Setting: Summer 2019, pre-visitation
In Summer 2019, my mother and I optimistically packed our bags for a three day visitation with my daughter. The ANA flight was marvelous and an air of nostalgia filled my nostrils as I exited the plane. Despite all that has happened, Japan is my second home and there is something to be said of that first whiff of humidity, fresh grass, luxury perfume, plastic, jet fuel and petrichor.
After shuffling through customs and collecting my bags I grabbed a green tea and a small biscuit. I then took a bus to my favourite little town (home to two large, global brands) where I got a haircut, watched a kabuki rehearsal (on top of a monolithic, 300 year old wagon) and visited a few little shops.
Settling into Japan
The people are so friendly. This is important. Family courts are never friendly. Abductions are never friendly. However, every other interaction I’ve ever had with Japanese people has been positive. A quick visit to this small town served as a timely reminder before boarding a train to the next city… one of mixed emotions. This is the biggest city in the prefecture where my daughter lives. It’s the first Japanese city I truly fell in love with and one I certainly feel a connection with to this day. Ironically, it’s also one where I have experienced much pain and disappointment.
Before settling in for the first night, I put on my jogging clothes and went for an evening run around a large network of lakes. Maybe 6:30pm was a bit early? It was hot, a humid 29 degrees Celsius. After 6km I felt a bit of a hot flush, guzzled some water and walked back to my hotel. My visitation had begun. A bit like the weather while running… I knew I was going to have to work with it rather than against in order to secure a quality outcome.
Visitation Day 1 – first impressions count (or do they?)
I woke up at 5:30am to beat the heat, suited up in my running gear and headed for the lake. Few were about, but there were many friendly morning greetings as I gently traveled around the 6km circuit. It was still 28 degrees Celsius but I paced myself more conservatively this time. My jog ended with a nice little sprint rather than hot flushes and disappointment.
Visitation is for me – not other family members (apparently)
After a shower, a coffee and a bit of toast I headed to the train station to meet my daughter (and her stepfather). To my surprise, they were 10 minutes early. Great! I greeted them. The stepfather responded with a grumpy face. ‘Excuse me, grandmother… no! Not okay. Bye bye’. I’m usually quite cool however, this time I chose to question him. ‘Why? I do not want conflict, but the court order is that I have 3 hours of full access each day. There is no mention of him having a supervisory role, or the ability to ban direct family members from coming with me’. His face went blank and he said nothing. I repeated ‘why? Why is this your rule?’ He simply responded ‘no… no grandmother… okay?’ Sensing that my daughter was a little agitated by the confrontation I smiled and said ‘sure… I agree to avoid conflict… but this is your rule, not what the court order says’.
We said farewell to my mother and I produced a piece of paper containing the schedule that my daughter and I had agreed upon. It involved visiting a water park, various museums, playing some board games and having lunch together. Again, the grumpy stepfather took control. ‘No… we are sitting in the mall for an hour to do some Japanese homework, then doing some Japanese karaoke’. Fine. A bit of a left turn here and there, but I’ve become accustomed to this kind of visitation.
Forget our fun packed daddy/daughter summer 2019 visitation schedule – stepfather has a new plan, it’s called ‘observation’…
As an awkward group of three, we walked to a nearby mall. The stepfather stood between my daughter and I while walking, holding her hand to make sure she didn’t approach me. We received various stares along the way. I can only imagine what people were thinking. However, I think his clear intention was to send the community a message – ‘I’m the father, this foreigner is a paedophile or something and he’s making life very awkward for my daughter’. During each visitation, the stepfather will do everything possible to remove all opportunities for enjoyment and make me look like an awkward 3rd leg.
We found a nice, cool table at a local shopping mall and sat down. I pulled out a bag of trinkets including family photos, picture books (in English), a friendship bracelet kit and some board games. Gently I asked my daughter ‘which one do you like best?’ She liked the photos and the friendship bracelet kit so we looked at family photos, talked about them and wove some little friendship bracelets. Of course, the stepfather prevented her from taking a bracelet with her. However, I was able to keep some of her craft as a momento. Success! We had a little moment together, I collected some craft and most importantly… we didn’t have to do homework during this visitation.
An hour later, we walked to a karaoke studio. The more popular ones have lots of English songs (which are clearly easier for me). This was a small, local one with a small selection of tunes. Fair enough. Again – the clear plan was for me to have to sit around watching my daughter and her stepfather do some Japanese karaoke together. Rather than a visitation, his intention is to turn it into an observation.
Fortunately, that’s not quite how it went. While he was awkwardly looking for 90’s J-Pop songs with male and female parts (for me to watch him and her) I cracked open the top-20 and decided to just go for it. Lemme see… Aladdin, Frozen, Moana, Queen, Aerosmith, the Carpenters and the Beatles all featured heavily. Yes the Disney tunes were all in Japanese, but I was willing to improvise (c’mon, who doesn’t know those lyrics?)
To the stepfather’s surprise, I knew all of the top-20 tunes and again, it was a pretty special goofy dad moment. More importantly, she knew all of the tunes so we were able to mix the two languages together throughout the songs. In between Disney tunes, my daughter chose some of her favourite modern J-Pop songs which was great, because I get very little insight into her hobbies.
