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Video: American jailed in Japan over custody battle

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    >>> but we're going to begin with a father from tennessee who was behind bars in japan for trying to bring his children back home after they were illegally taken from him by his ex-wife. we're going to talk with that man's attorney and his current wife in a moment, but first, nbc's miguel almaguer has the details.

    >> reporter: christopher savoie and his children, isaac and rebecca , call tennessee home. so did their japanese mother, noriko, until this summer, when she suddenly moved to japan and took the children. divorced, christopher savoie had custody in the u.s., so he flew 7,000 miles to bring his kids home. but on monday, when he tried to walk the children into a u.s. consulate's office, he was arrested by japanese police , who charged him with abduction. scott sawyer also lost a son.

    >> it's difficult to think of him or look at his picture.

    >> reporter: when sawyer's wife left him, she took 3-year-old wayne to japan .

    >> it reminds me of the loss, so it is, is that i try to dedicate myself to working really hard toward getting him back, and that is what keeps me focused.

    >> reporter: sawyer and savoie 's children are not alone. according to congressman chris smith , 125 japanese american children are currently abducted by a parent who's fled to japan . the u.s. government is powerless to bring them home.

    >> japan is a modern civil rights oriented society, you know. it ought to join the rest of the industrialized nations and resolve all of these long-standing cases, including christopher savoie .

    >> i'd just like to talk to you about the children.

    >> reporter: the documentary "from the shadows" follows several american parents as they fight to bring their kids home from japan . the filmmaker says japanese abductions have happened for decades, a culture that does not recognize split- child custody like the u.s.

    >> they don't understand why the other parent wants to see or visit the kid after divorce. the norm in japan is to not do that.

    >> reporter: that's of little comfort to parents who have lost their children. according to one u.s. lawmaker, of the thousands of american kids taken to japan , not a single child has ever been returned by their government, a statistic that includes 3-year-old wayne sawyer.

    >> he's a great little guy.

    >> reporter: and now also 6-year-old isaac and 8-year-old rebecca savoie , as their father still sits behind bars . for "today," miguel almaguer, nbc news, los angeles .

    >> amy savoie is christopher savoie 's current wife. good morning to you, amy . thanks for joining us.

    >> good morning.

    >> i don't know if you've had a chance to talk to christopher since he's been arrested. have you had that opportunity and do you know how he's doing?

    >> i have not been able to speak to him since he told me they were coming with the handcuffs and they were telling him "turn off the phone, turn off the phone, turn off the phone." someone from the consulate told me he was taken to the hospital that night for low blood pressure concerns.

    >> he had had concerns for a while that his ex-wife was going to take the children back to japan , where she is from. he even tried to get a restraining order to stop her from doing that last march, and eventually, the judge overturned that, but did you have indications or warning signs at all along the way, amy , or did chris, that this was indeed going to happen?

    >> the warning signs were fair -- were extremely consistent, meredith. we were always treated as if our love for the children was valueless, was unimportant. we have e-mails from her where christopher 's saying, "can i see the kids for the fourth of july?" this was a while back, and she said, "of course not, it's a holiday. the children will be with me. i cannot accept that." and that was before their parenting plan was in place. it could have been more congenial and cooperative. she had always seemed to find christopher 's love for them and their love for him to be very threatening, very annoying.

    >> so, when she took the children in august, when he realized that they didn't show up for school and he realized that they were in japan , did she talk to him over the phone? did she say, you know what, we're not coming back?

    >> yeah, basically, yeah. she said, yeah, she abandoned her lease. she abandoned all of the children's belongings, things that were sentimental that he knew were sentimental to the children. he couldn't believe that she had left rebecca 's little black stuffed dog and all of isaac 's little matchbox cars and she spent, i guess, a few weeks transferring money appropriately and she had it all planned out. she picked the kids up from my house saying -- she sent me a text message, "i'm going to take them back-to-school shopping," and then it was going to be her custodial time. she picked the children up --

    >> and you snefer saw them again.

    >> and i never saw them again.

    >> when he told you that he was going to go to japan to try to get his kids back, obviously, that's a very drastic step to take. what did you think?

    >> i don't want to talk about that, meredith. i'm sorry.

    >> how are you holding up right now, amy ?

