One of the first non-English legal words I encountered when reading law was not, as I had expected, Latin but French – chattel. I had been a bad student of French at school which is why I had not encountered it prior to that. In law chattel means items within a property other than the property itself. In Japan it is not just tables and chairs and the like that are seen as chattel but children too – and completely without controversy . Parents (or in the case of international parental child abduction) a parent can and do control children and make decisions for them – because they see them as belonging to them in the same way as furniture in their home belongs to them.
This post has been prompted by the recent abandonment of Yamato Tanooka by his parents in a remote and mountainous part of Hokkaido. The same age as my son, he looks a charming little boy though no doubt also one capable of great mischief. His parents abandoned him at the roadside because he was said to have been throwing stones at passers by and other cars. As, after being abandoned, he did not encounter anyone for 6 days until he was found sheltering in a military training camp, the suspicion has to be that the behaviour complained of took place some time before the actual abandonment, suggesting that this was not a spur of the moment reaction on the part of the parents.
Most fortunately and despite the parents’ sheer stupidity and the fading hopes of finding the boy safe and well, Yamato was found by an SDF soldier on the 6th day. My prayers and the prayers of many, many others were answered; the first thing I did in the morning for those days was to check online for the status of the news about him. The father was deeply apologetic and the indications are that no action is going to be taken against the parents but I am left asking myself how any parent could do this.
I am sure that the father has learnt his lesson because, having been separated from his son for those 6 long days, and this is the point, he would have realised what his life would have been like without Yamato. I am sure that he will be a much better father to his son now. He is in a small minority of Japanese who have that awareness of the harm that their selfish actions can cause. Parents who love their children should have the foresight not to behave so abominably towards them in the first place – whether this means abandoning them by the roadside or denying them access to the other parent, whether that parents is in Japan or abroad. Children are not chattel to be treated in this way but in Japan children continue to be treated in this way by parents and by a state and judicial system that fails to recognise the concept of joint parenting. The circumstances of the Yamato Tanooka case are, it goes without saying, exceptional but those circumstances whilst exceptional also prove the rule.