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Father in Japan: 'I didn't do anything wrong'

  • Story Highlights
  • Man charged with abducting his own children denies committing breach
  • Japanese custom, law on custody differ sharply from those in U.S.
  • Japan is not party to 1980 convention that standardized abduction laws
  • All parties in current case are Japanese citizens
From Kyung Lah
CNN
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YANAGAWA, Japan (CNN) -- Wearing a Nashville School of Law T-shirt, Christopher Savoie walked into a second-floor police interrogation room. In one corner, a stopwatch was running to hold him to the 15 minutes allotted for the interview.

A Tennessee court awarded Christopher Savoie custody of his son, Isaac, and daughter, Rebecca.

A Tennessee court awarded Christopher Savoie custody of his son, Isaac, and daughter, Rebecca.

"I'm so scared," he said.

Savoie chose his words carefully, lest police Officer Toshihiro Tanaka cut short the rare interview Savoie was granted with CNN on Thursday. There were so many rules: No recording devices. No tough questions. Speak only in Japanese.

"I want Americans to know what's happening to me," Savoie continued in Japanese. "I didn't do anything wrong. Children have the right to see both parents. It's very important for my children to know both parents."

But Japanese authorities disagree.

They have charged Savoie, 38, a Tennessee native and naturalized Japanese citizen, with kidnapping his two children -- 8-year-old Isaac and 6-year-old Rebecca -- as his estranged wife, Noriko, was walking them to school Monday in Yanagawa, a rural town in southern Japan. Video Watch what else Savoie had to say »

He headed for the nearest U.S. consulate, in the city of Fukuoka, to try to obtain passports for the children, screaming at the guards to let him in the compound. He was steps away from the front gate but still standing on Japanese soil.

Japanese police, alerted by his estranged wife, arrested him.

The Savoies were divorced in Tennessee in January after 14 years of marriage.

Christopher Savoie had visitation rights with his children, but after he returned from a short summer trip, his estranged wife fled to Japan with the children, according to court documents. A United States court then granted sole custody to Savoie. Video Watch why the case is complicated »

Japanese law, however, recognizes Noriko Savoie as the primary custodian, regardless of the U.S. court order. The law there also follows a tradition of sole custody divorces. When the couple splits, one parent typically makes a complete and lifelong break from the children.

Complicating the matter further is the fact that the couple is still considered married in Japan, because they never divorced there, police said Wednesday. And, police said, the children are Japanese and have Japanese passports.

A 1980 Hague Convention standardized laws on international child abduction. But Japan is not a party to that agreement. Savoie was out of luck.

If a child in Japan is taken against the wishes of the recognized Japanese parent, the person who took the child is considered an abductor.

"Japanese people think she's the victim here," Savoie said. "In the States, my ex-wife is the one who's in the wrong."

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley recognized this case as a difficult one. Even though the United States has strong ties with Japan, on this particular issue, the two nations' points of view could not differ more, he said.

In Yanagawa, those who have heard about the abduction case tend to side with the woman.

"They belong with their real mother," said one woman, herself a mother of two children.

But most have not heard of the case, because it has not been reported in local newspapers or on television.

Savoie's attorney, Tadashi Yoshino, knows the cultural divide will be hard to overcome.

"He technically may have committed a crime according to Japanese law but he shouldn't be indicted," Yoshino said. "He did it for the love of his children."

Savoie, a law student who already has a Ph.D. and a M.D., will spend 10 days in jail while Japanese prosecutors sort out the details of the case.

In the interrogation room, Savoie appeared exhausted. Tears welled in his eyes. He glanced over at the police officer, then paused to regain composure.

"I love you, Isaac, Rebecca," he said. "Your daddy loves you forever. I'll be patient and strong until the day comes that I can see you both again. I am very sorry that I can't be with you."

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He was grateful be able to get the words out. Moments earlier, the interview had almost ended after Savoie blurted out in English: "I love you," a message intended for his current wife, Amy, in Nashville.

Then, as is Japanese custom, he bowed. And from the other side of the glass barrier, he gave a thumbs up, mouthing the words, "Thank you."

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