TOKYO — Frenchman Vincent Fichot began a hunger strike this weekend close to Tokyo's Olympic Stadium in a desperate bid to regain access to his two young children, who were taken away by their mother three years ago and whom he hasn't seen since.
Japan is unique among developed nations in not recognizing the concept of joint custody. In practice, its courts almost always award sole custody to whichever parent is physically looking after the children at the time.
The policy creates a cruel incentive for parents — flee a marriage with your children at your side and you will almost certainly win custody of them, without any enforceable obligation to grant the other parent access.
Lawyers say that is exactly what happens in tens of thousands of Japanese families every year, and it’s exactly what happened to Fichot: When his marriage broke down and he sought a divorce, his Japanese wife simply took off with their nearly 3-year-old son, Tsubasa, and 11-month-old daughter, Kaeda. That was Aug. 10, 2018.
“My children were kidnapped three years ago and since then I haven’t heard from them,” Fichot said in an interview on Sunday, on the second day of his hunger strike. “I don’t know where they are. I don’t know if they are healthy, or even that they are alive.”
Ever since then, Fichot has been on a relentless quest to get them back — or even just to see them — fighting for access through the Japanese and French courts and taking his case to the U.N. Human Rights Council and the European Parliament.
Japanese police told him that if he tried to approach his children, he would be arrested for attempted child abduction, he said.
He won what appeared a notable victory when the European Parliament almost unanimously adopted a resolution in July 2010 condemning the abductions of European children in Japan and criticizing “the reluctance of Japanese authorities to comply with international law.” It made absolutely no difference, however.
In June 2019, Fichot met in Japan with French President Emmanuel Macron, who called the situation “unacceptable” and vowed to raise it with then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Since then, though, Fichot says every French attempt to raise the subject, even just to ask where his children are living, has been rebuffed by the Japanese government.
He started the hunger strike to put pressure on Macron to live up to his promise, should the French president attend the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics on July 23. By then, he calculates, his health will be beginning to fail, giving Macron only a few days or a week to “make a choice.”
“I believe I have an obligation to my children,” Fichot said. “With the current system, I know I am not going to see them again, so I have nothing to lose anymore.”
Fichot is camped just outside Sendagaya train station, just 300 yards from the newly rebuilt National Stadium, as close as he could get to the site of the Opening Ceremonies given the roadblocks around the venue.
He is in sight of a small police station, and officers have already visited him three times, the first at 4 a.m. Sunday, and once as he was meeting The Washington Post that afternoon.
Officers claimed they were worried Fichot’s campaign might upset Japanese nationalists, and they had already received some complaints. They expressed concerns the protest might be “loud,” although Fichot has no megaphone and is simply sitting by a pillar, conducting occasional media interviews.
But in the end, they couldn’t find fault with his peaceful sit-in. After they left, an elderly Japanese couple approached to express their support.
In Japan, hundreds of thousands of fathers lose access to their children, with mothers also sometimes among the victims, and some are now beginning to come forward in public. Hundreds of American parents married to Japanese nationals have suffered the same fate, and have won support in Congress for their efforts to put pressure on the Japanese authorities to allow them to see their children.
Japan’s government says its rules are in the best interests of children, allowing them to settle down with one parent when marriages end badly.
Many child psychologists disagree, saying children who grow up without the love and support of one of their parents often feel abandoned, have lower self-esteem, and suffer from depression and behavioral problems.
A Japanese court ordered Fichot to pay his wife half of his income, backdating the award to the date she left and effectively forcing him to sell their Tokyo home to cover mortgage payments. But it declined to make any enforceable demand on her to grant him access to their children.
“This is my last resort,” Fichot said. “I have lost everything. I lost my home, I lost my savings paying legal fees and private detectives. I lost my job recently. I am the only thing I have left to give.”