Japan’s abducted children speak out ahead of Hiroshima event

“We can’t seem to understand this problem in Japan,” he says.“I lost my identity. The pain that this Japanese system causes children is beyond the description.”

Wataya has published a collection of 12 abducted and alienated children’s stories. “Some children said they are still suffering from the pain for 50 years,” he says, fuelling issues with trust, abandonment, and mental health.

Wataya and Atsuki’s experience is not unique to Japanese children. Hundreds of children born to a foreign-born parent have been alienated or abducted in Japan, drawing condemnation from the United Nations and the United States Congress.

Their lives are now part of a diplomatic tussle that is damaging Japan’s carefully crafted international image as it looks to expand its influence abroad. The leaders of the world’s seven largest economies and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will fly into Hiroshima for the G7 on Friday. Their focus will be on the war in Ukraine and China, but there will also be an opportunity for leaders to raise the fate of hundreds of missing kids from France, the US, the United Kingdom and Australia with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

In March, an investigation by this masthead and 60 Minutes revealed that Japanese police had ignored Interpol missing persons notices and courts had failed to enforce visitation orders for dozens of missing Australian kids.


“Of course, they should be raising it at the G7,” said Australian father Matt Wyman. “There are 82 kids from Australia. They know what is going on.”

Wyman lost his kids in 2009. “My marriage was a normal marriage. My wife just wanted to go to Japan for a holiday,” he said. They disappeared instead. When he found his kids and tried to give his son a birthday card in 2012, he was surrounded by six police officers. “I was a wreck, but I never gave up,” he says.

In 2015, his eldest son refused to go to school. Desperate, Wyman’s ex-wife agreed to send him back to Australia. He has been there ever since. “He doesn’t like to talk about it now. It has affected him since. Even to this day, he has anxiety about it.”

Keiko Jalili’s daughter was taken when she was four years old. “This system doesn’t think of children,” she says. “The children are abandoned.”

Jalili is one of the few Japanese parents who have since reconnected with their son or daughter. It took 14 years.

Matt Wyman’s says the abduction of his kids his caused them long term damage.

Matt Wyman’s says the abduction of his kids his caused them long term damage. Credit: Paul Harris

“The Japanese system is very good at kidnapping,” she says. “My daughter doesn’t want to talk about the past. She is still damaged.”

The mental health impacts of being abducted and then feeling abandoned by the other parent are profound in a country that is grappling with a mental health and fertility crisis.

“It’s a lifelong pain,” says Wataya. “It ruined my relationship with my father and my mother.”

A 2016 study by the Scandinavian Journal of Public Health found children with access to only one parent had higher levels of psychological complaints and were at risk of worse mental health.

Keiko Jalili’s daughter was taken when she was four.

Keiko Jalili’s daughter was taken when she was four. Credit: Eryk Bagshaw

Japanese government figures show 200,000 couples separate in Japan each year, and a third of children lose all contact with one of their parents.

“Japan is a world champion in suicide. And we know that for 65 per cent of them, it is because of family issues,” said French father Phillipe Cocatrix. “The government is crying we don’t have enough kids. But they can’t protect the kids who are already born.”

Japanese government officials are reluctant to talk publicly about the issue despite some MPs labelling the decades of child abductions an international embarrassment.

“There has been some discussion regarding possible legal reform,” says Kishida’s cabinet secretary for public affairs Noriyuki Shikata. “But I don’t think any conclusions have been reached.”

French father Phillipe Cocatrix (centre) marches in Tokyo with other victims of parental abduction in May.

French father Phillipe Cocatrix (centre) marches in Tokyo with other victims of parental abduction in May. Credit: Christopher Jue

One of the key focal points proposed by Japan at the G7 apart from the war in Ukraine, China’s economic coercion and the role of artificial intelligence will be on gender and empowering women. Mothers who have had their kids taken from them have accused the Japanese government of breaching their human rights.

“There are mothers who can’t see their kids because of this current law,” said 40-year-old Izumi Uchiyama, whose kids were taken suddenly by her husband in 2017. She has not seen them since.

“We hope they actually understand this is our situation and the government has to revise the laws to protect the rights of women like us.”

American father James Cook was one of the first cases between the United States and Japan after it signed The Hague Convention for international child abductions in 2014. His last photo of him and all of his kids is at the airport before they left for Japan for a holiday. They did not come back.

James Cook with his wife and four children before they left for Japan.

James Cook with his wife and four children before they left for Japan.

“My kids have been so mentally done over that there is no hope for them,” he says.

Cook has testified before US Congress three times. He won his first case under The Hague convention in an Osaka court in 2016. Still, his children were not returned. That decision was then rolled back by the Japanese courts. Cook says the only way to get Japan to change its ways is for its partners, particularly the US, to take a public stand.

“Japan has basically mastered the diplomatic rope-a-dope. They will withstand any amount of conversational ‘oh yes, yes, yes, we’ll do that. Oh, yes we will look into that, but it’s difficult. Okay, we’ll put in a committee yeah we’re working on it’. And then they just won’t do a thing,” he says.

“The international community basically has to tell Japan: Cut this shit out and return these f— kids. No excuses.”

Izumi Uchiyama’s children were abducted by her husband in 2017.

Izumi Uchiyama’s children were abducted by her husband in 2017. Credit: Christopher Jue

Wataya says because Japan is reluctant to openly discuss the treatment of abducted children, “we need international voices”.

Atsuki says he will do it himself. The 16-year-old is due to meet the Japanese prime minister at a citizen’s meeting in Tokyo next week. “It’s damaging children,” he says.

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