International law tangles Minnesota custody battle

James Cook and Hitomi Arimitsu with their children.
James Cook and Hitomi Arimitsu with their children in an undated photo. Faces were blurred by the family. Cook and Arimitsu are in a custody battle for their children. Because Cook lives in Minnesota and she has taken the children to Japan, both countries' governments are involved.
Courtesy James Cook

Updated: 7:30 p.m. | Posted: 4:00 a.m.

James Cook hasn't seen his kids since Oct. 13, 2014.

In July of that year, his wife, Hitomi Arimitsu went to Japan for an agreed-upon six-week vacation, according to Cook. The couple had been living in St. Louis Park with their four children — two sets of twins, ages 6 and 11 at the time.

"Our relationship had become sort of irreconcilable prior to that and the mood in our house was really, really bad and everybody needed a break," said Cook. "A very good break was for her to go home and be with her parents."

But after six weeks, Arimitsu and the children weren't back.

More than two years later, Cook and Arimitsu were set to be back in a Minnesota court on Friday, attempting to settle custody of their four children.

Later in the day Friday, Cook's attorney, Victoria Taylor, said that Arimitsu did not appear at the hearing. The children are still in Japan. Aritmitsu is believed to be with them.

Taylor said the court is going to move forward with an order of contempt, which will require Aritmitsu to comply with the court's order to return the children.

"The court is insisting on their return," said Taylor. "The U.S. is fighting for these kids."

The custody case has grown to involve an international treaty and courts in both countries.

Before Arimitsu took the children to Japan in 2014, Cook said Arimitsu signed notarized documents that said the children would return in time for school that fall.

When that didn't happen, Cook flew to Japan. He said he learned Arimitsu's parents had enrolled the children in a private school there.

"They were odd, and they were real weird around me," Cook said about his children. "It was obvious, looking over their shoulder all their time at their mother when they were with me. That gave me a sick feeling. I thought, how do I get the kids back?"

Arimitsu declined to be interviewed for this story, but her attorney provided a statement that says she and Cook agreed the children would be better off living in Japan.

The statement said Cook "refuses to entertain anything that doesn't involve him having 100 percent of the parenting time in Minnesota."

Both a Minnesota court and the Osaka High Court in Japan have ruled in favor of Cook. It's been more than a year since the Osaka court ruling that ordered the children be returned to Minnesota.

But that hasn't happened.

Cook calls Japan an "abductor's haven."

In 1980, at the Hague Abduction Convention, a group of countries set expectations for how to resolve situations when a parent leaves the country with children.

According to the State Department, 75 countries have signed the Hague Abduction Convention — including Japan in 2014.

But even though Japanese officials signed it, they've had challenges enforcing it, said Ted Coley, the director of the Office of Children's Issues with the Bureau of Consular Affairs in the U.S. State Department.

Coley said the court system in Japan can't hold someone in contempt of court.

"When a Japanese court orders a taking parent to return to the United States with a child, the parent can ignore that court order and Japan really has no remedy to force them to do it," said Coley. "They have to find other ways of enforcing that court order."

Those other ways include mediation between the two parents that can result in visits or other forms of contact like Skype calls.

The U.S. State Department said in a 2015 report that Japan "failed to comply with its obligations under the Hague Abduction Convention in the area of enforcement of return orders."

Last year, Coley said, three cases were settled with Japan, involving six children. There are currently 88 active cases with Japan.

Cook filed for divorce from Arimitsu through the Hennepin County Court, which granted him temporary custody of the children. One of the first things he did after filing for divorce was filing his Hague petition.

Arimitsu said in her court statement that the kids are happy and flourishing in Japan and that Cook has access to the children whenever he likes. He just chooses not to contact them.

Cook claims he has attempted to bring the children back to Minnesota on two separate trips and hasn't been successful because Arimitsu won't allow him access.

Coley says the State Department considers cases like Cook's to be some of their highest priorities.

"The ambassador to Japan is engaged in this at a regular level to try to resolve these cases and improve their performance to bring all of these children home," said Coley.

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