    >> i'm not holding up well at all. i want my husband to be out of jail. i think my husband needs to be out of jail and i'm worried about isaac and rebecca . and i'm worried about my children who miss their step siblings. and i know that isaac and rebecca love my children and they must miss them. one time i said to isaac when he was messing around with my son, i said "you guys behave just like brothers," and isaac looked at me and he smiled this huge smile and he goes, "we are brothers!" and you just can't rip them away from a loving relationship and think that it's not going to have an impact.

    >> amy , i know, i understand --

    >> our lives are just devastated. we're crushed.

    >> amy , i understand what a difficult time this is for you and i appreciate you talking with us this morning. thank you very much, amy .

    >> thank you.

    >> we're going to bring in christopher savoie 's attorney, jeremy morley . mr. morley , good morning to you.

    >> good morning.

    >> this for your client has to be a nightmare. first, his ex-wife abducts the children, which is a federal crime in this country. so, she's a fugitive.

    >> yes.

    >> then he goes to get them back, and we can debate whether that was a smart move, but then he is arrested in japan and he's charged with abduction. and in japan , the ex-wife is considered the victim. how likely is it that he will serve jail time there?

    >> we don't know, but he's in jail right now. we've got lawyers that are flying down to this small town in southern japan to meet with him. we're trying to get the best counsel we can. and it would be outrageous if he spends any jail time there, but he is in a very serious situation.

    >> we've talked about this before. i know you talked to the producer about this, that the big hitch in this case is that japan has not signed the hague convention on international child abduction . it doesn't honor that. and in any case like this in the past, a child has never been returned from japan . so, the odds are stacked against him.

    >> he knew that, and that's why he went there and tried to exercise some self help . i have probably 100 clients, americans, who have lost their kids to japan , and this is an untold story . it is a terrible problem, and it's not just that they haven't signed the hague convention . there's an utterly different concept about how to raise children and who should be in charge.

    >> what do you mean?

    >> well, in japan , there is no shared custody. it's not in their law, it's not in their society, it's not in their history, and the idea of a father participating in the life of a child when the mother has primary custody is alien.

    >> but do you think your client in retrospect was acting recklessly to do what he did, to grab the children as they're walking to school and race to the consulate?

    >> i think that the recklessness was we've known about this potential for a year. we've tried to get help.

    >> the potential that she would take the children.

    >> we knew she would take the children. i knew she would take the children. a year ago, we asked a court in tennessee to do whatever it could to stop this, and many judges don't take this seriously enough. it is an enormously dangerous situation.

    >> mr. morley , i sense the frustration in your own voice, having dealt with this with other clients as well.

    >> yes.

    >> what recourse do you have right now? who is out there that could possibly help you?

    >> we've got great lawyers there, but their hands are tied by a legal system that doesn't work. we need diplomatic help. we need the united states government to work with our allies and to explain the position of americans and people around the world as to why this kind of conduct is reprehensible.

    >> but to date, our government has not intervened in cases like this?

    >> they have -- the american government has tried somewhat. there have been efforts to encourage japan to sign, at least sign the hague convention , and we've worked with other countries to try to do that. there's a long way to go.

    >> you have not talked to your client, i take it.

    >> we can't get through. we've sent lawyers down there. they will be speaking to him today, but it's a very serious situation. he needs to be out of jail and these kids need to be taken care of.

    >> mr. morley , i appreciate your time this morning.

    >> thank you very much.

    >>> and now let's get a

TODAY contributor
updated 9/30/2009 9:27:19 AM ET 2009-09-30T13:27:19

An American dad is behind bars and his Japanese ex-wife is a fugitive from justice, due to an epic culture clash between Japan and the United States that is causing untold heartache for families.

Some eight months after her divorce from Christopher Savoie, Noriko Savoie violated a Tennessee court order by absconding with the couple’s two children to her native Japan. A month later, Christopher traveled to Japan to fetch 8-year-old son Isaac and 6-year-old daughter Rebecca — and was promptly thrown in jail by Japanese authorities on child abduction charges.

Sadly, it’s not a unique case. An estimated 125 American children have been taken from the U.S. to Japan by native Japanese parents, and not one has ever been returned through the Japanese legal system. Japan has not signed Hague Convention laws on child abduction, and it isn’t part of the country’s culture for parents to share custody of children.

Clash of cultures
Attorney Jeremy Morley, who is representing Christopher Savoie as well as other parents who are trying to bring their children back from Japan, told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Wednesday that lawyers’ hands are largely tied in resolving U.S.-Japan custody cases.

“In Japan, there’s no shared custody — it’s not in their law, it’s not in their society, it’s not in their history — and the idea of a father participating in the life of the children when the mother has primary custody is alien,” Morley said.

