Eriko Nakano is a Japanese citizen. Her parents and sister live in Japan, she worked as a doctor in Japan, and she barely knows anyone in Bangladesh. Yet since 2021, she has been staying in Dhaka, only for her children.
In fact, the custody battle between Eriko and her husband Imran Sharif, a Bangladeshi American, has been making headlines in the media.
The couple met in Japan while she was working at the national cancer centre under a fellowship and Imran was running his own company. They got married in 2008 and eventually had three daughters – Jasmine, Laila and Sonia. At present, other than Sonia who is with her maternal grandparents in Japan, everyone else is in Dhaka.
Before the custody battle began in Dhaka, the Tokyo Family Court gave the children sole custody to their mother. However, Imran Sharif is being accused of International Parental Child Abduction by Eriko as he, despite the Japanese court's decision, brought Jasmine and Laila to Bangladesh without letting her know.
After several verdicts for the last two years, in which the children's custody moved back and forth between the father and mother (Imran and Eriko were also ordered to live in a Gulshan flat together for 15 days); on 16 July the Dhaka District Judge's Court upheld the family court verdict, which Eriko claims allowed her to have custody of her children.
Laila is however still with her father, whereas Jasmine is staying with her mother.
Staying away from home for such a long time and living in constant uncertainty is not easy for anyone, especially for a parent or guardian whose primary concern is their children's wellbeing.
We recently spoke with Eriko Nakano who shared with us her frustration at not being able to take her children home. She is also disappointed in not getting enough support from Bangladeshi authorities.
Jasmine accompanied her mother during the interview.
During the process of getting custody, which took longer than she expected, she lost her job as an associate director of the medical oncology department of a renowned hospital, and could not visit her mother who fell gravely ill in Japan (she was told to leave from the airport as the children were not allowed to leave Bangladesh).
"Being a professional oncologist was my life, I was so proud of my work. I had a decent income, a stable life. Everything is gone now. We are stuck here, for how long we do not know."
When trouble began to brew
"Every married couple has disagreements and I always thought we [Imran and I] would solve our problems by talking. He always had anger issues; when he was angry, we were all scared and when he was happy, we were all happy. But you know, the Bangali culture often asks women to 'adjust,' so I tried to adjust," said Eriko.
Jasmine recalled one particular angry incident of her father where she was really scared and her younger sisters began to cry.
"Looking back, I realise we did not have a lot of [financial] disagreements because I was always financially 100% independent; and I loved my job, I loved taking care of my patients."
Eriko claimed her father, who is also a doctor, took a bank loan for a new apartment in one of Tokyo's high-end areas on behalf of Imran as he "did not have the financial credibility for a loan [as required by the bank]."
But trouble began to brew when Imran allegedly stopped paying for his share of the loan, but his father-in-law had to keep paying it for him.
"My dad kept calling him, emailing him and insisted they meet and have a discussion. Finally, he hired a lawyer because we could not communicate as a family anymore. Then Imran said his older brother, who is in the United States, will talk to my father, because that is the Bangali culture."
The loan repayment issues made Imran unhappy, according to Eriko. It was during this time that he started "brain-washing Jasmine against me."
"A lot of people do not believe me when I say this, but when we got back from school, my father would take me to his room and say [bad things about my mother]. As his daughter, I trusted him. He even said I was abused by my mom, even though the court never found any evidence," said Jasmine.
"Even our Filipino house help got worried about these sessions. But I thought it was just normal father-daughter talk. Even their school counsellor sensed something was not right and called for a meeting with all of us," said Eriko.
She said her children had dual citizenship, US and Japan, and their passports are with her. She alleged Imran made counterfeit documents and got new Bangladeshi passports for them. (Imran Sharif has accused her of doing the same).
Bangladesh does not belong to the Hague Convention and that is why she believes "Imran got them here instead of the US because in the US he would have been arrested."
On the US Embassy in Dhaka website, it is written that 'Bangladesh is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. There are also no bilateral agreements in force between Bangladesh and the US on international parental child abduction.'
How did you feel when you saw your children were away from you? "I became really nervous and I missed them. Sonia missed them too. One day her sisters were just gone, it was abnormal. I felt very worried, very scared about their safety, especially because they were young girls. And parental abduction is abuse," replied Eriko.
Rights of the father
We messaged Imran Sharif on his Facebook page but he has not yet replied. However, his lawyer, Advocate Nasima Akhter Lovely, said, "From the very beginning, we have been requesting them [Eriko and her lawyer] to speak from a point of law. Misinformation was spread about this case from the very beginning. The verdict [on 16 July] did not say the mother will have the children, it simply said the case was dismissed."
"According to Bangladeshi law,the father is the guardian while mother is the custodian. The mother cannot take the children so far away from the father that he cannot take care of them, as he is legally supposed to. And they [Eriko and Imran] are not yet divorced," she said.
She said there is no scope for them to do anything outside the legal system. "We have very clear laws about guardianship and custody. We believe parents complement and complete each other; one parent cannot be completely excluded from his legal rights. They want to completely erase the father's existence, can that happen?"
