The Sydney Morning Herald
In 2007, when Daniel Wass was 31, he enrolled in a Japanese language course at Penrith’s Nepean Community College. Daniel, who lived in Warrimoo in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, worked as a sales rep for his dad’s lawn-mowing business, but had plans to start his own business helping Australian companies sell garden equipment to the Japanese. He was also caught up in a messy divorce from his wife of 10 years, with whom he had two young children.
“It was fairly chaotic,” he says, sitting on the deck of his Blue Mountains home, overlooking thick stands of apple gum and bloodwood. “The lessons gave me a routine and a sense of achievement.”
One of Wass’s teachers was a vivacious Japanese woman named Yuka. Yuka, who was 36, had been in Australia for 10 years. “She had deep, dark eyes and wavy brown hair,” Wass says. “She was witty and funny. I was intrigued by her and was also learning a lot from her.” After a time, Yuka began holding small classes at her home. Sometimes Wass would stick around afterwards to ask questions. Before long, they were seeing each other.
Yuka lived in Penrith, not far from Wass’s home. “We’d go bushwalking, cook meals for one another,” he says. “I had a caravan, so we’d go away for weekends.” Yuka had a 10-year-old son, called Kye, by another Australian man. Yuka and Kye would go out for dinner with Wass and his children, Aiden, who was then eight, and Elena, who was six.
“My parents have a farm, so we’d all go out there and swim in the creek and ride quad bikes.” (Kye’s father did not want to take part in this story.)
His lawyer persuaded Yuka to let Wass see Sean, and scheduled a meeting for June 1, 2010. But when June 1 came around, Yuka didn’t show.
Wass, who is now 43, has a close-cropped beard and blue eyes. He is big and burly – 186 centimetres tall and 97 kilograms – but gentle and articulate, with a deep sense of curiosity. He brews his own beer, even growing his own hops in the backyard, together with pumpkins, corn and strawberries. “Daniel is down to earth,” says his current partner, Tara. “He’s level-headed and empathetic, but he also knows what he wants.”
After two years with Yuka, Wass wanted to end the relationship. “When I told her it wasn’t going to work, she burst into tears and told me she was pregnant.” Keen to do the right thing, Wass promised to help. Yuka’s mum came from Japan. Together they set up a nursery at Yuka’s house, using the same cot that Aiden and Elena had slept in. “Sean was born in March, 2009,” Wass says. “Everyone was there: Yuka’s mum, Kye, Aiden, Elena and me. I cut the cord and all that stuff. It was a happy day.”
Though Yuka and Wass were separated, he assisted where he could, sleeping over at Yuka’s house to help with the night feeds. He wanted to see more of Sean, but Yuka made it increasingly difficult. When her mother left, in April, 2009, Yuka’s attitude hardened. “It was like a brick wall went up,” Wass says. “I wanted to put in place an access arrangement, whereby Aiden and Elena and I could see Sean, but Yuka refused to communicate.”
Wass hired a lawyer. He also did some research, and came across stories of Japanese mothers abducting their children after a separation. He suspected Yuka might do likewise, and suggested to his solicitor they put Yuka on an airport watch list, but this never happened.
After a year, Wass had seen Sean only a handful of times. Fed up, he pursued further legal action. His lawyer persuaded Yuka to let Wass see Sean, and scheduled a meeting for June 1, 2010. But when June 1 came around, Yuka didn’t show. She couldn’t be found, and wasn’t responding to phone calls. Wass then managed to get hold of her travel documents. They showed that Yuka had left the country with Sean and Kye on May 10, three weeks earlier. “I was heartbroken,” says Wass, wincing at the memory.
That was almost 10 years ago, and he hasn’t seen his son or Yuka since.
Cases like Sean’s are officially known as international parental child abductions. The Australian government doesn’t keep exact figures, but child recovery expert Colin Chapman believes that roughly 1200 Australian children are abducted each year to countries such as the US, New Zealand, England, and Japan. This number is thought to be growing, due to Australia’s increasingly diverse community, cross-cultural relationships, and the ease of international travel. In many of these cases, the parents left behind will never see their children again.
