The Japanese said I no longer had a son

Brian Thomas married a Japanese woman, moved to a Tokyo suburb and was happy. Then he had a son and found himself in a bizarre family battle over who should keep the child. But, reports Richard Lloyd Parry, his case is not unique
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The Independent Online
It is a commonplace that, for all the confusions of identity they may suffer in later life, the children of mixed marriages in Japan are often strikingly beautiful, inheriting and improving upon the best features of both parents. So it is with Graham Hajime Takezawa Thomas. His father, Brian Thomas, hands over the few out-of-date photographs he has of his son. They show a shy, grave-looking little boy with brown eyes and honey skin. His black hair is cut short in a neat parting, making him look self- possessed and grown-up. He is handsome, with none of the doll-like cuteness of most pure-blood Japanese children, although he could pass for one of them.

When he gets older, he may look at his mother Mikako, and wonder where he gets his high brows and sharp features. What will she tell him? Graham Hajime, now six and a half, has not seen his father since he was three. Since 1993 the two have been separated by a legal abyss which Brian Thomas and Japanese law seem unable to bridge.

Brian Thomas is a chubby, 51-year-old, good-humoured Welshman who had never thought of living in Japan until 11 years ago when he met Mikako Takezawa on the platform of Finchley station. He was working as a sound recordist at the time, and had one unsuccessful marriage behind him; she was 31, a former actress with a Japanese theatre company, doing an English course in London. Within a few months they had moved in together in East Finchley, the next year they were engaged, and in August 1987 they married at Islington Register Office.

"The first few months were blissful, really blissful," says Brian. "My wife's parents would ring up regularly and even though they spoke no English and I spoke no Japanese we had a wonderful rapport and I felt a lot of affection for them." At the beginning of 1988, six months into their marriage, Brian and Mikako left London for Japan. "I felt no apprehension about it really," he says. "We'd always agreed that we wanted a bilingual education for our child, for our children." The Takezawa parents promised them a house, recently left by Mikako's dead grandmother.

Brian discovered, to his surprise, that he had married into a wealthy family. The father, Hajime senior, owned a household gas company and a chain of petrol stations; Brian and Mikako's new home in Saitama Prefecture, a commuter area a train ride from Tokyo, was a real mansion with Italian tiles and oak doors with brass handles. The in-laws lived comfortably in an adjacent house in the same grounds, which was decorated in every room with old Mrs Takezawa's collection of dolls.

The Takezawas had their unhappiness, as Brian realised when he got to know them better. His wife, Mikako, then in her mid-30s, was the third child. Her elder brother was in the process of splitting up with his wife; her elder sister had lost a baby early in her marriage and never conceived again. The loss seemed to Brian to have affected her deeply. Like her mother she surrounded herself with dolls.

So there was great joy when, at the beginning of 1989, Mikako became pregnant. Brian spent the next nine months "on an emotional roller-coaster, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry". Apart from having a pregnant wife to worry about, he was working as an English teacher, waking up early and travelling 50 kilometres into Tokyo every day. Then his parents-in- law announced that their own house was being renovated, and they would have to move in with Brian and Mikako: the cosy two suddenly became an extended family of four.

Brian wanted to be present at the birth but in Japanese hospitals this is still almost unheard-of. The birth, in any case, was complicated, a Caesarean delivery which left Mikako weak and with a fever. When she came home, her mother nursed her. Even after her recovery, it was Mrs Takezawa who chose the baby's clothes and, when Brian suggested to his wife one day that soon they should have another baby, the message was relayed back that her mother had vetoed the idea. Mikako, it had been decided, was still "too weak".

It always seemed to require a great deal of effort to spend time alone with his son. At the last minute, one of the family would announce that they were coming along too, although Brian often found himself silently excluded from other family gatherings. Mikako, her sister, and her parents would take Graham for weekends at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo to which Brian was not invited.

In retrospect, other incidents, unremarkable at the time, have acquired a peculiar significance. Like the conversation, very early on in their marriage, when Mikako talked about having a boy and a girl. "She said how nice it would be if we could have one of each, because then the girl could go and live with her sister Mariko and be brought up by her. Well, I reacted very strongly: you don't split up siblings, it's not natural, there's no way I would ever separate a brother and sister like that." Mikako also began to speak of having Graham adopted by her parents - "for inheritance reasons, she said, although I didn't like the idea at all".