For now, Morley’s primary goal is just to get Christopher Savoie out of jail. What began as an all-too-familiar battle between exes over their children took on international significance in August when Noriko Savoie fled with Isaac and Rebecca.

The couple divorced in January. A month later, Christopher remarried, and he and new wife, Amy, blended Christopher’s kids with her own three children. Christopher had partial custody of Isaac and Rebecca, but Amy Savoie told Vieira live via satellite from Tennessee that Noriko often made it difficult for them.

“We were always treated as if our love for the children was valueless, was unimportant,” Amy Savoie said. “It could have been more congenial and cooperative. She had always seemed to find Christopher’s love for them and their love for him to be very threatening, very annoying.”

Christopher Savoie’s ex-wife, Noriko, took their two children to Japan. She is one of a number of Japanese mothers who have brought their children back to Japan and refused to let their ex-husbands visit them.
Christopher and Amy feared Noriko would do exactly what she eventually did — head to her native Japan with the children. The dad and his new wife received a temporary restraining order last spring barring Noriko from leaving the country with the kids, but it was lifted after a hearing in a Tennessee court. Noriko took Isaac and Rebecca to Japan for a court-approved summer vacation, and did return with them. But in late August, the Savoies’ greatest fears were realized.

“[Noriko] picked up the kids from my house,” Amy Savoie told Vieira. “She sent me a text message saying she was going to take them back-to-school shopping; it was going to be her custodial time. She picked the children up.

“I never saw them again.”

A desperate measure
Chris Savoie knew all too well that no American parents have been able to get Japanese courts to return children to the U.S., and he made what some believe was a questionable move: He tracked down his ex-wife in the small southern Japanese city of Yanagawa, and followed her as she dropped Isaac and Rebecca off at school.

After Noriko left, Christopher picked the children up — Japanese officials say it was by force — and drove them to the U.S. Consulate in nearby Fukuoka. Police were waiting for him there and arrested him. If convicted on the charge of abduction of minors, Savoie faces five years in prison.

Christopher Savoie’s current wife, Amy Savoie, said she has not been able to speak with him since he was jailed in Japan.
Amy Savoie says she has not been able to talk to her husband since his arrest on Monday, although she was informed by the consulate that Christopher had to be taken to the hospital over blood pressure concerns. While remaining composed during most of her interview on TODAY, she broke into tears when she described to Vieira her fears over her husband and stepchildren.

“I’m not holding up well at all,” Amy Savoie acknowledged to Vieira. “I want my husband out of jail. And I’m worried about Isaac and Rebecca. I’m worried about my children, who miss their stepsiblings.

“You can’t just rip them away from a loving relationship and think it’s not going to have an impact. Our lives are just devastated. We’re crushed.”

‘We need diplomatic help’
As for Noriko Savoie, she is now a fugitive from American justice. While her first trip to Japan with the children was approved by the local Tennessee court, the second wasn’t. If she ever leaves Japan, she will likely be picked up and returned to the U.S. to face charges.

However, if she stays put, in all likelihood so will the children, Morley said. “[Our] hands are tied by a legal system that doesn’t work,” he said. “We need diplomatic help.”

The U.S. Embassy in Japan issued a statement to NBC News saying that it is trying to reach a meeting of the minds on an issue on which the two countries are far apart.

“Japan is an important partner and friend to the United States. However on this issue, our points of view differ,” the statement read. “The State Department has no hesitancy in raising this issue at all appropriate opportunities, with even our allies.”

Christopher Savoie’s children, Rebecca (now 6) and Isaac (now 8), were taken to Japan by his ex-wife.
But documentary filmmaker Matt Antell says that when it comes to parents splitting up and sharing children, the Japanese way of life is a world away from the American point of view. Antell directed the film “From the Shadows,” which follows American parents as they fight to bring their children home from Japan.

“[The Japanese] don’t understand why the other parent wants to see or visit the kid after divorce,” Antell told NBC. “The norm in Japan is to not do that.”

U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) told NBC that the sad case of Christopher Savoie and other affected families needs to come to an agreeable conclusion with the Japanese government. “Japan is a modern, civil rights-oriented society,” he said. “It ought to join the rest of the industrialized nations and resolve all of these long-standing cases, including Christopher Savoie.”

Morley added it “would be outrageous” if his client Savoie is sentenced to jail time in Japan, but “he’s in a very serious situation.”

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