Such abductions violate a number of international protocols, including the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which holds that children have a right to see both parents on a regular basis after separation. Not allowing them to do so can inflict lasting psychological damage on both parents and children, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and parental alienation, which some health bodies now classify as child abuse.
There are, worldwide, about 1150 cases of child abduction to Japan every year – only 1 per cent of whom will be recovered.
In 1980, in an effort to address the problem, the Hague Conference, an intergovernmental organisation based in the Netherlands, came up with the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. The Hague Convention mediates international child abduction cases and provides a legal process through which a parent can seek to have their child returned to their home country, defined as “the child’s place of habitual residence”.
As of July 2019, 101 countries were signatories. (Australia became a member in 1994.) There are, however, plenty of countries that haven’t signed up, including India, China, Egypt, Lebanon, Indonesia and Malaysia. If your child is taken to one of these “non-Hague” countries, getting them back becomes almost impossible.
But even in countries that have signed up, recovering a child can be nightmarishly difficult. Of these countries, the worst is Japan, which has a well-earned reputation as a “black hole” of international child abduction. Chapman believes there are, worldwide, about 1150 cases of child abduction to Japan every year – some put the figure closer to 2000 – only 1 per cent of whom will be recovered. Of the roughly 120 kids taken from Australia to Japan over the past 10 years, only a handful have been returned by legal means.
Japan signed the Hague Convention in 2014 – the last of the G7 countries to do so. But it has made little difference, due in part to the country’s unique legal and cultural circumstances. Japan is one of the few developed nations in the world not to recognise joint custody upon separation.
Traditionally, children have not been regarded as individuals with rights but as property belonging to the household, much like a kitchen table or a painting, which is apportioned to one or other parent after divorce.
There is also the “principle of continuity”, according to which shared parenting is thought to be disruptive. (Perversely, this encourages parents to abduct first, knowing that once a child is in their custody, it’s unlikely that a court will order that they be moved.)
Police, meanwhile, regard divorce as a private matter and are reluctant to intervene, especially when a foreigner is involved. Even if a court order does provide for shared custody, visitation rights are routinely ignored. Consequently, the abducting parent has the sole ability to determine the frequency and nature of access, which can be withdrawn on a whim.
One Australian father I talk to lost his son when his wife took the boy on a holiday to Japan in 2015 and never came back. “Now she is the absolute gatekeeper in regard to contact,” the father says. “Sometimes I’m allowed to speak to him in a video call, other times she cancels it.” Even when he does talk to his son, the contact is so brief that “it’s essentially just a proof of life”.
Parents who abduct their children would no doubt have what they consider to be legitimate reasons for doing so. Good Weekend could only get one side of the story – that of the parents left behind. Japan, for its part, has defended its record on child abduction.
In an email to Good Weekend, the Japanese embassy in Canberra says that Japan has provided “necessary assistance” in line with the Hague Convention, and since signing the treaty has returned 45 children to their home countries. The embassy describes the term “black hole of child abduction” as “inappropriate”, and claims that “Japan’s records [on addressing the problem] are no less inferior compared to other states”.
Yet instances of abduction continue both to, and within, Japan. Scott McIntyre, an Australian father living in Tokyo, has had no contact whatsoever with his children, aged 10 and seven, since they were taken by his wife, Naoko, last May. McIntyre, who is 45, met Naoko in Sydney in 2004, when she came on holiday. They married and had two children, both of whom were born in Australia.
In 2015, they moved to Tokyo to be closer to Naoko’s family. Late last year, however, the marriage broke down. The children went to stay with their Japanese grandparents for a night, and never returned.
“I have no information as to their whereabouts,” McIntyre says. “I have no idea if they are in Tokyo, another Japanese city or elsewhere. I’ve asked her lawyer repeatedly for a simple photo to show that they’re alive but those requests have all gone unanswered.”
McIntyre repeatedly asked the Australian embassy in Tokyo for help, but he claims it offered little more than meetings with “coffee and cake”.
At one stage, McIntyre pursued legal avenues to discuss parenting arrangements, but his wife and her lawyer didn’t show up. (Naoko and her lawyer did not reply to requests for comment.) For several weeks after the abduction, McIntyre had access to Naoko’s email, which showed she had been planning the abduction for weeks and she had since hidden the children in various locations in and around Tokyo.
