Japan will be punished unless it works to reunite hundreds of children with foreign parents, US lawmakers say, accusing Tokyo of violating human rights through its custody laws.
As Japan celebrated its annual Children's Day on Wednesday, lawmakers gathered near the US Capitol with a handful of tearful fathers who held up pictures of their half-Japanese children to whom they have no access.
Japanese courts almost never award child custody to foreign parents. Activists say thousands of Japanese have spirited children home, denying access to the foreign parents.
"For 50 years we have seen all talk and no real action on the part of the Japanese government," said Representative Christopher Smith, a Republican from New Jersey who is helping spearhead the legislation.
"American patience has run out," he said. "This is a human rights issue."
The legislation, which needs approval by Congress, would create a US ambassador-at-large for child abductions and spells out actions that the president can impose if Japan or other countries do not cooperate.
The punishments range from a private demarche to barring US agencies from procuring or exporting goods to governments in violation. It lists exceptions in defense; Japan and the United States have a military alliance.
The custody issue was thrown into focus last year when Christopher Savoie of Tennessee was detained in Japan for snatching his two children on their way to school and taking them to a US consulate.
Savoie, overcome with emotion, appeared at the Washington news conference and voiced hope his children would see him on television.
"Please always remember -- Daddy loves you," he said.
He accused Japan of hypocrisy, noting that Tokyo has campaigned for years to force North Korea to return Japanese civilians kidnapped in the 1970s and 1980s to train the communist regime's spies.
"They have sought and received -- rightfully -- the support of our government," Savoie said.
"But in 58 years, Japanese parents have stolen hundreds of children from the United States and the Japanese government has refused to cooperate in the return of even one" child, he said.
Japan is the only major industrial nation that has not signed the 1980 Hague Convention that requires the return of wrongfully kept children to their country of habitual residence.
Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, whose left-leaning coalition swept out the long-ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) last year, said in February he was willing to sign the convention, pointing to global pressure.
But Hatoyama said that his government needed time as parliament was unlikely to ratify the treaty in its current session.
Scott Sawyer, who said his ex-wife took their now three-year-old son to Japan from Los Angeles in December 2008, appealed to Hatoyama to take action.
"This can be done without a treaty, without any paperwork," Sawyer said.
"This can be done tomorrow as a show of goodwill and Japan's chance to rectify the bad policies of the LDP of the last 60 years... and put Japan on a new friendship of genuine footing with the rest of the world," he said.
Smith, the congressman, said that even if Japan approved the treaty, it would be unlikely to affect US parents whose cases are currently in dispute.
Smith flew to Brazil last Christmas and helped another US father, David Goldman, bring his son back to the United States after a bitter five-year custody battle.
Smith had led an earlier bill in the US House of Representatives that pressed Brazil and Japan on custody cases.