek me out," he said. "What I've told a lot of other parents is that what you really want to look for is to be an important part of your child's life when they are adult."

It's a future Michael Elias, the former U.S. marine, refuses to accept.

"I'll never stop," he said. "I mean my kids could be gone for 20, 30 years and I'll be an old man, but I'll still never stop."

Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
 
You Might Also Like...