“She forced my daughter to cut her hair to disguise her and would only let the children out to play in the dark of night in case they were spotted.”
McIntyre repeatedly asked the Australian embassy in Tokyo for help, but he claims it offered little more than meetings with “coffee and cake”. (The embassy told Good Weekend in an email that “the department is committed to assisting our clients as much as possible on all consular cases that we
McIntyre doesn’t dare leave Japan, believing it might make it easier for Naoko to divorce him and remarry. Under Japanese law, her new partner could then adopt the children without having to notify McIntyre. “In that case,” he says, “I have absolutely no rights to even be recognised as a parent for the remainder of their lives.”
After Yuka fled with Sean, in 2010, Daniel Wass tried to contact her by email and phone, and by enlisting mutual friends to convince her to talk to him, but she never responded. (Yuka did not reply to requests for comment.) Wass lobbied his federal MP to explore diplomatic options. He contacted the Australian Federal Police (AFP), the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), and the Australian Embassy in Tokyo. “They said that as Japan was then not part of the Hague Convention, there was nothing they could do.”
He also began publishing a video diary, filming himself on a beach or going to the shops with Aiden and Elena, which he then uploaded to YouTube every day for a year. Each clip ended with Wass telling Sean he loved him very much and hoped to see him soon. “I wanted to give Sean a point of contact,” says Wass, “something that would capture everything about us at the time he was taken.”
Then, in 2012, with no options left, he went to Japan to find Sean himself.
The only address in Japan that Wass had was on the back of a birthday card that Yuka’s mother sent him when he and Yuka were still together. The address was in Noda, a mid-sized city 30 kilometres north-east of Tokyo. When Wass showed up, he found a black metal gate behind which was a compound with three homes. Yuka had mentioned to Wass how one of the homes was hers, and how she always stayed in it when she visited Japan. There was another house where her parents lived, and one for her brother. When Wass arrived, he was greeted by Yuka’s mother, Emi, and father, Takaichiro.
“They were all very friendly on the face of it,” says Wass, who had a translator to help him. “They told me that they’d had a falling-out with Yuka, and that they didn’t know where she was. They said, ‘We haven’t seen Sean, either, so we know how you feel.’ ” Wass asked if they had any photos of Sean, and Yuka’s father showed him one, on his phone, of a little boy sitting on a box. He emailed the photo to Wass. Wass then spotted Yuka’s brother, across the yard, and went to talk to him.
“I thought maybe I’d have more leverage with him, but he carried on with the same line, about how he hadn’t seen Yuka or Sean, either. He did give me another photo, though, just of Sean’s face.” After two hours, Wass and the translator left. “The parents wanted me to think they couldn’t help, but they were lying.” (Emi and Takaichiro did not respond to requests for comment.)
It would be another two years before Wass visited again. This time he took along his new partner, Tara. He also brought photos of Aiden and Elena, together with a letter, translated into Japanese, from his parents, Graham and Lyn, addressed to Emi and Takaichiro.
“We are writing to appeal to you as grandparents to grandparents,” the letter begins. “It breaks our heart to think that [we may not] have the opportunity to see Sean … We hope you sympathise with what is a heartbreaking loss to us and help lessen our pain through regular contact and photos.”
When they got back to the hotel in Tokyo, at about 10.30pm, they found three policemen waiting for them.
When Wass and Tara turned up, Emi met them at the gate. “But she wouldn’t let us in,” Wass says. “She stood behind the gate and said, ‘You’re not Sean’s father. You’ve got a new family, go home and get on with your life.’ I said, ‘I am Sean’s father, and here are some photos of Sean’s siblings.’ ” Wass tried to hand the photos through the gate, together with the letter from Graham and Lyn. “I said, ‘Please read it,’ but Emi wouldn’t touch them.”
Wass put them in the letterbox, but Emi took them out and threw them onto the street. Wass then picked them up and put them back into the letterbox, and Emi pulled them out and threw them onto the street again. “I took a photo with my phone of her throwing them on the street, which made her angry.” As Wass and Tara walked away, Emi opened the gate and ran after them, yelling.
