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American jailed in Japan for trying to reclaim his children

  • Story Highlights
  • Ex-wife's attorney says dad had other legal options besides grabbing kids
  • American dad tries to snatch children from ex-wife who took them to Japan
  • She is a fugitive in Tennessee, but has broken no law in Japan
  • Father, who has legal custody in U.S., charged in Japan with abduction
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TOKYO, Japan (CNN) -- Had this custody drama played out in the United States, Christopher Savoie might be considered a hero -- snatching his two little children back from an ex-wife who defied the law and ran off with them.

A Tennessee court awarded Christopher Savoie custody of his son, Isaac, and daughter, Rebecca.

A Tennessee court awarded Christopher Savoie custody of his son, Isaac, and daughter, Rebecca.

But this story unfolds 7,000 miles away in the Japanese city of Fukuoka, where the U.S. legal system holds no sway.

And here, Savoie sits in jail, charged with the abduction of minors. And his Japanese ex-wife -- a fugitive in the United States for taking his children from Tennessee -- is considered the victim.

"Japan is an important partner and friend of the U.S., but on this issue, our points of view differ," the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo said Tuesday. "Our two nations approach divorce and child-rearing differently. Parental child abduction is not considered a crime in Japan."

The story begins in the Nashville suburb of Franklin, Tennessee, with the January divorce of Savoie from his first wife, Noriko, a Japanese native. The ex-wife had agreed to live in Franklin to be close to the children, taking them to Japan for summer vacations.

Savoie in March requested a restraining order to prevent his ex-wife from taking the children to Japan, saying she had threatened to do so, according to court documents obtained by CNN affiliate WTVF and posted on the station's Web site. A temporary order was issued, but then lifted following a hearing.

"If Mother fails to return to Tennessee [after summer vacation] with the children following her visitation period, she could lose her alimony, child support and education fund, which is added assurance to Father that she is going to return with the children," Circuit Court Judge James G. Martin III noted in his order on the matter.

After that ruling, Christopher Savoie tried to have Martin recuse himself, as he was a mediator in the case prior to becoming a judge, said Marlene Eskind Moses, Noriko Savoie's attorney. But that request was denied, as Savoie earlier said he had no concerns about Martin hearing the matter.

Following the summer trip, Noriko Savoie did return to the United States, and Christopher Savoie then took the children on a vacation, returning them to his ex-wife, his attorney, Paul Bruno, told CNN. Video Watch latest report on Savoie's situation »

But days later, on the first day of classes for 8-year-old Isaac and 6-year-old Rebecca, the school called Savoie to say his children hadn't arrived, Bruno said. Police checked Noriko Savoie's home and did not find the children.

Concerned, Savoie called his ex-wife's father in Japan, who told him not to worry.

"I said, 'What do you mean -- don't worry? They weren't at school.' 'Oh, don't worry, they are here,' " Savoie recounted the conversation to CNN affiliate WTVF earlier this month. "I said, 'They are what, they are what, they are in Japan?' "

The very thing that Savoie had predicted in court papers had happened -- his wife had taken their children to Japan and showed no signs of returning, Bruno said.

After Noriko Savoie took the children to Japan, Savoie filed for and received full custody of the children, Bruno said. And Franklin police issued an arrest warrant for his ex-wife, the television station reported.

But there was a major hitch: Japan is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on international child abduction. The international agreement standardizes laws, but only among participating countries.

So while Japanese civil law stresses that courts resolve custody issues based on the best interest of the children without regard to either parent's nationality, foreign parents have had little success in regaining custody.

Japanese family law follows a tradition of sole custody divorces. When a couple splits, one parent typically makes a complete and lifelong break from the children.

In court documents filed in May, Noriko Savoie denied that she was failing to abide by the terms of the couple's court-approved parenting plan or ignoring court-appointed parent coordinators. She added she was "concerned about the stability of Father, his extreme antagonism towards Mother and the effect of this on the children."

Noriko Savoie could not be reached by CNN for comment.

Bruno said he helped Christopher Savoie pursue legal remedies to recover the children, working with police, the FBI and the State Department.

"We tried to do what we could to get the kids back," Bruno said. "There was not a whole lot we can do."

"Our court system failed him," said Diane Marshall, a court-appointed parent coordinator who helped Savoie make decisions about the children. "It's just a mess."

But Moses, Noriko Savoie's attorney, told CNN that the children's father had other legal options.

The International Association for Parent-Child Reunion, formed in Japan this year, claims to know of more than 100 cases of children abducted by non-custodial Japanese parents.

And the U.S. State Department says it is not aware of a single case in which a child taken from the United States to Japan has been ordered returned by Japanese courts -- even when the left-behind parent has a U.S. custody decree.

Facing such statistics and the possibility of never seeing his kids again, Savoie took matters into his own hands.

He flew to Fukuoka. And as his ex-wife walked the two children to school Monday morning, Savoie drove alongside them.

He grabbed the kids, forced them into his car, and drove off, said police in Fukuoka. Video Watch CNN panel discuss Savoie's legal options »

He headed for the U.S. consulate in that city to try to obtain passports for Isaac and Rebecca.

But Japanese police, alerted by Savoie's ex-wife, were waiting.

Consulate spokeswoman Tracy Taylor said she heard a scuffle outside the doors of the consulate. She ran up and saw a little girl and a man, whom police were trying to talk to.

Eventually, police took Savoie away, charging him with the abduction of minors -- a charge that carries a jail sentence of up to five years.

Bruno said if the situation were reversed and a Japanese parent had abducted a Japanese child and fled to America, U.S. courts would "correct that problem, because it's a crime."

He said he has "concerns about Japan ... providing a place for people to abduct children and go to. The parent left behind does not have recourse." He added, "the president and his administration should do something to correct this."

The consulate met with Savoie on Monday and Tuesday, Taylor said. It has provided him with a list of local lawyers and said it will continue to assist.

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Meanwhile, the international diplomacy continues. During the first official talks between the United States and Japan's new government, the issue of parental abductions was raised.

But it is anybody's guess what happens next to Savoie, who sits in a jail cell.

CNN's Kyung Lah in Tokyo, Japan, and Aaron Cooper, Saeed Ahmed and Carolina Sanchez in Atlanta, Georgia, contributed to this report.

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