Washington Winter State Department Town Hall with Kurt Campbell
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
- W.B. Yeats
The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.
- Dante Alighieri
At the end of the 2nd full week of January 2011, with white frost covering the grass patches and traffic circles that orbit central Washington DC, I joined a group of sad-eyed men and approached the stone walls behind which the U.S. Department of State held one of its recent round of closed-door meetings on the subject of Japanese International Parental Abduction of Minor Children. The State Department imaginatively called it a “Town Hall” meeting, a bit of fiction – it wasn’t open to anyone other than the invited parents and spouses of those who have unresolved kidnapping cases with the State Department and a group of watchers and handlers. My attendance at this event was nothing special to anyone other than to me, aside from the equally bereft parents who I followed inside, and who offered me encouragement. Because it was my first, to me the event was momentous; it marked me in a new category. My son was abducted to Japan by his mother, Machico (Machiko) Terauchi, with the help of her family, some mutual Japanese “friends,” her coworkers, her country’s government, a web-based network of Japanese conspirators and fellow travelers, and a notorious two-headed monster of Japanese law, depriving my sweet boy of his daddy, his American family, and the home he’d grown accustomed to. The abduction deprives him of the soulful universe of his childhood. It deprives him of precious hours together; it deprives him of poems and books I planned to read him, pine-forested roads I planned to drive with him, wood and dirt park paths I planned to walk with him, and mountains I planned to climb together; it deprives him of New York City Saturdays I saved for him, nights of fevers I planned to soothe for him, loving conversation, company and comfort I reserved only for him. Thousands of miles from home, he is losing his culture, family, my guidance and answers, and the undivided loving attention of his daddy. His mother is now subjecting him to a damaged vision of his origins, brain-deadening electronic hypnosis, grave emotional trauma from the repetition of negative displays and stimulants, a likely acute and exaggerated fear of abandonment, a traumatized ability to trust and love, outsider status in a shunning, chauvinistic, xenophobic society that cultivates childhood dependency, and a still long list of additional long-term psychological damages. He is my boy, and he’s lost my daily kisses. I’ve been in a nearly constant state of angst since the days it dawned on me what Rui’s mother had actually done. I am still surrounded by it, choking on the memory of his temperature, his weight, the pleading and laugh in his voice, and terror of what is befalling him. I don’t know today or any day if he is ill or well, hurting or laughing, or what monopolizes his time. So this January, I dragged myself to Washington over rivers of despair. Now, after an excessive wait which had only served to keep the wounds open and bloody, I expected the US government was finally going to acknowledge this crime.
It was the first time I’d been in DC since the mid-1960’s when I came as a kid with my family in the back of a Rambler station wagon on a long driving trip from North Texas to gawk at the Constitution and Declaration of Independence under glass, and stand at the feet of the big white imperial throne in which they’d seated Abraham Lincoln as Gargantua behind white columns. More than 40 years later, I was preoccupied and did little more than glance when we taxied past the monuments where Americans revere the heroic symbolism that form the boundaries around American national identity. My purpose was personal, immediate, fraught, desperate. I knew coming in that the others who I was about to meet there had spent hundreds of days at the Capitol and dedicated thousands of collectively suffered hours knocking on doors, raising signs, trudging in circles out in front of embassies, office buildings and occasional video and television cameras, chanting, calling into bullhorns for their kids, and lecturing at makeshift outdoor lecterns to try to enlist senators, congresspeople and passersby to acknowledge and join in the fight to save our children from their shared fate of kidnapping and abduction to Japan. Hundreds of abductions were recorded over several decades, while the federal government of the United States maintained diplomatic silence. This formal meeting with officialdom was my first meeting with these bereaved, dispossessed parents, already veterans of grinding, heart-eroding inner warfare and the struggle to see some justice done. I walked into their company with the gravity, the blood and the ache of the wound of Rui’s kidnapping still oppressing all my thoughts, and weighing down my heart. I was there for my boy; it wasn’t easy for me to be. I soon saw that no one monopolized a greater serving of pain than the others.
In the lead-up to this event, my nerves had gotten edgier, if you can imagine that possible 7 months into the kidnapping of my beloved tender-headed son. Rushing onto the airplane the previous afternoon, I shoved my bag into the overhead cabinet and slumped in my seat feeling over-matched and out-numbered. I was looking to find some other backs that might also be bearing similar millstones, and to see how they survived. Once in Washington, I pulled a coat tight around me and braved icy night wind to calm my nerves and walk sidewalks to the Washington hotels and State office buildings where I would meet my future comrades. I wanted to ease the edge off the pre-meeting jitters. For the most part this strategy worked well enough for me to return to the hotel bed and collapse in numb sleep.
