Japan-based French father on hunger strike against 'child abduction' as Olympics open

Mr Vincent Fichot has been on a hunger strike since July 10 to protest against what he says is Japan's sanctioning of child "abductions" by a parent. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO - Mr Vincent Fichot, a 39-year-old French banker, has not eaten a single bite for two weeks.

Camped on a yoga mat outside the Tokyo Olympic Stadium, the permanent resident of Japan has been surviving only on sips of water since July 10, while a brutal heat wave engulfs Tokyo.

His hunger strike is a desperate "last resort" attempt to call attention to the traumatic predicament of parents whose children have been "abducted" by their Japanese spouses.

Mr Fichot has not seen nor heard from his two children - Tsubasa, now six, and Kaede, now three - since his wife, whom he married in 2009, disappeared in August 2018.

His campaign has made headlines in Japan and abroad, coinciding with the Olympics as well as the visit of French President Emmanuel Macron, whose officials met Mr Fichot on Thursday (July 22).

Mr Macron, the only Group of Seven leader to be in Tokyo for the Games, raised the issue with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Saturday during an 80-minute lunch meeting. Their joint statement said: "The two countries are committed to strengthening dialogue that places the interests of children first."

Mr Fichot is now the cause celebre for an issue that is pertinently unique to Japan, where there are no laws that allow joint custody.

What this means is that upon separation or divorce, children are taken care of by only one parent, who has every right to bar the former spouse from any face time with their children.

Complicating matters is how the police usually do not wade into family disputes, while custody is typically granted to the parent who has regularly been taking care of the children - ironically giving incentive for these "abductions".

While the issue has primarily come to light due to the breakdown of an international marriage, it takes on different forms and afflicts both fathers and mothers, and both Japanese and foreign nationals.

For one thing, it is not uncommon for a Japanese spouse, based abroad, to abscond to Japan with their children in secret, where they can be protected by Japanese laws.

The breakdown of domestic Japanese marriages has also come into attention. Famous professional shogi player Takanori Hashimoto called it quits this year to focus on the fight for access to his child, who was "abducted" by his wife in 2019.

Mr Scott McIntyre, an Australian who has not seen his two children since 2019, told Nikkei Asia: "Japan complains internationally about the 13 children abducted by North Korea, but over 100,000 children are missing in Japan."

Estimates show that as many as seven in 10 Japanese children whose parents are separated or divorced are entirely cut off from one parent.

Mr Fichot has already taken up the issue globally - including at the United Nations and European Parliament - noting that Japan is violating the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child despite being a signatory.

Describing Japan as a "child abduction black hole", he told a recent news conference: "This is a huge violation of any global treaties and basic human rights, and unfortunately only in Japan do we see this sort of behaviour from the government."

He added that he wanted to "defend the rights and best interests" of his children, who have been deprived of the love and attention of one parent.

Besides the issue of "child abduction" , Mr Macron and Mr Suga also discussed the need to "actively" maintain their defence regionally to realise their Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision.

Paris will host the next Summer Games in three years, with Mr Macron supporting Mr Suga's push to realise the Tokyo Games. He said: "It demonstrates something: that whatever happens, we have to adapt, to organise and do the best we can."

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