Tokyo - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will be under pressure when he meets US President Barack Obama this week to pledge progress on a long-stalled treaty to prevent the snatching of children by a Japanese parent in international divorce cases.
Abe is expected to promise that Japan will follow through on a decades-old pledge to ratify the Hague Convention on child abduction, giving some legal muscle to hundreds of foreign fathers - including Americans, French and Canadians - kept apart from their half-Japanese children.
"Those are only the reported cases," French Senator Richard Yung told AFP during a recent trip to Tokyo to press officials on the issue.
Japan is the lone member of the G8 industrialised nations - the others being the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Russia and Canada - not to have adopted the 32-year-old international treaty.
Birthday or Christmas presents are returned
Key allies including the US, France and Britain have long demanded Tokyo step into line.
Diplomats say ratification of the Hague Convention could come during Japan's current parliamentary session, which ends in the summer.
That would make it the 90th state to adopt the treaty, which is aimed at securing "the prompt return of children wrongfully removed or held" in another treaty state.
"These cases are particularly cruel - birthday or Christmas presents are returned," said Yung, who added that he met a vice foreign affairs minister but was refused a sit down with Justice Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki.
The changes would also offer hope to hundreds of thousands of Japanese fathers who face similar estrangement under domestic custody laws.
Japan is unique among major industrialised nations when it comes to the children of estranged parents.
Blocked access to children
Courts do not recognise joint custody - for foreigners or Japanese nationals - and almost always order that children live with their mothers, leaving desperate fathers with almost no recourse to see their children.
Many lose touch with their offspring if the ex-spouse blocks access, a common occurrence due to the widely held opinion that child rearing is a task for women, while men earn the money.
Yasuyuki Watanabe, the deputy mayor of a small Japanese town, has not seen his daughter in years. After the country's devastating 2011 quake-tsunami disaster, he says he tried to make contact with the now five-year-old girl.
"And my wife called the police on me," he said.
Michael, a foreigner who has lived in Japan for three decades, had a messy divorce that ultimately saw two of his three kids tell a Japanese court they had no wish to ever see their father again.
That, he says, was the product of "brainwashing" by his ex-spouse. Michael, which is not his real name, has never met his two grandchildren.
Sometimes, judges do order the custodial parent to send photos of a child to their former spouse, or to allow a short monthly visit.
Treaty 'is no silver bullet'
But police almost never intervene when those orders are commonly ignored.
Ratification of the convention would not automatically change Japanese laws, but it offers hope for hundreds of thousands of Japanese men cut off from their kids, including Watanabe who said he recently met with the justice minister.
"I told him how the judicial system is malfunctioning and that judges encourage these abductions, whether it is international or in Japan," he added.
But ratifying the treaty alone is no silver bullet and there are fears that future changes to domestic laws could lack both scope and substance, warned Yung, who cited public opinion as the biggest weapon in winning the fight for access.
Richard Delrieu, president of advocacy group SOS Parents Japan, has not seen his own half-Japanese son in years and also said that ratifying the treaty alone won't change things overnight.
"This situation is not worthy of a great country like Japan," he said.