On the way home, Wass and Tara stopped at a street festival in Kashiwa, about 15 kilometres away, where they had dinner. When they got back to the hotel in Tokyo, at about 10.30pm, they found three policemen waiting for them. The police said they had some lost property of Wass’s, including his wallet, which must have fallen out of his backpack while he was remonstrating with Emi. The police also had the letter from Graham and Lyn.
Wass thanked them for the wallet, but said that the letter wasn’t his. “I said it was addressed to Yuka’s parents, and they should take it back,” he says. But the police refused. When Wass asked what the police would do with the letter, they said it would be taken to the station. If it wasn’t claimed within a certain period of time, it would be destroyed.
Japan has a long history of isolationism. Under a policy known as sakoku, from the 17th to the 19th centuries, nearly all foreigners were barred from entering Japan, while no common Japanese were permitted to leave. Japan is still one of the most homogenous nations on earth; according to 2018 census statistics, 97.8 per cent of the population is ethnic Japanese.
Socially conservative and bound by tradition, Japan has proved itself largely impervious to outside influences, whether it be the #MeToo movement or the whaling moratorium. The same goes for the Hague Convention, which is more or less ignored, and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
In a recent court case, heard in the Tokyo District Court, a group of Japanese parents (child abduction also affects locals) argued that by not enforcing child visitation rights, Japan was contravening the CRC. The presiding judge, Tatsuro Maezawa, ruled against them, describing the treaty, which Japan ratified in 1994, as “merely an agreement to respect”, which had no binding power.
Now another challenge is in train. Last August, the French legal firm, Zimeray & Finelle, lodged a complaint before the UN Human Rights Council accusing Japanese courts, lawmakers and police of serious and repeated violations of the CRC. “The police facilitate abductions by refusing to record complaints of child abduction,” Paris-based lawyer Jessica Finelle tells me via email. “They also threaten the excluded parent with prosecution if they attempt to find their child.”
The courts, meanwhile, favour the abducting parent by ordering extremely restrictive visitation rights – as little as two hours per month. “This is a tragedy,” says Finelle, who is bringing the complaint on behalf of 13 children who have been cut off from their parent, and one Japanese mother named Masaka Akeo, whose son, Kazuya, was abducted by her then husband, a Japanese man, in 2005. (Akeo died of a suspected heart attack in September, without being reunited with him.)
Finelle is arguing for the appointment of a UN special rapporteur to monitor Japan’s conduct, and the adoption of a resolution urging Japan to refrain from its continued violations.
Most of the abductors in Japan are women, but fathers do it, too. One Tuesday night last April, Catherine Henderson, an Australian living in Tokyo, came home from work to find that her husband, Akio, had taken their 14-year-old daughter, Marina, and 10-year-old son, Hayato.
“Not only that, but he took the car, couch, TV, washing machine and microwave. The house was almost empty.” (Akio did not reply to requests for comment.) Henderson, who is 49, teaches English at a private school in Tokyo. She has shoulder-length brown hair, green eyes and a manner that is, considering everything she has been through, almost heroically buoyant. “I’ve done a shitload of counselling,” she tells me via FaceTime. “At one stage, I was ringing my mother every day. I also take anti-anxiety medication when I need to.”
Since the abduction, Henderson has endured a series of pointless mediation sessions and traumatic court hearings. Akio’s lawyers have accused her of being abusive in the relationship, and of pulling a knife on him, allegations she denies. She believes that her children, who she is not allowed to see, have been poisoned against her.
“One time I stood outside my son’s school and waved to him as he went in, but he ignored me,” she says. Another time, she waited on a train platform for her daughter to pass by in a carriage. “I saw her through the window, and I walked up to the glass. I then got sent a complaint from Akio’s lawyer saying that I was intimidating her.”
“They think it will cause conflict to share a child between parents. So one parent gets all the kids and the other goes and commits suicide on the living room floor.”
Catherine Henderson, whose two children were abducted last April.
Henderson describes her situation as “a messed-up version of hell”. At her last court hearing, she broke down and began sobbing. “They all looked at me like I was this strange specimen. They thought that crying was inappropriate. But even as I was crying, I was thinking, ‘No, actually, crying hysterically is the only appropriate reaction. Sitting there like robots is not the appropriate reaction.’ ”
The problem, she believes, is exacerbated by the country’s paramount aversion to conflict.
