Parents, mothers and fathers from various countries met recently at a Tokyo train station to recount their worst nightmare – the moment they realized their child had been abducted.
Paul Toland received a call at work from a neighbor. "Are you leaving Japan?" the U.S. Navy commander said he was asked. "Are you moving?"
"What are you talking about?" Toland said. "No."
In the hour it took him to get home, everything was gone, including his daughter Erika. Toland hasn't seen her since 2004.
Franchesca Miyara said it happened when she went to pick up her son from day care. "He wasn't there. He wasn't there," the Puerto Rican native repeated. "July 20, 2006 – the day I became nothing."
American Steve Christie said his son was living with him at the time. "My wife abducted him when I allowed her to have dinner with our son," said the co-founder of the International Association for Parent and Child Reunion that was formed this year. "It took me three years to find him."
According to the U.S. State Department, as of May, there are 73 recorded cases of abduction to or retention in Japan. More than in any other country, these cases involve more than 100 children.
An additional 29 cases involve parties in Japan with one parent denied access to their child, such as is the case with Christie.
"Japan is a good partner and an important friend of the United States," said U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Overseas Citizens Services Michele Thoren Bond. "But on this issue, the news is not good. Each year, the number of children taken by their parents from the United States is increasing," Bond said earlier this year. "And especially, the number of children taken by their parents to Japan is increasing."
At Yurakucho train station on Monday activists held up a yellow banner that reads "Stop child abduction. Kids love both parents." They distributed flyers in Japanese and made pleas through a loud speaker.
Perhaps a reflection of how these parents' plights are received here, most people who pass by don't pay much attention.
"The left-behind parents of children abducted to or from Japan," reads the U.S. Embassy Tokyo website, "have little realistic hope of having their children returned and encounter great difficulties in obtaining access to their children and exercising their parental rights and responsibilities."
Japanese law, with regards to divorce, typically follows the tradition of sole-custody in which one parent, usually the father, severs ties from his or her child.
There are cases of divorced couples in Japan splitting parenting and custody rights, but these are rare instances.
"The problem is that parents don't get to see their kids," said David Hearn, co-director and producer of the documentary film From The Shadows about child abduction. "And probably more importantly kids lose contact with their parents."
Some parents try to reunite with their children by battling their cases in court.
"It has been heart breaking," said Toland who recently flew to Tokyo from the US. "It dominates your whole life. I've spent maybe over $200,000 in attorney fees over the years."
Other parents resort to more desperate measures.