The Japanese government insists it has been complying with international child-abduction rules despite criticism to the contrary from Canadian parents who have been unable to gain access to their children in Japan.
In a statement, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said its top priority is to protect the interests of the children involved in such disputes.
"It is not right to see Japan as having legitimized child abduction in custody disputes, or of being a black hole for children whose parents are separated/divorced," the ministry said.
"We consider it highly important to deal with international child abduction in accordance with internationally standardized rules."
Earlier this week, The Canadian Press reported on the difficulties Canadian and other non-Japanese parents – mostly fathers – have in accessing their children in Japan after marital breakdowns. In some cases and despite court orders, the mothers have abducted the children and fled to Japan, where they remain with impunity, leaving the other parent frozen out.
Japan signed on to the Hague Convention on international child abductions in 2014 but parents say it has been of little help in getting their children returned to Canada, or even in getting access to them.
Colin Jones, a Canadian lawyer in Kyoto, said in an interview Wednesday that the problem isn't so much with adherence to the Hague Convention, but rather with a Japanese court system that lacks tools for forcing people to return children. Police will typically not get involved in custody battles, he said, and no one will use force to separate a child from a parent unwilling to hand them over.
"Even if you win, you have trouble getting the child back," Jones said. "A really recalcitrant parent can frustrate the process."
In its 2016 annual report in international parental child abductions, the U.S. State Department praised the Japanese central authority for how it manages the convention process and said the courts had processed cases and issued orders in a timely manner.
However, the report did fault the country for failing to comply with its obligations in terms of the enforcement of return orders.
"A Japanese court issued the first convention return order to United States in early 2015," the report states.
"Authorities attempted, but were unable to effectuate enforcement of the court order by Dec. 31, 2015, exposing what may be a systemic flaw in Japan's ability to enforce return orders."
One Canadian father, Tim Terstege, said custody in Japan is effectively determined by whichever parent abducts the child first, and the courts appear powerless to do anything about it. In his case, Terstege has had problems accessing his son even for the minimal court-ordered 24 hours a year.
Global Affairs Canada said it was currently dealing with 25 cases involving Canadian children in Japan but refused to comment.
Jones said Japan's legal system differs from that in North America in that judges may not necessarily have the same kind of powers to issue orders to give up a child or allow a parent access.
"One parent ends up having control of the child and (Japanese) courts just want to defer to that parent," Jones said.
While Japan has returned some abducted children to their home countries, parents might expect too much of a system that isn't designed to intercede in a way that might happen in Canada or the United States, Jones said.
"They expect some magical child-recapture organization to spring into being but it doesn't," he said. "You're basically left with what the domestic institutions already have."