A Killing Separation
The life and career of Arnaud Simon once could have exemplified the excellent relationship between Japan and France. A young French historian teaching in Tokyo, Simon was preparing a thesis on the history of thought during the Edo Period. He was married to a Japanese woman. They had one son.
But on Nov. 20, Arnaud Simon took his own life. He hanged himself. He did not need to leave an explanatory note; his closest friends knew he had lost the appetite for living because his wife would not allow Simon to see his son after their marriage broke up. Simon apparently tried on multiple occasions to take his boy home from school, but the police blocked the young father each time.
“The lawyers he met were trying to appease him, not help him,” one of his former colleagues remembers.
Another Frenchman in the same situation, Christophe Guillermin, committed suicide in June. These two deaths are terrible reminders of the hell some foreign parents inhabit in Japan – and because of Japan. When a couple separates here, custody of any children is traditionally awarded to the mother. After that, the children rarely have contact with the “other side”; they are supposed to delete the losing parent from their lives.
There is no tradition of visitation rights in Japan, and even when those rights are granted, the victory generally comes at the end of a long and costly judicial battle fought in Japanese courts. The visitation rights given are also typically very limited – sometimes just a couple of hours per month. Worse yet, the mother ultimately decides whether she wants to abide by the agreement. The police will not intervene if she refuses, on the grounds that this is a private matter. While there are exceptions, Japanese fathers seem to have basically accepted this practice. For foreign fathers, it is almost universally impossible and unbearable.
France is particularly touched by these tragedies. There have been many unions between Japanese women and French men, and many breakups. Simon’s death was shocking enough to the French community for the French ambassador to issue a stern and in many ways personal press release afterward: “Mr. Simon recently told the Consulate of the hardships he endured to meet his son, and it is most probable that to be cut off from his son was one of the main reasons (for his suicide). This reminds us, if necessary, of the pain of the 32 French fathers and of the 200 other (foreign cases involving) fathers known to foreign consulates as deprived of their parental rights.”
During a recent trip related to this subject in Japan, French judge and legal expert Mahrez Abassi said: “Japan has not ratified the Hague Convention on civil aspects of international children’s abductions. There is no bilateral convention on this topic, and our judicial decisions are not recognized in Japan.” Tokyo is in a precarious position on this issue, since one of the main topics of Japan’s diplomacy is the case of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea, for which Japan requires international solidarity.
Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs seems preoccupied by the problem, which only promises to grow because of the constant rise of international divorces in Japan – now at 6 percent – and of Japanese-foreign births (20,000). Various diplomatic delegations have visited Japan to discuss the issue. France and Japan set up a “consulting committee on the child at the center of a parental conflict” in December 2009. But the National Police Agency, the Justice Ministry, and Japanese civil society in general care little about the issue.
“There is no system better than another for the child after a breakup,” says a foreign psychiatrist who has followed cases of foreign fathers that have lost access to their children in Japan. “The French and American systems have deep flaws as well. But it is simply unbearable for a French father, for example, to be unable to meet his child.”
A French lawyer based in Tokyo, adds: “The principle of joint custody as it is known in France does not exist in Japan. To implement such a principle here, we would have to amend the Civil Code, which is very hard for family law matters in this country. If this change is enacted, the police should then compel Japanese families to hand over the ‘disputed’ child to the foreign father. This seems pretty hard to achieve.” ❶
Regis Arnaud is the Japan correspondent of leading French daily Le Figaro and has been covering Japan since 1995. He is also a movie producer. His next project, called CUT, laments the decline of the Japanese movie industry.