On 24 January 2014, Japan became the 91st country to sign the Hague Child Abduction Convention (the Convention). The Convention’s purpose is to ensure a prompt return of children to their habitual country of residence in circumstances where they have been removed, often by a parent or other family member.

The Convention was first established in 1980 and since that time has enjoyed a warm reception from the bulk of the international community. Current signatories include the United States, the United Kingdom, the majority of Europe (including Russia) and much of Central and South America. Australia has been a signatory since 1987. Japan, however, has until now resisted all advances (and significant international pressure) to join the party. 

A number of commentators have speculated that Japan’s lack of enthusiasm for the Convention can be partly explained by cultural values that arguably do not align with those underpinning the Convention. For instance, it has been suggested that Japanese culture tends towards a maternal bias and as a result, its courts do not place the same level of value on joint shared parental responsibility as Australian courts. Consequently, Japan’s views on shared care between parents are vastly different to those of Australia and other western countries. 

Domestic Japanese law implementing the Convention will come into force from 1 April 2014. In accordance with the articles of the Convention, the laws will not apply retrospectively and will relate only to those children wrongfully removed to Japan after 1 April 2014. 

Japan’s ratification of the Convention is unquestionably a landmark moment for the international community. However, the task of shaping an international treaty into enforceable domestic law is a notoriously complex one and until Japan’s domestic law has been enacted and tested, questions as to the practical effect of Japan’s ratification will remain. 

Despite the concerns, Japan’s fresh status as a signatory to the Convention may in itself prove to be an adequate deterrent for parents who would have previously entertained the idea of removing their child to Japan. Further to this, in the circumstances that a child is now taken to Japan, an aggrieved parent will have the benefit of the Convention and a recognised legal framework through which to pursue the return of their child. Such a framework has been non-existent in the past. Therefore, despite some lingering concerns, this is a positive move by Japan and certainly warrants a degree of optimism for the future.