In a move aimed at resolving a longstanding diplomatic squabble with the U.S., Japanese lawmakers have taken a significant step toward joining an international child-custody agreement—one of the most contentious issues at stake between the two countries.
Japan, which is the only member of the Group of Seven leading nations not to be a part of the treaty, has faced renewed international pressure over its solitary stance against the international pact, known as the Hague Convention.
Chief government spokesman Yukio Edano said Friday the cabinet approved the policy to start preparing draft bills that would clear the way for Japan to sign the 1980 treaty, which would extend custody rights to non-Japanese parents whose children are moved to Japan by a former spouse. At a Thursday meeting led by Mr. Edano, officials including Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto agreed on domestic arrangements and other legal conditions that were necessary to cue cabinet consent Friday.
U.S. officials say Japan's exclusion from the treaty—which creates a mechanism for mediating crossborder conflicts and child-custody cases in broken international marriages—leaves a foreign parent with no legal means to win back custody or visitation rights once the former spouse takes the child or children to Japan. There are about 100 active cases involving some 140 children in the U.S.-Japan custody battles as of January, according to the U.S. State Department.
The draft bill comes at a time when talks with the U.S. have stalled over contentious American military bases on the Japanese island of Okinawa. Progress on the custody issue could provide Prime Minister Naoto Kan with leverage when the two nations meet at next week's Group of Eight leading nations summit in France.
"The U.S. is encouraged by the serious consideration that the government of Japan is currently giving this issue and we look forward to Japan reaching a positive decision to ratify the Hague Convention as soon as possible," said a U.S. embassy official in Tokyo on Thursday.
The U.S., European Union others have repeatedly urged Japan to ratify the convention. Earlier this year, in the face of growing international pressure, Japan's ruling party in created a task force dedicated to evaluating the issue.
The contentious issue straddles legal and cultural differences between the two countries. In Japan, custody is typically granted to one parent, most often the mother, and there is no joint custody available under Japanese law. Some in Japan have balked at signing the treaty, arguing it might force the Japanese parents to return their children to their former spouses against their will.
"It will be important to implement a new system that is different from the existing one but to do so in a way that doesn't leave [Japanese] mothers feeling vulnerable. However, it is most important to consider the children," said Katsuya Okada, the secretary general of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, on Thursday. "Children should be able to see both their parents."
But while the policy shift would be symbolically significant, any major change would take time. Political paralysis has gripped Tokyo, with Mr. Kan facing calls for resignation not only from the opposition but also from members of his own party.
A cabinet spokesman said the bill on the child-custody treaty isn't expected to be submitted in the current legislative session, which ends June 30.
—Toko Sekiguchi contributed to this article.