Shortly after Graham's birth, Takezawa senior presented Brian with his own hanko - an engraved name stamp which in Japan is often used in place of a signature. "I thought it was a nice gesture and didn't think much more about it. Then I noticed one day that it had gone from my desk. I asked my wife and she said that my father-in-law wanted it. A few days later it reappeared and there was a document in Japanese. My hanko was on it, and my name, and I asked Mariko what it was. 'A sample,' she said. 'A sample adoption certificate.' The father wanted to adopt Graham for tax purposes, she said, and it wouldn't change anything, we would still be the parents. I told her I wasn't interested, I said that Graham didn't need an inheritance, tax or no tax. What he needed was love."

Graham Hajime was growing up, speaking English and Japanese, but relations between his parents were getting worse and worse. In November 1992, Brian came home from work and found a note from his wife. She had gone to her sister's and taken Graham. It was impossible for them to live together any more, the note said: they were to divorce.

Two weeks later they met in the office of Mikako's lawyer. Brian produced the Japanese legal document, the "sample" adoption paper which had caused so much trouble between them. "It was the first time I had shown it to anyone and I asked the lawyer what it was. He told me that it was a legally binding document, bearing my name and my hanko, which gave over guardianship of Graham to my parents-in-law. Under Japanese law I no longer had a son."

Brian hired his own lawyer and worked out an agreement which gave him access to Graham, but after three visits the Takezawas suspended them. He was still living in the family house, and still working, but one day he came home to find the gates closed and padlocked, with barbed wire over the top. The locks on the doors had been changed, and when he forced his way in he found that his possessions, including passport, clothes and photographs of his dead father, had been removed. A few weeks later, the water and electricity were cut off, and the telephone disconnected. Barbed wire was crammed into the box housing the mains water tap. Finally in November 1993, he came home to find a family delegation - wife, wife's brother and wife's brother-in-law - barring his entrance to the house. He spent the night sleeping rough in a nearby apartment building and caught the first train into Tokyo the next morning.

Brian put up with friends, and found himself a new lawyer, an English- speaking Japanese married to a Welsh woman. In a civil court, the fake adoption was annulled, and Graham Hajime became Brian's son once again. The local prosecutors considered a criminal prosecution for forging legal papers. But the Takezawas claimed that it had been a misunderstanding, that they believed they had Brian's consent. It was impossible, the prosecutors said, to prove their dishonest intent, and a case was never brought.

Brian, meanwhile, was stranded. "I can't leave, I'm determined to stay, because if I leave I'm jeopardisng my chances of seeing my son again." In the last three years he has supported himself with a variety of part- time teaching jobs, and moved from apartment to apartment in Tokyo, renting or staying with friends.

He has also made contact with other foreign parents in a similar situation. Intriguingly, Brian Thomas's case is not an isolated one and he has come across 15 similar cases of foreigners - women as well as men - whose Japanese spouses in effect abducted their children. They have formed a chapter of the Children's Rights Council, a non-profit organisation which draws attebtion to cases of parental abduction.

When something goes wrong in a marriage, foreign parents are at a natural disadvantage in Japan. They are isolated, they don't have the support and resources of family and friends, they may not speak the language. But there is also a legal problem of enforcing access. "In some countries the court can order the parent to physically hand over the child, but in Japan you can't do this," says Yukihiro Imadegawa, Brian Thomas's lawyer. "If a husband is granted access, and if his wife still doesn't let him see the child, then he can go to the Family Court and a special officer can visit her and try to to persuade her. If she still refuses then the court can order her to pay a penalty. Beyond that, no further action can be taken against her."

The Hague Convention, an international treaty, part of which governs the civil aspects of international child abduction, has never been ratified by Japan, despite international pressure to do so. A Foreign Office official recently wrote to Brian: "The British government takes every opportunity to press those countries like Japan, which are not party to it, to take steps towards ratification. We are fully committed to increasing the number of signatory countries and we hope that Japan will consider signing the Convention in the near future."

Yesterday, Brian Thomas learnt that the District Court of Urawa in Saitama Prefecture had found in his wife's favour and approved a divorce. A decision on access will be made later. Brian hasn't yet decided whether he will appeal. "Even if I lose," he says, "maybe in years to come, Graham will wonder about me and find out for himself. He'll be able to look up the court records, and he'll see that I did everything I could. He's with me day in and day out. He's my beautiful son, and I'm his father."

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