The US and Japanese media are focusing much attention on the arrest of Christopher Savoie in Fukuoka. The English language press deems this as yet another case of a victim of Japan’s pre-modern family law. Undeniably, there is a history of Japanese mothers suddenly fleeing to Japan where they are beyond the reach of the law, resulting in more than a hundred abduction cases involving Japan and the US alone, and this needs revision. But sympathetic press articles notwithstanding, Christopher is the wrong martyr to rally behind in this fight — an objective view of the facts makes Christopher’s ex-wife Noriko the figure of sympathy in this story.
Christopher and Noriko met and married in Japan. Christopher had a PhD and was a successful entrepreneur who founded a pharmaceutical business that he took public on the Tokyo stock exchange. He is also a naturalized Japanese citizen. They were married for thirteen years and have two children, currently ages 8 and 6.
While living in Japan, the marriage was breaking down and Noriko asked Christopher for a divorce, which he refused. Instead he convinced Noriko to move with him to the US and they did so in June 2008. No sooner had they moved than Christopher took up with another woman and served Noriko with divorce papers. Noriko was dependent on her husband and had no income for herself and had just been relocated to his home town in a country that she did not know, although she may have been relieved that she was getting the divorce she wanted a year earlier and probably also happy to receive custody of the kids and a generous financial settlement and monthly support. But the arrangements required that she stay in Tennessee and not even visit Japan without court permission. Although we cannot be sure, all the facts make it likely that Christopher was motivated to relocate to his home town to get divorced in a US court.
Thus Noriko was stuck in a country where she was culturally and personally isolated, abandoned by her husband but still expected to raise kids in a new country so her husband could get visitation. So in August, Noriko absconded to Japan with the two kids. Christopher then petitioned the court and was granted custodial rights. He then went to Japan and physically snatched his kids from his wife as they walked to school by force in a car — the very definition of “abduction.” He then raced to the US Consulate in Fukuoka, where the guards refused him entry and he was arrested outside by police. He is being held by police for 10 days and has not yet been charged.
What a US-Japanese citizen hoped to gain in a US consulate is questionable. And the action was clearly pre-meditated. But much of this narrative is lost in the US media reports, which are overwhelmingly sympathetic to Christopher and speak in implied terms of a vast, cultural conspiracy in Japan to favor mothers. The Huffington Post says “Divorced fathers in Japan typically don’t get much access to their children because of widespread cultural beliefs that small children should be with their mothers,” and Forbes writes that the case “underscores long-standing disputes over Japan’s traditional favoritism toward mothers in custody battles.” That’s utter nonsense. The statistics imply that mothers win custody in Japan at approximately the same proportion as the US — and as for Japanese “culture,” fathers were more likely to receive custody until the 1960s. On the contrary, the bias towards mothers is far more ingrained in US culture — for more than a century US courts followed the Tender Years doctrine, under which mothers get prima facie rights to child custody disputes. (Although many state courts have abandoned this on the basis of the 14th amendment equal protection clause, it still exists in many US states.)
There are also lots of factual mistakes in the reporting, such as reporting by CNN that “Japanese law… recognizes Noriko Savoie as the primary custodian.” Actually, Japanese law says that two Japanese citizens are still married, as they are both Japanese nationals and bust be divorced in Japan for the divorce to be valid, in which case there is no way that Noriko is the primary custodian. And while Japan does not have joint custody of children, there are visitation rights. (It is also reported that Noriko has dual US and Japanese citizenship, although the how and why of that is unclear.)
Terrie’s Take of Japan Inc. fame was cited by Debito as being “the best, most thorough, most balanced opinion yet on the case.” (Actually, like much of what Terrie writes, it’s a sloppy newsletter with numerous factual errors.) But beyond that, the most amusing part of that article is that it states,
What is surprising is that [Christopher] chose to get his kids back in a way that exposed him to many untested theories. One of these theories has been that it is OK to abduct your kids back. Indeed the police often do turn a blind eye to home disputes and will allow “mini-abductions” to happen.
Kidnapping as an untested theories? Yes, the cops and courts do try to keep out of family disputes whenever possible — but what Christopher did was kidnapping pure and simple, and even his lawyer has basically already admitted that he was wrong to use force. We can’t guess how this is going to be sorted out, but my guess is that Noriko is about to get some justice in court, and Christopher’s nutty stunts will prejudice him in getting visitation rights. That’s a good thing — and you can think that and still want Japan to modernize its family law to meet international standards.