By NAO GUNJI
Rafu English Assistant Editor
“She was very content, she slept on my chest a lot in the 11 months I was with her,” Patrick Braden said as he remembers of his daughter, Melissa. He pulls out a photograph of Baby Melissa, whose head was almost as big as Braden’s fist, holding on to her daddy’s finger.
“It’s very cliché and everybody says it, but it really changes your life,” Braden says about his daughter’s birth. “You realize that there is somebody you’d die for. It is a challenge to realize how fragile, how dependent they are, and how much you’re obligated to protect, guide and teach them. That was the first day (of being a father).”
Today, Melissa is 4 years old. Her head is no longer the size of her father’s fist. She talks, walks, sings, laughs and runs around, although, those are just the images Braden pictures in his head. The father hasn’t seen his daughter since March of 2006 when Melissa’s Japanese mother took her to Japan after neglecting to follow a court order.
Melissa Hinako Braden was born on April 6, 2005 at Good Samaritan Hospital to Braden, a Los Angeles antique dealer, and his girlfriend, Ryoko Uchiyama.
“It was a very happy time, we really didn’t have any problems,” Braden told the Rafu Shimpo.
However, those happy days were short-lived. After her estranged parents contacted her from Japan after nearly 10 months of silence, Uchiyama started talking to them frequently. “Next thing you know, Ryoko was saying that she had to go back to Japan and live there,” Braden recalls.
Braden told his girlfriend that Melissa was too young to travel abroad and he didn’t wish her daughter to be around Uchiyama’s father, who, alleged by Uchiyama herself, had sexually molested his daughter for over 10 years.
“I told Ryoko, ‘Number one, I don’t think you need to be around that guy; number two, I really don’t want Melissa to be around that guy and number three, I don’t want to live there. You lived here when I met you,” he said.
Braden said whenever Uchiyama’s parents called her, she got very emotional. Although he doesn’t speak Japanese, Braden gathered from what Uchiyama had told him that her parents were unhappy with her failed marriage with another American man and angry at the fact that she got pregnant with Melissa out of wedlock. And, Uchiyama felt the urge to go back to her family in Japan, perhaps to mend the relationship with them.
Braden said she told him about the alleged molestation when she was 3,4 months into the pregnancy. She said that the abuse started when she was 10. Concerned about Uchiyama and their unborn daughter’s well-being, Braden suggested to her couple counseling.
As Uchiyama’s demand to move to Japan with Melissa grew persistent and desperate, he decided to file a paternity test and obtain a restraining order against Uchiyama taking Melissa to Japan. To block his request, Uchiyama hired a family law attorney.
“I was fearful [her attorney] is going to pull some dirty tricks on me,” Braden spoke of his legal battle with Uchiyama. “It was a nightmare. My beard turned gray, I couldn’t sleep and I gained 30 pounds. It ruined my life.”
In March 2006, Braden and Uchiyama were granted a joint legal and physical custody of Melissa by a Los Angeles court. The judge ordered Uchiyama to hand Melissa’s passport to the court to prevent her from going to Japan without the court’s permission, but the mother left the country with the baby 10 days after the legal decision was made.
“I went to her apartment in the afternoon, knocked on the door, looked at the parking and found no car. Then, I went to the police, but her attorney kept playing dumb,” Braden said.
Later that day, he drove to LAX and found Uchiyama’s car left in the parking lot.
Furthermore, Braden found his passport missing and Uchiyama had filed a restraining order against him with the help of a famous international divorce attorney, Kensuke Onuki, as soon as she landed in Japan.
The nightmare had finally come true for Braden.
He successfully sued Uchiyama’s local attorney, James Kelso Lindsay for malpractice claiming that the attorney knew Uchiyama’s plan to leave to Japan with Melissa. He unsuccessfully sued All Nippon Airways for allowing the mother to travel with the baby to Japan without his permission.
Braden, then, started knocking on the politicians’ doors in Washington, D.C. and pleading his case to them. He has visited over 400 offices in the past three years.
Senator Barbara Boxer promised Braden her commitment in bringing his daughter back to the United States. In June 2007, Sen. Dianne Feinstein wrote a letter to Ryozo Kato, former Japanese Ambassador to the United States, urging Japan to assist the case.