“They think it will cause conflict to share a child between parents. So one parent gets all the kids all the time and the other parent goes and commits suicide on the living room floor. Or they give up and pretend they never had kids to begin with.”
In November, during the Rugby World Cup in Japan, Henderson took part in a demonstration against child abduction, along with about 20 other “left-behind parents”. The protest, which was held outside Yokohama Stadium, was jointly organised by a Japanese anti-child-abduction organisation and a French group called Sauvons Nos Enfants (Save Our Children).
“The people walking past knew nothing about the topic,” says Henderson. “Most Japanese don’t know anything about it, either. When you tell them, they say, ‘Isn’t it illegal? Can’t the lawyers help you?’ ”
The issue has become a diplomatic embarrassment for Japan. In 2018, ambassadors from 26 European Union countries wrote a letter asking the Japanese government to respect the right of children to see their parents.
“Australia is more interested in protecting the rights of beef and lamb sellers than those of Australian children who have been abducted.”
During the G20 summit in Osaka in June, French President Emmanuel Macron met a delegation of French fathers and raised their cases with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Macron described the men’s predicament as “totally unacceptable”, adding that “we will do everything to stand by [them]”.
The Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, also raised the issue with Abe. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who was also at the summit, made no mention of it.
“It’s shameful,” says Scott McIntyre, whose children were taken last May. “Australia is more interested in protecting the rights of beef and lamb sellers than those of Australian children who have been abducted.”
McIntyre has become increasingly desperate. In late November, he gained access to the common area of the apartment building where his parents-in-law live. “I didn’t touch or do anything,” he says. “I just looked outside the door of my parents-in-law to see if the kids’ shoes or umbrellas were there.” But he was spotted; the police were called and he was arrested.
McIntyre was charged with illegal entry, which under Japanese law carries a maximum penalty of three years, or ¥100,000 (about $1350). He was held in Takaido detention centre, in west Tokyo, where he was allowed one shower every five days, and where his cell was lit for 24 hours a day.
“Scott couldn’t even wash his clothes,” says Catherine Henderson, who has become a close friend and visited him regularly. “We took stuff for him like clothes and books, but they were often refused. There is no privacy, even for the toilet.”
In January, McIntyre was found guilty of trespass and given a six-month suspended sentence. After his release, he spoke to journalists in front of the court, wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt with “Stop parental child abduction” written across it in Japanese and English. “All I and other parents want is for Japan to join the civilised world and institute a system of joint custody,” he said emphatically.
“This is not a way for a modern society to operate. Children deserve two parents.”McIntyre adds that, since his arrest, the Australian embassy in Tokyo has been “excellent”. “They met with the Japanese Ministry of Justice and put their objection to Japan’s custody laws on the record. They also met with me and other LBPs [left-behind parents] for almost an hour, and are trying to do what they can, which is a positive.”
The Federal Attorney-General’s department website offers advice about what to do if your child is abducted to another country. It says parents should seek legal advice, and contact the AFP and DFAT. There is also a section on what to do if you suspect that your child is at risk of being abducted, which includes getting hold of your child’s passport and having police place your child’s name on the Family Law Watchlist. What it doesn’t mention is that abducting a child is not a criminal offence in Australia, unless the matter is before the Family Court. (It’s thought that making the abductor criminally liable would dissuade him or her from returning with the children voluntarily.)
Most left-behind parents only discover this after their child has been abducted. The next thing they discover is that they are required by Australian law to pay child support to the abducting parent, even when that parent is overseas. The payments are calculated on the percentage of care. Since the abducting parent has the child 100 per cent of the time, they are awarded 100 per cent of the entitlement.
One father tells me he has been paying $1200 per month to his ex-partner in Japan since February 2016. When I ask how he feels about this, he says he’s not exactly thrilled but that he wants to contribute to his son’s life, “because I love him with all my heart”.