The meeting came the next afternoon. Veterans of conference tables might know what to expect from a meeting like this. I walked into the swirl of blue and black suits, cookie tray, smell of coffee urn, feeling little comforted by the official attention we were being given. We took our seats behind white place tags marked to identify each sufferer, with the name of his lost, lonely child below. I felt I was going to be more managed than managing in this environment. Our case officers in the State Department Office of Children’s Issues smiled, introduced themselves and made reassuring sounds. An additional row of young office staffers peered over notebooks in suspicious regard of us, scratching the pages with pens; they were apparently there to observe any ticks of ours that might disturb or worry bureau officials. For me there was much to absorb in just being present. I looked to see if there was to be a moment to discuss the particularities of how my case was being managed – or mismanaged. Foremost in my mind were the recent emails I had received one week prior to this day from the case officer assigned to my paperwork and petitions with the US Embassy in Tokyo. The messages had shocked me and my entire family by demonstrating to me that the plea for help I had made with the Department of State Office of Children’s Issues in the early fall of 2010 had not been acted upon yet in any way. The paperwork, I was told, wasn’t in the file; it had been lost for nearly three months, it now being mid-January of the following year. I was requested to re-send the documents. Once I had vented my dismay and disbelief at them, they decided to look for my documents, and located the original unopened .zip file I’d sent to them within minutes, unlooked at on the hard drive of a computer the officer had not accessed as of yet. So in mid-January, just days before this meeting in Washington, we were starting from scratch, months late, deadlines and a half -dozen broken and disregarded promises that I really would receive a response to my requests from the US Embassy already having passed. I had learned that this inaction had allowed my son’s abductor to tuck herself and my kidnapped son into a new hiding place without so much as a peep of protest from the United States Embassy. The Department of State website banner reads, “Diplomacy In Action.” Read “inaction,” and it is consistent with the State Department’s policy of not making too disturbing a noise about the kidnapping-abduction of several hundred children from the U.S. to Japan. Far more important, we were soon told, was to do nothing that could be construed by our hyper-sensitive, sociopathic strategic partner as a challenge to an already troubled military geopolitical relationship.
And so diplomacy in the context of military strategic partnership became the thrust of the meeting. The agenda was set: we were to hear from the Abductions Division Chief for the Eastern Hemisphere, the Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Consular Affairs, the Director of Human Rights at the White House, an Ambassador and Special Advisor to the Office of Children’s Issues, officers of Citizen Services in the Tokyo US Eembassy, and Ambassador Campbell. I was properly impressed by the list, and soon understood that the presence of officials at their level of government was a result of the hard work and dedication of years of work by the members of BacHome, Japan Children’s Rights Network, Japan Children’s Rights Council and others, some of which are almost too small to be called organizations … most are small groups of individuals with websites and a great deal of will … but all of whom expend their collective energies in trying to promote change in the law, change in government practice, and change in the hearts and minds of people who can use their bodies and pens to bring pressure to the cause of freeing our kids. From small seeds, big trees grow. I respect all of them for managing their pain, for keeping on keeping on in spite of their human foibles and frailties to the point that they have achieved remarkable accomplishments and are pressing on. You need look no further than House Resolution 1326 to see that their efforts are gaining energy. It is certainly not due to a lack of efforts on their parts that not one kidnapped American child has been demanded returned by the US government, and the Japanese government has not returned one.
Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell held forth for the major part of the Washington meeting. Mr. Campbell informed the group of what facts were officially known, what initiatives existed within State, and what events to expect in the near future. Mr. Campbell and the agents of the Department of State understand more than they act, an attribute to be expected from diplomats. Japan needs to revise its domestic laws, the story began, but bureaucratic resistance is strong. Official statistics are understood to be conservative, shrunk by attrition as cases become inactive when the parents lose heart, give up, or stop trying to insist on action from the State Department to recover their children. As of January 2011, the US State Department had 230 cases with 321 children kidnapped from their US parents and currently held in Japan. Only 100 of these cases, concerning 140 children, are currently active. That there are more, many more accumulated over several decades, is a certainty; but those numerical estimates would have to come from other sources. Certainly, they number in the thousands.