According to Japanese law, divorced parents cannot share the custody of their children and parental authority includes both legal and physical custody. Advocate Nasima added on this by saying, "Japan's law allows only one custodian and one guardian. If the children are given to the mother, the father will have no rights on them. If you ask us, we would like a balance so that both parents can look after the children."
She said that Laila herself has chosen to stay with her father, and there is no law that can force a child to do something against her will. "She even threatened to commit suicide if she was forced to go to her mother and it is in a report filed with the Gulshan Thana police."
During interviews given to television channels, Laila herself has said, "I want to stay in Bangladesh because I can stay with Abba." Imran too is seen saying, "They always wanted to stay with their father. If they said they liked staying in Japan and with their mother, I would have said 'no problem.'
During these interviews, he mentioned he was kicked out of the house by his father-in-law and also accused Eriko of not allowing the children to speak Bangla at home, and that they would secretly read Bangla books. He said Laila is now happy to be known as "full Bangladeshi", because she was bullied in Japan for being "half-Japanese".
The beginning of endless legal battles
After reaching Dhaka, Imran Sharif filed a case at the Dhaka Family Court, which barred the children from leaving Bangladesh with Eriko or her family.
She did not know about this and did not even get a notice. She received a written verdict in May 2021 and the Covid-19 situation was quite bad. She waited until July to come to Bangladesh and heard Imran got sole custody from Dhaka Family Court. "Even though I was twice vaccinated by that time, I got five Covid tests so I could see my children."
She said she was picked up from her hotel by Imran who "made sure my phone's GPS was off and blindfolded me and took me somewhere to meet the children."
When she finally met them, she felt they changed a great deal. "I could not even have a normal conversation with them, they hated me so much. I realised parental alienation was going on. I thought to myself if I cannot protect my daughters, who will? This was child abuse, psychologically, emotionally."
Even though the court gave Eriko custody of her daughters, Laila is still with her father. "We do not know where she is. How is this [court order violation] allowed? How can he still have her when the court gave me sole custody?" said her mother. She said Laila was apparently forcefully taken from her by her father when they were at the airport the last time.
"I miss my sister; it has been five months since I last saw her. I worry about her," said Jasmine. In his Facebook page, Imran has stated that it is Eriko who is not allowing Jasmine to see her father for the last eight months and they live on the road next to his.
Did you miss your mother when she was away and your life in Japan? "Around the height of brainwashing, I started hating my mom with every fibre of my being. Everything associated with Japan was bad, that was the logic put in me [by my father]."
Imran Sharif regularly posts videos and messages detailing court verdicts. Sometimes the videos are about his interactions with his daughter. This page has 268K followers with many regularly saying how they support him in his journey.
Eriko is concerned about these videos with Laila in them because "I saw people commenting things such as 'do not worry I will marry Laila,' 'we will make sure she becomes a good, Muslim wife.' She is only 11."
However, Advocate Nasima said the same logic applies to the defendant as she is also running a similar Facebook page.
During the interview, Eriko showed us a small card with Jasmine's Facebook name 'Jasmine Flower' printed on it. It also read "Stop parental child abduction, stop parental alienation, it's the worst form of abuse."
On Imran Sharif being accused of International Parental Child Abduction, Advocate Nasima said Eriko should speak on this through a proper forum. "Since she has said this unofficially to the media, I cannot speak on this. In the eyes of the law, these statements do not hold any value if they are not made where they should be. I can't comment on it if they are just randomly made."
A long wait for a new beginning
Eriko's hospital kept her job for almost 1.5 years, thinking she would come back soon. "In Japan, organisations have to pay for their workers' tax, social welfare etc, and it is a huge amount. How long could they keep paying for someone who was not working for them?" She was visibly upset while talking about it.
She says she is currently living on her savings and her family's financial support. "It is really, really difficult for me. First of all, I can't withdraw taka with my international credit card. I have to ask my Japanese friends to help me out."
On how the legal battle is impacting Bangladesh's relationship with Japan, Eriko said, "I think it will have a deep impact. International parental child abduction carries its own definition already. The whole world knows the victims are children. The Japanese government even brought up this issue on the formal agenda before Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina [during her Japan visit] from the point of protecting their own citizen against child abuse."
She said they did not do anything wrong, yet "we feel like we have no freedom." Last year on Eid they went somewhere and Imran allegedly showed up with a notice saying their daughters should not be here.
The constant legal feud has tired Eriko but she refuses to give up. "I will not give up, no. How can I leave my daughters here? But we do not even have the freedom to go back."
Eriko says she does not deny the reality that Imran Sharif is the father of their children but "a parent who can do international abduction is dangerous, and it is not my emotion, it is science."
Jasmine said, "Looking back, before all of this [happened], we loved him, we still do in a way I guess, but of course, we have handled his ups and downs, we did not know what to expect from him."
Has she decided to completely separate from her husband? She said she has. "It is really complicated [their divorce situation]. In Japan, to complete a divorce, both parties have to sign but Imran has refused to sign the papers. This is just harassment."
Can the children meet their father in the future? "In cases of International Child Abduction, parents are sometimes put in jail or they can only meet their children under surveillance of social workers or psychologists for 30 minutes every month. According to the Tokyo Family Court order, it was clearly mentioned that Imran could meet them but he still did this," said Eriko.