Success! Sure none of this was planned (and my singing/dancing were atrocious), but what a win!!
Visitation Day 2 – Homework time! What’s your kanji like… gaijin?
Day 2 was basically a write-off. I could say more. However, it’s too draining for me to describe what happened. We met at the station (again) and the stepfather asserted we would be doing some Japanese homework in the local library. We walked to the library, he pulled out some exercise books and I watched him grind my daughter through kanji and grammar tables. There was a strong emphasis on proving that I’m inferior because I’m not much help with kanji. I briefly asked if there was any English homework. Of course not…
Half-way through the visitation, the stepfather tortuously allowed my daughter to select a book from the drawing section of the library. She selected two drawing books and was keen to draw some pictures. Nope! He asserted she could do this AFTER the visitation… after! Message? Visitations are bad. You cannot have fun during visitations. Also, your dad’s not much help because he is not native level with kanji/grammar.
BAH! What a complete write-off. Days like this are frustrating. However, perseverance is very important. I remained polite and interested throughout. The stepfather is not worthy of an emotional response. I’m sure as eggs that’s what he wanted too… a good bit of public aggression so that he could play the victim and say ‘whaaat? This gaijin is attacking us!! I did nothing!! I was just being a good dad and helping my daughter do her homework!! This gaijin is dangerous and unpredictable… he should have no further access to my daughter’. He very much reminds me of Mr Curry from Paddington.
I respect that Japanese children are given a lot of homework during their summer holidays. However, unless the abductors are willing to give me more (and less restrictive) access, I think it’s unfair to waste visitation time with homework. Particularly non-English homework as I can’t help with it (most involved kanji practice), meaning that I’m just watching the step-father do homework with my daughter.
Visitation Day 3 – crafting a Disney (or Shinkai?) ending
It was important to write-off day 2 and start again from scratch. After day 2 I went for a solid run and then met up with a local friend for a night out. We ate lots of chicken skewers at a local establishment, had a few quiet beers (not too many) and a good laugh together. Total reboot!
Doh, he’s controlling everything again within minutes!
Optimistically, I met my daughter (and our comrade, the stepfather) at the station. We agreed to watch a movie. Great! We walked to the cinema (a really nice one) and purchased some tickets. The stepfather selected a Japanese film (tenki no ko) and walked right in (50 minutes before start time), ensuring that he was sitting between us. I sat down next to him and waited quietly. Following 10 minutes of awkward silence I asked why we were in the cinema so early. He asserted that my daughter had made this request. I politely suggested it was in fact his choice. He asked her to confirm that she wanted to wait around in the cinema for 40 minutes. She didn’t respond, so he aggressively prompted her to agree with him… nothing. I suggested we could sit at a round table outside and play some board games instead. A big smile grew on her face as she nodded. Game time!
Upon exiting the cinema, my daughter suggested we could look at some shops. We walked outside (with the stepfather standing between us, blocking me off and slamming doors in my face – charming bloke did I mention?) My daughter found a comic shop and started looking in the window. She asked if she could enter and he said ‘NO!! You cannot!!’ I asked why and he refused to respond. Rebelliously, we gazed into the window and she showed me some of her favourite characters.
Enjoying our first Japanese movie together
After some awkward shuffling around the streets, we returned to the cinema for the movie – 天気の子 (or, ‘Weathering With You). Due to a fortunate turn of events, I was able to sit next to my daughter and enjoy the movie with her.
To those who can’t understand Japanese – this is why you’ve gotta! My Japanese isn’t amazing, but it was adequate enough to enjoy the movie. Suffice to say, this movie was amazing and it transported us all away to a world without stupid adults and child abductions. One of the main characters is a teenage girl who despite losing her parents, lives alone with her younger son. In a world of adult-imposed barriers and conflicts, this kind of childish optimism was right up my alley.
The whole movie was gorgeously crafted. Artistically, the attention to detail was a bit like an old Tintin. There’s just so much detail everywhere and one can truly beauty of not only Japan, but some of the creative minds that are fueling it.
Connecting over a movie was very important to me. I learned a lot about my daughter’s culture, shared an important moment with her and it meant I didn’t have to be talking the whole time (which can sometimes get awkward, particularly given the restrictive circumstances). A good movie helped us to all end on a high and I walked away pleased that I’d come.
After the visitation I spent some time enjoying Japan – sightseeing, dining, catching up with friends and spending time at the hotel’s onsen. My last night involved going for a long run, having a fresh plate of sashimi, chugging down some sake and then sitting back in the hotel’s outdoor onsen, looking out over the city.
Nothing beats onsens for mindfulness. Occasionally I’ll be joined by some Japanese tradesmen or older businessmen. Talking to them is important because it makes me realise that we all have our own challenges. While Japan is very much a different world to me; the people are of high quality, my daughter’s coming along beautifully and the continuous bond I have with Japan is extremely special.
This summer I had a very meaningful and enjoyable visitation. No amount of time with my daughter will ever be enough. However, this makes every little moment all the more special.