What does the Department of State Office of Children’s Issues actually do about these kids? This is where the heart begins to sink again. They keep documents; they offer themselves as liaisons, facilitators of communication with Japanese officials whose compliance with requests, such as where the children are being held and information about their welfare, is purely voluntary and is for the most part refused. The Office of Children’s Issues report forward and backward, to the DOS and to parents. What is clear is that the Office of Children’s Issues, to which these hundreds of international kidnapping cases have been relegated, is not a powerful policy-making division of the US Department of State. They keep files; they answer phones; they email. They promise to request welfare visits, something akin to what a child welfare agency would do in a US city, only compliance is not required. In 90% of the reports that do get filed, they say, they knowingly report only the abductor’s words, not the child’s, who is seldom if ever spoken to. They request pictures for the parent, but are refused more than 50% of the time. In the course of the meeting, one emotion-stirred parent pointedly objected that it had taken 6 months for a welfare and whereabouts request to be carried forward, and Campbell agreed this wait was unconscionable. I wondered that New York City child welfare agencies were allowed to be this lax in the fulfillment of their obligations to protect the millions of children that reside here? It seems they practice one of the universal operating principles of so many US agencies: shrug, and say “Sorry, we haven’t got the resources.”
With all this non-compliance and non-cooperation across the Pacific, Campbell says, it would be an “abrogation” of US diplomatic status to push harder. He painted us a picture of a tall Japanese wall. Mr. Campbell, a very high-level official in the US government, is aware of the existence of common strategies among Japanese child abductors. He described them just as I and others who are directly affected have learned of them. He and his State Department colleagues have knowledge of law firms and web-based networks that assist abductors similar to the mother of my child in gaming the system. They are aware of the astonishing publication in Japan of books instructing the reader in how to commit the international abduction of a child; what strategies to employ to cover their tracks and trick the child’s family into a false sense of trust and security; what information and communications to collect; and what kind of stories to concoct to build a wall around the abduction that will appeal to Japanese court officials and judges. In a country where legal fees are a cheap fraction of what they are here in the US, there is a network of active encouragement of abduction, blogs that advise abductors on steps to take, and lawyers that offer advice on how to create false domestic violence claims that can be useful in making a case for custody, and to justify the kidnapping should it become necessary to do so in a courtroom. To everyone listening, this constitutes aiding and abetting the violation of international law, cross-border, illegal transit of minors, and a vicious, cruel slap to the rights of parents and children. In this manner, abduction of children presents itself to them as a solution to an emergent problem in the increasingly globalized world of marriage. A person who is confused or emotionally overwhelmed by a marriage that has become difficult, who has become uncomfortable or fearful with the insecurity of American working life and an unstable, unsafe world economy, a person who has been made regretful by their failure to foresee the consequences of having decided to marry, bear kids, and live far from the familiar sight and smell of home in Japan, comes to find that a previously unthinkable solution is on offer. Concern for the child’s emotional attachment and equally complex and vital love for his other parent is easily overwhelmed and no longer seems as important once this network has overcome the abductor’s interest in balancing the wills and love of both parents for their child. Criminal abduction to Japan may be drastic, but it is supported by a network that soon makes it feel more safe and just to them. Group approbation is highly seductive for anyone; how much more so for persons who feel isolated or are aching with a desire to cut off one of life’s exhausted directions, a decision that has turned painful, or mistakes that have gotten “lodged like harpoons and fish hooks” and leave her feeling less empowered. Pathological moral standards find strength with comrades. Persons who would never have thought themselves capable become child-stealers, build up resistance to the guilt, and acquire self-assurances from one another that the choice is righteous.
Mr. Campbell gave us a civics lesson. He explained the US diplomatic position. “Good diplomatic relations” he said, require quiet negotiations and must be “part of a comprehensive strategy,” which of course refers by and large to military strategy with enormous economic benefits to corporate wealth. Containing and managing relations with China (he called it “balance”) and assuring that meetings with the Japanese Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Kan are “happy” … that is the uppermost concern. I listened as did we all, knowing that the Japanese Prime Minister’s office has recently had a more active revolving door than Macy’s on 34th Street. The pressure that has affected political stability in Tokyo has come over the Japanese public’s expectation that their national government would alleviate the perceived cost, and socially and environmentally deleterious effects of the presence of US bases in their country. It’s not that US officials don’t know that no public anywhere on Earth likes having foreign soldiers stationed in their country; the US military presence is a long-term geopolitical fact, a pillar of US policy since the beginning of the Cold War, and not likely to change regardless of the votes of the Japanese. The Japanese-US alliance is not viewed there with the illusive sense of magnanimity and protectiveness that US media and law makers might recite when the microphones are turned on. The imposition of the alliance after the War is remembered institutionally as humiliation, and every bit of bad press surrounding the bases is a reminder of that. The resentment is deep. Yet the US’ Japan hands in Washington make their livings from US-Japan security policy. US-Japan discussions of the Futenma military base have been troubled for years. The organization Mr. Campbell founded prior to his ambassadorship, the Center for New American Security, a Washington military strategic think tank, refers to the matter of the base as “bickering,” and Mr. Campbell has been quoted in the Japan Times as telling the Japanese public that it will just “have to understand” that the US is going to keep its bases in Okinawa. The current party in power, the DPJ, overtook Japan’s traditional ruling party with promises of demanding a more “equal” relationship with the US and a better deal on the bases; and the US has simply refused, forcing the leadership of the party to buckle under. The current prime minister Kan Naoto replaced his predecessor precisely for this reason; to reassure President Obama that he would “follow through” and stave off the objections of the disappointed Okinawans. Mr. Kan and the DPJ are in a weak position, Mr. Campbell said, and rely heavily on women’s votes which are currently being drawn off by more conservative competitors. This was said to be politically unfavorable to parents of abducted children. And while it is with the DPJ that left behind parents stand the best chance of progress or achieving a modicum of understanding, it appears that they do not command authority on this or most any other issue with the Japanese public.
