Every Child

Has Two Parents





One of the most heartbreaking scenes in the 1979 film “Kramer vs Kramer” has Meryl Streep sitting at the window of a Manhattan café, waiting for her son to walk by on his way home from school. Although Mrs Kramer has chosen to walk out on her husband and child, she is obviously having regrets.

Suzanne Kamata’s debut novel, “Losing Kei,” includes a similar scene. An American woman sits smoking in a small playground next to a temple, waiting to see a group of Japanese schoolboys. When they pass by, playing and teasing each other, the woman calls out to one of them, prompting the boy’s grandmother to appear and promptly whisk him away. The child she is not allowed to speak to is her own son, Kei.

The power of this scene comes from the fact that it opens the novel, which then jumps back in time to the woman’s arrival in Japan. Kamata, an American-born expat living here with her husband and children, takes her protagonist, Jill Parker, on an emotional journey that spans two decades and two continents.

After the short opening chapter, which comes under the simple heading “1997,” the next chapter is titled “1989.” Here again, we find Jill emotionally scarred. “I came to Japan because a man had broken my heart,” she confesses. The plans she had been making for years to join her college boyfriend on a Peace Corps trip to Africa fell through when he simply went without her, and Jill resolves to go somewhere as far away as possible to work on her painting, deciding on Tokyo largely by whim.

Arriving at the height of the Bubble, she finds Tokyo a sterile, orderly metropolis, devoid of the inspiration she seeks as an artist. She promptly flees to rural Tokushima, where she spends her days painting on the beach and her evenings working at a small hostess bar. Before long, Jill meets Yusuke, a gallery owner who has something she has always needed without realizing: a faith in her art. He organizes her first exhibition, and in the heady days of the economic bubble, her works sell quickly. After a whirlwind romance, Jill and Yusuke are married.

Jill must then face the harsh realities of being a housewife in a traditional Japanese household. She and her husband live with his parents while their own house is being built, and her life is strictly controlled by her tradition-bound mother-in-law, who has no faith in Jill’s housekeeping abilities. When Yusuke’s father suddenly dies, he takes over the family business, and any hopes of Jill continuing her art quickly fade. Just when the marriage is at a breaking point, she discovers that she is pregnant. Giving birth to a male child does nothing to change the fact that she is an outsider in her new family.

What makes the telling of Jill’s tragic journey so compelling is the nonlinear structure of the novel. Each chapter is headed simply with year it takes place, and there is a lot of jumping back and forth. Scenes of Jill falling in love with her Japanese husband are juxtaposed with frightening tales of that same man sending yakuza goons around to threaten her to keep away from Kei.

“Losing Kei” also underscores the shortcomings of Japan’s divorce laws. When Jill finally decides to leave her husband, she assumes she will at least get shared custody of Kei, only to learn that such arrangements are rare. Desperate, Jill visits a lawyer who drops a hint, telling her “in Japan it is not illegal to kidnap your own child,” which she is eventually driven to attempt.

These legal obstacles only compound the isolation Jill experiences. But thanks to her love for her son, she manages to pull herself from the brink, freeing herself from her unhappy life
in Japan and opening the possibility of a reunion with Kei.


The information on this website concerns a matter of public interest, and is provided for educational and informational purposes only in order to raise public awareness of issues concerning left-behind parents. Unless otherwise indicated, the writers and translators of this website are not lawyers nor professional translators, so be sure to confirm anything important with your own lawyer.

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