TOKYO, Feb. 15, 2011— -- Thousands of miles away, hundreds of American children are being kept in Japan, victims of parental abduction, out of reach of their other parent and out of reach of the U.S. government.
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 overseas, the parent who abducted the child is protected by the Japanese government's unwillingness to sign the Hague Convention, a treaty that provides for the return of abducted children to their home country.
The U.S. Department of State 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, according to the State Department.
Below are the stories of three American fathers who are desperately seeking contact with their children.
Having a family wasn't something Michael Elias planned on as a young Marine stationed in Okinawa, Japan. But after his Japanese girlfriend Mayumi called him with the news she was pregnant with their daughter, Elias said he eagerly made the transition into husband and father.
He brought Mayumi to the United States and married her. Their daughter, Jade, was born months later.
Just before Elias deployed to Iraq in 2007, they found out Mayumi was pregnant again. Their son Michael was born while he was overseas.
With his young family waiting for him at home, Elias counted the days until he returned to the United States. But his Humvee was hit by an IED and Elias, blown back into the cabin, suffered a traumatic brain injury.
When he returned home, he said, things had changed.
"It wasn't the same as when I had left," he said
Mayumi soon began dating another Japanese national – a travel agent. Elias got a girlfriend.
But when the two went to court to begin deciding custody for Jade and baby Michael, a judge ordered neither party to leave New Jersey with the children – and demanded Mayumi turn over the children's American and Japanese passports, which she did.
Months later, in December 2008, Mayumi disappeared with the children, taking them to Japan.
Elias, who later learned through flight records that his children had been given duplicate passports at a Japanese consulate, was devastated.
He has since been cut off from all contact with his children. He last saw an image of Jade, now 5, in a Skype conversation more than a year ago. He fears his son Michael, now 3 1/2, will no longer remember him.
ABC News was unable to locate Mayumi for comment.
Elias is hoping the U.S. Department of State will someday be able to bring his children back home.
"When I was asked to serve in a war I did it without question," Elias said. "And now all I ask is for something [that] belongs to not only me, this country."
Navy Cdr. Paul Toland first spotted his future wife at a running club while he was stationed in Japan. Too shy to talk to her at first, he said he eventually worked up enough nerve to ask her out using a Japanese-English translator.
It was a gesture, he says, that would lead to years of happy marriage and the birth of their daughter, Erika.
By the time Erika was born in 2002, Toland and his wife Etsuko had been married for seven years. She became a U.S. citizen shortly after in preparation for the family's eventual move back to the United States.
But when Erika was less than a year old, Etsuko, who Toland said had became increasingly unhappy, took Erika from their Navy housing and cut off all contact.
"I was at work one day and I got a phone call from my neighbors saying 'Are you moving back to the States? … And I said what are you talking about,'" Toland said. "And they said 'Well, there's a moving van outside your house.' When I got home my wife and my daughter and all our stuff was gone."
Etsuko committed suicide four years later and her mother, Akiko Futagi immediately took guardianship of Erika. Toland, Erika's sole surviving parent, has never been allowed to spend time with his daughter
ABC News found Futagi and Erika in northern Tokyo. Futagi accused Toland of being a dead-beat father who has never paid her for raising his daughter.
"He doesn't pay anything to bring her up," Futagi said. When asked if she would let Toland see Erika, her response was quick. "No," she said.
Toland said he has tried to put money into a bank account for his daughter, but Futagi rejected his lawyer's offer.
"The State Department has tried to visit with my daughter a number of times and have been rejected," Toland said. "They even asked the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to try to visit with my daughter and they were rejected. And once again they came back and said, 'Sorry, we tried there's nothing we can do.'"
Scott Sawyer never dreamed his once happy family would be destroyed, and that his only child would be thousands of miles out of reach.
But after he filed for divorce from his ex-wife in 2008, she took off for her native Japan, brining their then-2-year-old son, Wayne, with her. He hasn't seen his son since.
"My concern is for my son," Sawyer said. "What kind of life is he having in Japan right now? What has he been told about why he can't see his father?"
It was something he feared would happen. Before his wife left California with their son, he tried to convince a judge she was a flight risk. Court documents show his ex was ordered to turn over her passport.
"She had said repeatedly, 'I want to go to Japan. I want to take the baby to Japan,'" he said. "I knew if that happened they wouldn't come back."
Sawyer's ex, who spoke to ABC News under the condition that we not use her name or show her face, said she knows she is considered a kidnapper. It was something, she said, she felt she had to do. She did not think she could survive on her own in the United States.
"At the time, my choices was just two – kidnapper or die," she said. "I can't live in Los Angeles."
She told ABC News she fears Sawyer will kidnap their son and bring him back to the United States.
"If he promise me that he doesn't, he will not kidnap my son from Japan, he can see my son any time," she said. "I would really, no problem. I will support my ex in Japan."