Left-behind parents suffer almost unbearable grief. Suicides are not uncommon. Paul Brown, a sales rep who lives in Toowoomba in Queensland, lost his son, Liam, then two-and-a-half, when his wife, Tomiko, fled to Japan with him in 2005. “I struggled for a long time afterwards,” Brown says. “I was severely depressed. I couldn’t function properly. I became homeless, living in a backpackers’ hostel. I tried to drown myself in a sink in the hostel. Another time, I had a drill in my hand with a drill bit in it, and I was about to press it into my temple when someone knocked on the door.”
Brown now has a daughter, who is nine, and an 18-year-old stepson. “The pain is never not there,” he says. “I have a picture of Liam on my phone’s screensaver. When I’m doing stuff with my stepson and daughter, I think of Liam and wonder what he would be doing. Even when my daughter was little, she’d laugh and play on the swings and it would remind me of how Liam would laugh and play.”
Brown and Tomiko were in the middle of separating when she took Liam. (Tomiko could not be reached for comment.) One day, just before Tomiko fled, Brown got a phone call from her mother. “She said to me, ‘Let them go. Just move on and have more kids.’ She thought if I had more kids, that would replace Liam. But I told her, ‘It doesn’t matter if I have more kids. Liam is still my son no matter what.’ It’s like when you have a kid die, and then you have another kid, it’s not like the new kid replaces the dead kid. The dead kid is always in your mind and heart. But she didn’t see it that way.”
In 2015, Daniel Wass made his third attempt to find Sean. He took Aiden, who was 15, and Elena, then 10. When they arrived at Tokyo’s Narita airport, they were stopped at customs. Elena was sent to one counter and Aiden to another. When it came to Wass’s turn, the customs officer asked him where his children were. Wass said they were at the other counters. The customs officer said, “No, your other children.”
By that time, Wass had had a baby girl with Tara, his second wife. Wass said, “I have a newborn in Australia.” The customs officer said, “No, your children in Japan.” Wass then told them he had a son, Sean, in Noda.
At that point, Wass, Aiden and Elena were taken into a side room and interrogated. “They asked where I was staying, what I was doing, who I was seeing,” says Wass. “I was prepared for that. I had my travel documents in a folder, so I could bring them out when they asked.”
I turned to Aiden and Elena and said, ‘Well, that’s where your brother lives.’ And we got on with our holiday.
Wass had booked a hotel in Kashiwa, about 45 minutes away from Yuka’s parents, to allay suspicions that he intended to visit them. “But the officers still asked me why I was staying in Kashiwa.” Wass said he had friends there, which was true, but the officers weren’t satisfied. They wanted to know how Wass had met these “friends”, how often he talked to them, even how their names were spelled. “Eventually, after about 45 minutes, they let us go.”
Two days later, Wass and the kids visited Yuka’s house. Her father, Takaichiro, was up a ladder, about 30 metres away, cleaning the gutters. Wass said, “I’m here to see Sean, and I’ve got his older brother and sister here.” Takaichiro stayed on his ladder. “He just said, ‘No, no, no,’ ” says Wass. “We also had a photo album we’d prepared, of us and the family. We left that in the letterbox.” Wass took a photo. “I turned to Aiden and Elena and said, ‘Well, that’s where your brother lives.’ And we got on with our holiday.”
Wass hasn’t been back to Japan since, but he hasn’t given up. He has thought of sending postcards to the homes up and down Yuka’s street. The cards would be addressed to Sean Wass, “from Dad”, telling him how much he loves him and misses him. They would have Daniel’s contact details.
“If I send the cards to the neighbours, they might think it’s gone to the wrong house and deliver it to Yuka’s place,” says Wass. “If I can get one person who talks to Yuka’s family about it, that might help. Or Sean might see the card in the neighbour’s letterbox or in their house when he’s visiting, and that might get him thinking.” So far, he hasn’t found the energy to follow through. “The whole thing is so draining.”
A while back, Wass saw a psychologist. She told him to focus on the things he could change and put the rest aside. She also suggested some coping mechanisms for when he wakes at 4am, distraught and unable to sleep. “I’m a keen swimmer,” Wass says. “So she suggested I imagine I’m in the pool, counting strokes.” Sometimes, in the black of night, he still does this. He pictures himself diving into the water, counting strokes, one after the other, breathing calmly while he swims and swims, all the way back to Sean.
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