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WASHINGTON - There is a saying in Japan: "If you look back as you're departing and you see the setting sun, you will return."

On his last day of summer vacation in August, Chris Gulbraa, then 15, rode his bike away from his home in Kasugai, Japan, without looking back - he had no intention of returning.

Instead, he flew to a reunion with his American father, five years after his Japanese mother took him and his older brother from Utah to Japan.

He is the only child known to have returned on his own from such a separation, a dramatic move in an international custody battle that Utah courts had been powerless to control.

Chris had traveled days earlier to the U.S. consulate in Osaka, where documents allowing him to leave the country were waiting, arranged by his father. On Aug. 31, Chris told his mother, Etsuko Tanizaki Allred, 45, that he was going for a short ride, and took a train back to Osaka.

As Chris walked off a plane in Chicago hours later, Michael Gulbraa, 42, noted his son wore the same gentle half-smile he had always remembered. "It was like a rebirth" of his son, Gulbraa recalls.

They exchanged high-fives. They hugged. As he got into his father's car, Chris said, he thought to himself, "OK, I'm safe now."

'Every single one

. . . a tragedy'

Japan remains the only Group of 7 nation to abstain from signing the Hague Convention on international child abduction, a stance that thwarts extradition of Japanese citizens charged with violating U.S. custody rulings.

The State Department has 32 open cases involving Japanese citizens, all mothers.

To draw attention to the issue, other American fathers of half-Japanese children have been going to screenings of "Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story," a documentary about North Korea's kidnapping of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s.

In Washington, D.C., on Nov. 20, when the documentary's audience included Ambassador Ryozo Kato, four men stood in the chill for hours handing out fliers and pictures of their children. They are routinely kept away from Japanese officials in attendance.

"Here they were, co-sponsoring a movie about abduction," said Walter Benda, 49, a Virginia father whose children have been in Japan since 1995. "Yet they are condoning abduction themselves - the abduction of the children of foreign parents."

Many congressional hearings on international custody disputes have been held with few gains, said Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., the rising chair of the House International Relations Committee.

"Every single one of these cases is a tragedy," Lantos said. "They are extremely difficult to deal with, because there are differing laws and differing countries."

A Japanese embassy spokesman in Washington, D.C., said foreign judgments are recognized in Japan if they meet certain legal criteria under Japanese law. But judges may disregard a U.S. ruling is if it is not deemed "compatible with public order or good morals of Japan," he said.

A State Department spokeswoman said American parents are "severely disadvantaged" in Japanese courts, where joint custody is viewed as a psychological burden on a child.

While it is not the only country to overrule U.S. custody verdicts, Japan is the No. 1 offender among Asian countries, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Japanese judges favor a "clean-cut" approach, in which the noncustodial parent disappears from the child's life, said Jeremy Morley, an international family lawyer in New York City.

"There's been no historic role for both parents being involved," Morley said, "and the legal system makes no provision for any kind of visitation rights."

'They were thrilled'

Gulbraa and his sons were separated in 2001, when Allred awakened Chris and his older brother, Michael, before dawn in their Farmington home on Nov. 28. Urging them to pack quickly, she said they were moving to Japan.

"She told me that we were going to go to learn Japanese there and help my grandma out because she hurt her back," Chris said.

The couple had been divorced for several years, and Gulbraa had asked for custody after hearing that Allred's second husband, Daren Allred, had been investigated for the abuse of his own children. Gulbraa had obtained a temporary restraining order requiring the children to stay in Utah.

Allred said in an e-mail that, at the time, she felt her move to Japan was permitted.

"My attorney told me legally I could go to Japan because the temporary restraining order has been expired," she said in an e-mail. "The boys knew exactly where we were going and they were thrilled about going to Japan finally. . . . Even today I still believe it was legal."

Gulbraa was awarded custody of the boys in April 2002. Months later, the Allreds were each charged in state court with custodial interference. A complaint in Utah's federal court accused them of international parental kidnapping, and international arrest warrants were issued.

Yet as long as they remained in Japan, the charges could not affect them. Japanese courts do not recognize parental abduction as a crime.

'Part of me has died'

Allred said she was "shocked and discouraged" to learn of the charges, contending the family would have returned to the U.S. two years ago if they had not been filed.

Today, Chris says that when he demanded to call his father, his mother would disconnect the phone and order him to "calm down." The boys' contact with their father gradually dropped until it was "essentially nonexistent," Gulbraa said.

"I can tell you for many, many months, I didn't sleep," he said. "Devastating, I guess, is as simple as you can put it."

After Chris turned 15, his mother gave him a cellular phone, which he soon used to text message his father and develop a plan to return to the U.S. The tables abruptly turned, Allred says as she pines for a son who lives an ocean beyond her reach.

"It makes me feel like part of me has died," she said. "But he's only 15 and I know he loves me. He said he will come back when he turns 18."

Chris, who turned 16 last week, said he has tried to convince his brother to come to the U.S. But in e-mails, Michael responds angrily that Chris has hurt their mother by leaving, he said.

Gulbraa, who moved to Columbus, Ind., last year, says Chris is adjusting well to his new home. He's playing high school football, making friends and entertaining his twin 7-year-old half sisters. "They eat him up like chocolate," said Gulbraa, who remarried in 1997 and now manages Japanese joint venture operations with an American multinational company.

The Gulbraas planned to celebrate Christmas with the relatives of Chris' stepmother, Patty, in Wisconsin.

"I'm anticipating just a lot of fun and joy," Gulbraa said. "They've all been going through this ordeal, vicariously, and I can only imagine how they're going to welcome Chris back into the Christmas fold."

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* KIRSTEN BROWN reports for the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire in Washington, D.C.