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French father on hunger strike awaits Macron in Tokyo

Japan's single custody system and abductions a rare thorn for allies

Vincent Fichot, a French father whose children were abducted by his wife, began a hunger strike outside the Olympic Stadium on July 8 in a bid to persuade both the French and Japanese governments to act. To his side is Scott McIntyre, an Australian who has been separated from his two children since 2019. (Photo by Francesca Regalado)

TOKYO -- When French President Emmanuel Macron arrives in Japan on Friday, he will be the only leader of a developed nation to attend the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics.

In Tokyo, the French president is expected to meet Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and have an audience with Emperor Naruhito, as well as promote the 2024 summer Games in Paris. But Macron's most consequential meeting in Japan may be with his own countryman.

Two years have passed since Macron's last meeting with Vincent Fichot, a 15-year resident of Japan and former Nomura Securities trader whose children were taken by his wife from their Tokyo home in 2018.

Unable to see his son and daughter after three years of lobbying Japanese legislators, four lawyers, a resolution in the European Parliament and a U.N. complaint, Fichot began a hunger strike on July 8, sitting on a yoga mat outside Japan's National Stadium. The 39-year-old is taking the action to persuade both the French and Japanese governments to act.

Gaps in Japan's legal system on custody and divorce are laid bare in Fichot's case, which Macron broached with former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2019. Even worse, Fichot and his supporters argue, the ordinariness of child abductions in Japan is a human rights violation. When children of foreign parents are taken, it creates a rare point of contention between Japan and the developed nations it counts as allies.

"Japan is very good at signing treaties and passing laws to give the impression that they're changing things," Fichot told Nikkei Asia. "The existing law is enough. It's the implementation."

Japan is a signatory to both the U.N. convention on the rights of the child, which names abduction as a violation, and the Hague convention on child abductions. The former obligates countries to prevent the abduction of children, and codifies a child's right to maintain relations and contact with both parents.

"The matter is completely a domestic matter since the children did not move beyond the border. It is not a case where the Hague Convention can apply," a spokesperson for Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.

According to Fichot, local police dismissed his efforts to file missing persons reports for his children, as well as a criminal complaint against his wife. As Japanese law has no concept of joint custody, a family court judge awarded custody to his wife as the primary caregiver, as both children were then under the age of three.

Repeated attempts by France's mission in Tokyo to gain Japanese law enforcement's cooperation have been fruitless. "No information was transmitted to us concerning the location of Mr. Fichot's children and despite our efforts, we were unable to obtain that Mr. Fichot could meet his children or that this embassy be authorized to carry out a consular visit," a spokesperson told Nikkei Asia.

The children are dual citizens of Japan and France. "Even my government doesn't know where my kids are or whether they're alive," Fichot said.

Left-behind parents in Japan refer to themselves with the acronym LBP. Each year, over 150,000 minors in Japan are separated from one of their parents, according to the nonprofit organization Kizuna Child-Parent Reunion.

"Japan complains internationally about the 13 children abducted by North Korea, but over 100,000 children are missing in Japan," said Scott McIntyre, an Australian who has been separated from his two children since 2019.

Indeed, the Japanese government has an office dedicated to the return of children taken by North Korea four decades ago, often a political rallying cry for nationalist groups. Meanwhile, McIntyre says local police have not acted on Interpol missing persons reports for his children.

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech at the Elysee Palace in Paris on July 19.   © Reuters

For the past 14 days, Fichot has received a diverse group of left-behind mothers and fathers, foreign and Japanese, showing that the problem of single custody is not limited to gender or nationality.

Last week, a Japanese father traveled 18 hours back and to from Osaka, just to speak with Fichot about his missing children for a half hour. Kumiko Oosugi, a 65-year-old mother who was separated from her children 35 years ago, heard about Fichot's hunger strike on Twitter and also came from Osaka to support him.

"He's doing it for himself and his kids, but he's doing it for us too," said Masaki Matsubara, a Tokyo resident who was separated from his daughter for a few months last year. After work each day, he comes by to check on Fichot.

Politicians have also visited Fichot during his hunger strike, including the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's Hiroshi Hase and Masahiko Shibayama.

"The joint custody of children is common sense around the world," Banri Kaieda, a lawmaker from the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, told Nikkei Asia on Monday.

Hase in 2014 was part of a group of 40 legislators that tried to formulate new laws to ensure child visitations for divorced parents. The effort was futile, allowing a Tokyo court in February to reject a constitutional challenge to Japan's single custody system, submitted by a Japanese father who had lost custody of his two sons after divorce.

"Of course, under the system of separation of powers, politics cannot intervene in the judiciary," Shibayama said on Tuesday. "I am appealing to the Japanese government to go further than it did two years ago and respond in good faith, or Japan will be embarrassed internationally."

Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa convened an advisory panel in February to discuss revisions to Japan's custody laws. But developing legal amendments in Japan is typically a yearslong process.

"My children don't have that time," said Fichot.

A penal case against his wife is pending in France, after failed attempts in Japanese courts. Fichot and nine other foreign and Japanese parents of abducted children are also waiting for the U.N. human rights council to resolve their joint complaint against Japan.

"Japan is not safe for children. Nobody expects it because this doesn't happen in our countries," said McIntyre, the Australian father.

Members of the French expatriate community have spent nights outside the stadium, keeping watch as Fichot slept. Supporters come bearing ice, flashlights, batteries and water bottles. A group of friends pick up his laundry, charge his electronics, and guard his belongings while he showers in a nearby gym.

As temperatures climbed in Tokyo this week, Fichot began taking saltwater capsules once a day. Daily medical checks have so far found him in good physical condition, perhaps due to his preparation for the hunger strike, which involved decreasing his caloric intake for six weeks until he was down to an omelet and avocado per day.

"The degradation of my health reflects the degradation of my children's health and rights," he said. "It's an obligation I have to my kids."

Every so often, the police station across the street try to persuade Fichot to move, saying they have to secure the stadium's perimeter for the French president's arrival.

When asked what he wants from a meeting with Macron, Fichot said, "What I'm trying to trigger is for them to bring my kids back here. If not, I want Macron to put sanctions on Japan."

French newspaper Ouest France said that "the case of Vincent Fichot" is on the president's agenda in Tokyo, but it was not clear whether Macron would meet Fichot.

The presidential office was quoted by the paper as saying "there are tragic situations" in which "the French state stands by its fellow citizens in distress" and "seeks solutions with the Japanese authorities in the best interests of the children."

But it added that "it is not for France to decide on social standards by Japan" even if "we encourage" it to launch a debate on this situation that affects nearly 100,000 people.

Additional reporting by Mailys Pene-Lassus in Paris and Rurika Imahashi in Tokyo.

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