'I was trying to create a family unit that ignored cultural divisions'
One day in 2003, Douglas Galbraith discovered that his Japanese wife had left home and taken their two young sons. In writing about their abduction, he sets out a world view he hopes they will read: it might be the only way they will ever know him, he tells RÓISÍN INGLE
THE NOVELIST Douglas Galbraith has two teenage sons but he does not know what they look like. He cannot tell you about their favourite computer games or what television programmes make them laugh. He has not seen them since July 2003, when his Japanese wife took them from their home in Scotland while he was on a short business trip in London. He returned to an empty house to find the pyjamas of Satomi and Mokoto, then aged six and four, in a heap on the floor and a letter on the doormat addressed to his wife confirming her temporary forwarding address in Japan.
The writer of acclaimed literary novels including A Winter In China, Galbraith tells the story of his children’s abduction by their mother in his new memoir My Son, My Son. He says he waited several years before he started to write, determined it would be an objective, intellectual exercise, a work that would not sit comfortably in the “painful lives” section of bookshops.
“If you look at my case in terms of international child-abduction files, it’s a routine story. I wanted to understand it and not just be angry about it and I wanted to connect it to other, much larger things,” says the tall Glaswegian, sitting in a Dublin hotel. “I was very keen not to be writing a misery memoir with their terrible covers and their terrible titles; the ones that sell, sadly, but there you are.”
The book contains everything from his views on the rights of fathers and cultural tyranny to child murder and gender politics. But the grim narrative of the abduction of his children and his subsequent efforts to find them form the core of this beautifully written and at times challenging book.
He likens the initial impact of what happened to him to a bereavement.
“I can’t imagine it would be much worse than if it had been a couple of policemen turning up on the doorstep saying, ‘Prepare yourself, we have the worst possible news’ . . . They were leaving my life as completely as if they had died and I was leaving theirs, so for my boys it is as if their father died when they were aged six and four.”
Filling in the background to the abduction, he says he met his wife, Tomoko, when they were both research students at Cambridge University. She was, he recalls, “a cosmopolitan, impressive, intellectual woman who seemed to have freed herself from any cultural baggage”.
He first noticed this changing when she became pregnant with their elder son. He describes how she gradually began to show disdain for their life in England, discouraging her sons from using English and installing a satellite dish so the family could watch Japanese TV programmes, including weather reports.
“I was unlucky,” he says. “I was trying to create a family unit which ignored cultural divisions . . . It can work brilliantly, but in my case cultural loyalties won out over loyalties to people.” He points out that his is only one side of the story, and that Tomoko might frame things differently. Ultimately, he says, his biggest failing was the one thing he couldn’t do anything about. “I was British, I wasn’t Japanese.”
THE RELATIONSHIPeventually deteriorated to the point where Galbraith says he was staying in the home merely to keep his sons with both of their parents. He had been holding on to their British and Japanese passports as he feared they were at risk of abduction. In the end, Tomoko went to the Japanese consulate in Edinburgh where officials gave her another set of passports for the children, “no questions asked”. So while the abduction was shocking, it was not exactly unexpected.
“It’s a bit like this phenomenon of people who build their cities at the foot of a volcano,” he says. “You know that you are on your way to being a museum exhibit in Pompeii, so when the volcano erupts your last thought has to be ‘we knew this was coming’.”
His efforts to track them down have involved local police, Interpol, lawyers and trawling through the intricacies of international conventions.
His only success in locating his wife came from posing as someone else and making contact through her old university. This deception, and the fact that Tomoko needed to stay in touch in order to secure her share of the marital home, did result in regular phone calls with his children, but the last call was more than three years ago. Around that time, in a court submission for a case that was never heard, he writes his wife’s justification for the abduction was “(a) she felt like it and (b) because of the poor quality of the sushi in the local Tesco”.
The phone calls stopped when Tomoko received the money from the sale of the house. He sends Christmas and birthday gifts to an address in Osaka where he thinks they live now, a street he has virtually toured thanks to Google Maps. He cannot say whether he will ever see them again. “It depends,” he says, “on how well they have retained the ability to think and act for themselves.”
Galbraith says the book has two readerships: his two children and the rest of the world. He describes his “very adult” book as an “eccentric father substitute which they won’t make head or tail of for a long time . . . but it will allow them to get to know the man through the world view. They will understand my basic values of anti-nationalism and secularism, which don’t appear to have anything to do with the child-abduction story: the reason they are there is so they will be able to read this, if they ever do, and say ‘this is my father and to some extent I know him through this book’. ”
HE HAS NOT, as some other “left behind” parents have done, gone on to have more children. What has held him back is his instinct that as a man he stands a bigger risk of losing everything again should it all go wrong. He has been changed by the experience. “One of the more interesting changes is that I am now more adept at identifying conflicts that are irreducible,” he says mentioning Syria in this context. “I was in a conflict where I had to win or lose. Moderation resulted in me losing.”
His children are now 13 and 15. He is often asked whether he will go to Japan to track them down but he says even if he found them, standing in front of the locked door of an apartment is, to him, a futile gesture. “I want people to understand that the blockage isn’t just physical mileage,” he says. “I could physically go there but I couldn’t force myself on my sons. There needs to be compromise on the part of the person who abducted my children.”
He has accepted that they probably wouldn’t know who he is and that by turning up out of the blue he could make things worse for them. “I just hope they are well and thriving and not thinking about their missing father. My view, though, is that they need contact with their father to have the best chance of not being damaged and of not passing it on to the next generation. I feel my job is to break that cycle of inherited damage.”
He believes it is possible, but not likely, that one day he will get the chance to do that.