Spirited Away: Japan Won't Let Abducted Kids Go

"I feel real frustrated because I'm in a holding pattern," said Toland, 40, who lives in Virginia. "It has been a nightmare trying to get through this."

Possession Is Key

Though Toland is his daughter's sole surviving parent, judges in countless hearings have upheld the cultural imperative that it is in the child's best interest to stay with whomever she is with at that moment.

"Whoever has custody when they walk into court has custody," Toland said. "Judges never want to disrupt the status quo. There is no enforcement of the law because there is no teeth in the system. Police won't intervene because they say it is a family matter. Every judge knows that and rules in favor of the status quo because he would lose face if he ordered something that would never be followed through on."

For now, Toland can only wait and keep trying through the courts.

He said he regularly sends "care packages — big boxes full of presents and videotapes of me reading her children's books." Since he does not know whether those videos ever make it to his daughter, he keeps copies locked in a strong box to give her if and when he finally gets custody.

"Parental abduction is not a crime in Japan, but taking a child out of Japan is a crime. It is legal to abduct my own kid in Japan, but it's a crime to take her back home with me."

His parents have each just turned 80 and have never met their granddaughter.

"It is a crime to keep my parents from knowing and loving Erika," he said.

'Countries Disagree'

With the legal and cultural cards stacked against them, many Americans turn to the State Department and politicians for diplomatic help, but to little avail.

"On most things Japan is an important partner," said Michele Bond, the State Department's deputy assistant secretary for Overseas Citizens Services. "This, however, is one issue where we greatly differ. Left-behind parents often engage in a fruitless campaign to get back their children."

The State Department, she said, regularly raises the issue of international abduction and Japan's refusal to join the Hague Convention, a 1980 international treaty on cross-border abductions.

Other countries, particularly Muslim nations that practice Shariah, also have not joined the treaty, but in many of those cases the United States has worked out agreements, or memoranda of understanding, to allow for the return of children. There is no such memorandum with Japan.

"We engage with the government of Japan at every opportunity and bring it up all the time. We try to raise the visibility of the issue and make them aware that this is not the tradition in other countries. Progress has been slow but we are hopeful to find a solution that respects both cultures and everyone's rights, especially the children," Bond said.

The State Department currently has 1,197 open cases of child abduction involving 1,743 children worldwide.

Bond said many cases of abduction to Japan go unreported because families know there is little the U.S. government can do to help.

Legislative Efforts

"Culturally, the Japanese are not disposed to deal with foreign fathers. The law does not recognize parental child abduction. Criminal extradition is limited because they don't recognize that a crime has taken place," she said.

Despite efforts on behalf of U.S. legislators to contact Japanese diplomatic officials, Wong has received no word of a change in his case.

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