The problem is in Japan, parental child abduction is not considered a crime. Although Uchiyama is on the FBI’s wanted list for the unlawful flight to avoid prosecution, that doesn’t have any legal consequences in Japan. Meanwhile, Braden could be arrested if he decided to go look for Melissa in Japan, due to the restraining order filed by Uchiyama.
Uchiyama’s attorney was not available for comment for this story.
Japan has declined to sign the 1980 Hague Convention on International Child Abduction, which seeks to ensure that custody decisions are made by the appropriative courts of a country of abducted children’s original residence and that the rights of access of both parents are protected. It also encourages the prompt return of children taken from their “country of habitual residence.”
An international family law attorney, Jeremy Morley stated in his web site that Japan is indeed “an abduction-friendly country and a magnet for international child abduction.”
Morley, who has lived in Japan and currently practices in New York, said that the Japanese system favors a “clean break,” so that usually mothers take the children and fathers have little or nothing more to do with the kids after the divorce. He also explained that the Japanese rely on mediation and conciliation and on the pressures of social norms, and foreigners tend to receive no protection for their parental rights.
Japanese officials and attorneys have argued that the Hague Convention, signed by 81 countries, could hinder their ability to shield Japanese women and their children fleeing abusive husbands/boyfriends.
As international marriages become more common among Japanese citizens, the number of international child abduction cases involving Japanese mothers has been rising alarmingly. A record by the U.S. Department of State indicates that in fiscal year 2008, there were 306 cases of parental abductions involving 455 children taken from the United States to other countries that are not participating in the Hague Convention, including 101 children in Japan, 67 children in India, and 37 children in Russia. They have recorded no success cases of bringing back children from Japan.
Recently, a Tennessee man was released from a Japanese jail for his attempt to abduct his children who were previously taken away by his Japanese ex-wife.
Christopher Savoie, 38, was arrested Sept. 28 as he tried to enter the U.S. Consulate in Fukuoka with his son, Isaac, 8, and his daughter, Rebecca, 6. Local police reported that he grabbed the children as they walked with their mother to their new school.
Savoie and his ex-wife, Noriko, had fought for nearly a year in court to settle their divorce and the custody of their children. According to divorce records, Savoie had expressed his concern to a Tennessee judge that Noriko was most likely to flee the U.S. with the children.
The judge granted Noriko to travel to Japan with the kids for a vacation. They came back to Tennessee as scheduled, but then took off again two weeks later, this time, without permission.
“I don’t blame him at all. He can’t have any confidence in the Department of States. He can’t have any confidence in our government to pressure the government of Japan. He can’t really have confidence in the government of Japan,” Braden said on a recent interview on CBS’ The Early Show in regards to Savoie’s arrest. “The last desperate act, he only trusted in himself. It seems that he made a desperate move.”
Braden has co-written the House Resolution 125, which passed the House unanimously in March, and the HR3240—still pending—in order to bring awareness to international child abductions, to ensure compliance with the Hague Convention by the participating countries, and to urge non-participating countries, such as Japan, to take appropriate measures.
He has also suggested the Department of States that the U.S. should drastically reduce the number of student, business and diplomatic visas issued to Japanese nationals to get Tokyo’s attention to the issue.
Last week, U.S. Ambassador John Roos and ambassadors from Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Italy, New Zealand and Spain told Justice Minister Keiko Chiba that Japan should sign the Hague Convention and set up ways to allow foreign parents to visit their children.
Although Japan has not commented on any individual cases, Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada recently told the media that officials were reviewing the signing of the international convention.
Braden’s advocacy and expertise on the matter have slowly, but certainly turned heads not only in Washington, D.C., but nationwide. He wishes to help other American fathers reunite with their children and advocate to the family law reform.
“I’ve got to educate our judges and politicians, one person at a time,” he said. “I couldn’t give up after a year of trying because all I could think is that little girl could get molested by that guy. What’s going to happen to her? I don’t want that for my daughter.”
However, after over three years of battle, Braden is not quite optimistic about his and his daughter’s future. He plans to learn Japanese to converse with Melissa someday.
“I figure I have three or four years of this fight in me… I’m going to continue this work, but I’m not going to give up my life like I have for the past three and half years. It’s been tough,” he told the Rafu.
Asked what his biggest hurdle has been, Braden said, “It’s the bureaucracy in the U.S. government. I don’t mind Japanese government lying to me saying ‘we don’t know anything about your daughter’… What I mind is the U.S. government not protecting my daughter.”