So, from whom among them do we seek relief and the return of our now 5 and 10-year old babies?
The US position is and has been to request that the Japanese adopt the provisions of the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of Child Abduction. This instrument would be a tool for gradually beginning to change laws in Japan that now keep Japanese child-abductors safe from their children’s parents, and that prevent better than 50% of the parents in Japanese divorce cases from ever seeing their children again once the exclusive-custody-only court orders are set in place.
AT a certain point in Mr. Campbell’s dispiriting outline of the official US version of the facts and argument, the natives became restless. Several parents spoke out at the meeting, some strongly demanding that the US government begin treating this as a criminal matter. As if it needed to be said amidst the diplomacy-speak, kidnapping is a crime, and the abductors who have removed our kids from their parents have defied laws as well as decency. Extradition was discussed. Several parents spoke ardently of their desire to see a test case of this brought in order to see the international impact it would have, and to see the US stand up for the child victims, mealy-mouthed niceties of diplomacy be damned. The response from officials was, of course, we’ll stick with the status quo and privately urge them to adopt the Hague Convention. Kidnapping children from their home countries? It’s neither a crime nor a universal taboo in Japan.
My fellow parents all felt somewhat encouraged by the atmosphere at this meeting. Universally, each of their reactions was something close to “you thought that was bad? You should have been here a year ago!” Clearly some of the publicity surrounding the arrest of Christopher Savoie and the passing of the non-binding congressional resolution have brought the interest of greater power to this issue. But the gains are precarious at best. The political tide is swimming towards greater conciliation and avoidance of conflict with strategic partners as the persuasive power of the US is in decline. Mr Campbell talked about impending budget woes that were likely to render the Department of State even more ineffective as its resources are reduced.
It was in this context that I took the most beneficial message of the meeting from the bloodied but unbowed, outspoken Mr. Savoie, who was willing to point a finger and assert our desires in a way that was uplifting to me. The US must stand up and demand our kids be returned. If the US government would strongly express its will to see this happen, it would happen. In this, I completely concur. It is impossible for us to adopt the view that the Japanese need to be spared the embarrassment of the world finding out that they have been sanctioning the kidnapping of children for the last 50 years with the blessing of an averted US glance to support them. By separating children in and out of Japan from their parents, the Japanese judiciary is responsible in part for the high incidence of depression, suicide and psychological misery among children who are looped into this virtually insane failure to adopt joint custody and enforceable visitation rights for its own children. New post-divorce arrangements are required in a contemporary world where divorce rates are highest in the most economically developed states, such as the US and Japan. This is not an issue that can be pushed into the consciousness of the Japanese public by mild, behind the scenes diplomatic powwows. Japan, which makes such a prideful noise in the world that it is a superior civilized country which provides a special level of care to children that others should envy and emulate, is the world’s greatest safe haven for the abduction of children. It was clear from the discussion that from within the Government of Japan, there are people who are begging the US to make a strong public demand for the return of its children in order to provide Japanese officials with leverage and a politically much-needed excuse to enable them to create a new consensus for change. Let us not forget that there are interested parties in Japan whose mission and profession are to undermine any hope of achieving that new consensus, not the least of whom is the highly autonomous and self-interested judiciary. Prime Minister Kan will be in Washington this spring, in March or April. We should greet him with this demand on our lips! Give us our children! The only way this will happen is if Americans demand it of their government.
The meeting ended. I shook hands with activists I had very much wanted to meet, but couldn’t find sufficient opportunity to spend time with yet, in the hope that the future will be bring all of these parents together again, to celebrate our cause together, and one day, to declare victory, go home, and play with our kids.