Japan, Divorces, and Child Custody: Which Role Can the EU Play?
Being a divorced parent in Japan is not easy. One individual who has recently shed light on this situation is actually an Italian citizen: Tommaso Perina (Fabiano, 2020). The man started the fight to see his children again years ago. After moving to Japan in 2003 and marrying nine years later, Perina fathered two children, Marcello and Sofia. Only a few years after the marriage, Perina was left by his Japanese wife, which began the turbulent and difficult journey of fighting for his rights and those of his son and daughter. Perina’s situation reflects the stringent regulations determined by Japanese family law, according to which, in a case of divorce, the permission to see the child or children of the couple is attributed exclusively to one of the two parents. If the other parent tries to find a way to see their son or daughter again, he or she can technically contact the Japanese authorities and seek legal advice; nevertheless, communication between the two sides is often difficult as the Japanese culture tends to view family disputes as strictly private matters.
One among many
Perina is not the only one in this situation. Sky Italy’s journalists (Sky Video, 2021) have interviewed a Frenchman, Vincent Fichot, who found himself in the same situation. Fichot took advantage of the international attention given to the Japan during the two weeks of the Olympic Games to start a hunger strike in one of the busiest train stations of Tokyo. His struggle has led to his hospitalisation (Ryall, 2021), following three weeks of fasting under July’s hot sun in the capital of Japan. Sky’s investigation outlines how the question of child custody is not problematic exclusively for mixed couples, formed by a Japanese and a foreigner; it can also lead to difficulties even if both parents are born in Japan. Once the separation is completed, as soon as the son(s) and daughter(s) start to live with one of the two parents, it is almost impossible for them to see or get in touch with the other parent.
Perina has now turned to look for the support of the international community. One actor that could potentially be of help is the European Union; likewise, it can do something for other parents coming from the EU that find themselves in the same situation. Around one year ago, the European Parliament adopted a Resolution concerning the “international and domestic parental abduction of EU children in Japan”. The Resolution calls the number of unsolved cases of child abductions in couples composed of a Japanese and a European partner "alarming." Recently, in light of Fichot's hunger strike that took place during the Olympic Games, the European Union Ambassador to Japan, Patricia Flor, has underlined that the issue does not concern exclusively EU-Japan relations (Yiu and Murakami, 2021), but children’s rights in the broader framework of international law, as they are protected in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. More specifically, Article 9.3 of this Convention states that “States Parties shall respect the right of the child who is separated from one or both parents to maintain personal relations and direct contact with both parents on a regular basis, except if it is contrary to the child's best interests” (United Nations Treaty Collection, Chapter IV).
How can a trade deal help?
On February 1st, 2019, an important agreement involving Japan and the EU was signed. The Economic Partnership Agreement between the European Union and Japan (EPA) removes trade barriers between the two actors and carries significant symbolic weight in displaying the friendship of the two territories to the international community. Tommaso Perina has referred to this Treaty in arguing his case (Fabiano, 2020), and it is true that the EPA takes human rights into consideration. In its preamble, the Agreement clearly states that the two sides reaffirm “their commitment to the Charter of the United Nations […] having regard to the principles articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Additionally, human rights are well-envisaged in various other EU international treaties. The first reference to the human rights clause (European Parliament Briefing, 2019), which allows the suspension of international treaties in case of human rights violations, was made in the Lomé Convention of 1989. In addition, the EU considers individual rights in trade deals through the consideration of privacy and data protection, as was also mentioned in the EPA with Japan.
Agreements stipulated with third parties represent a way for the EU to promote its norms and fundamental values externally, contributing to its Global Strategy launched in 2016 by the former High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the European Commission, Federica Mogherini. Despite the fact that within the EU, family law remains a competence of the single member states, the bloc can use its internationally established treaties and agreements to support the rights of European citizens to see their children and enjoy family life, which is also considered in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights (ECFR). Moreover, it is important to remind Japan of its duties related the UN’s aforementioned Convention, which the country has ratified in 1994.
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