CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — A 20-month-old girl returned to her Okinawa home from the United States last week — the island’s first child-return case under the Hague Convention on cross-border parental kidnapping since Japan joined the treaty in 2014.
In February, the U.S. Middle District Court in Florida ordered the child’s father — a Maryland-based U.S. soldier — to return the child to her mother on Okinawa, which the court acknowledged as the girl’s “habitual residence,” said attorney Masanori Takeda.
Child abduction has long been a concern for U.S. service members and some in Congress, who initially called on Tokyo to ratify the Hague Convention and have since called for tougher enforcement within Japan.
Cultural and legal obstacles in Japan — where child abduction by one parent isn’t always viewed as a crime — have previously prevented U.S. service members and other citizens from gaining custody or seeing their children in Japan.
In this case, a judge ultimately determined that a soldier had unlawfully kept his child from the mother.
The couple “had very limited language communications” when they married in 2014 and resided with the woman’s teenage son, according to a Florida court complaint filed by the woman.
In March 2015, the woman, then pregnant, and her son moved with the soldier to their new post in Maryland, Takeda said.
After reporting domestic and sexual abuse, the Army Family Advocacy Program helped her and her son return to Okinawa, where the child was born four months later.
That October, the woman was asked by her estranged husband to attend his brother’s wedding in Florida, said Takeda, who added the man yanked the baby from her arms during the visit.
A brief fight ensued, and the woman was arrested after the husband reported domestic violence to police. The woman was unable to explain her version of events in English, according to the complaint.
She was sent to a women’s shelter after the Florida Department of Children and Families acknowledged she was a victim of domestic violence. A social worker observed a 4-by-2-inch bruise on her neck and a “silver dollar sized” bruise on her thigh, according to the court complaint.
The mother said her husband had “choked her and again forced her to have sex against her will,” according to the complaint.
The husband denied the allegations and said she had subjected him to “extreme anger, aggression, and physical violence” going back to when they were stationed in Japan, according to court documents.
Nevertheless, the soldier wrote to her in phone texts that he loved her and that “Me no like divorce talk … me no like back Okinawa talk,” according to court documents.
The soldier argued that his wife returned to the U.S. to join him to live, not just to visit.
The premise that she and the infant intended to remain in the United States was part of the reasoning that convinced a Florida court to grant the soldier custody, according to court documents.
The soldier’s lawyers asserted that the Hague Convention was not applicable to their case because of the Florida court’s judgment.
The mother’s attorneys contended “she had simply wanted a divorce and to return home to Japan with her children.”
Mari Kitada, a lecturer at Tokyo’s Kyorin University who’s an expert on the international parental child abduction treaty, said she believed the Hague Convention ruling was appropriate and consistent with the spirit of the treaty.
“While a U.S. court had awarded the father full parental custody, without the treaty, bringing the child back to Japan would have been impossible,” she said during a phone interview Thursday.
Kitada pointed to recent changes surrounding the pact in the international community, which began to focus more on a child’s best interests instead of solely focusing on the child’s habitual residence.
“As social complexities advance, various factors, to include domestic violence, must be carefully and thoroughly considered to protect the child’s safety and well-being,” she said.
According to the Hague Convention Affairs Office at Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 233 petitions for both child returns and visitation arrangements have been filed between April 1, 2014, and March 1, 2017.
Of those, 121 were requests for children to be returned to their habitual residence. Twenty-four of the cases involved parents from the U.S., a ministry spokesman said. The other 112