Second Perspectives on Noriko Savoie

October 16, 2009

On one level, this story lies firmly between the discrete spheres of American and Japanese law. It's a sad situation, but one in which the most outstanding legal implication is Japan's possible commitment to the 1980 agreements put forth at The Hague.

What is curious about the Savoie saga, however, has been its mainstream network coverage, which utterly elides the story's racial dimension and plainly skews to Christopher's corner. The two are linked: remove any awkward dialoguing about race and Noriko Savoie is a criminal, a woman illegally absconding with her children to Japan -- in other words, precisely the way she has been characterized by CNN and the like. That Noriko, however, has returned to her native country from the United States -- where she felt her life neither viable nor adequately protected by the law -- demands of us a second characterization, as well as an uncomfortable question: Why should Noriko Savoie stay in Tennessee, in the absence of any sizable Japanese American community, where she moved in the throes of a dying marriage?

What the media's unbridled chastisement of Noriko -- and Japan -- has revealed is our investment in the notion that America is somehow past that sort of question. More specifically, it reveals a deep-seated indignation that transitioning to life in the United States might inherently be problematic for contemporary immigrants, especially those who are nonwhite.

The mythos of assimilation -- the immigrant who rises from rags to riches, the worn inscription on the Statue of Liberty -- tells us that white America is in fact a patchwork of immigrants, a stew of color, culture, and appearance cooked to homogeneity. Implicit in that framework is the idea that, when it comes to American citizenship, one's unique racial and cultural markers are -- and should be -- the price of admission.

Noriko Savoie is a wrench in those cogs. A Japanese woman in the Deep South without adequate English skills for employment, let alone a working knowledge of America divorce court proceedings, Noriko had nothing but the specter of the American Dream and the right to live in Tennessee just as long as her husband lived there too. She decided to relinquish both to raise her children in Japan -- a decision that apparently warrants her a lambasting by American news outlets and insinuations that her husband, who moved the family to Tennessee from Japan in June 2008 and had remarried by the next February, is some sort of martyr for fathers' rights.

Unsurprisingly, the Japanese legal framework protecting Noriko has been cast as deviant, archaic, and underhanded. She and the many other Japanese women with similar stories come out even worse; here, Christopher's lawyer seems hellbent on relegislating "buyer's remorse" laws binding Asian wives to their American husbands.

It's myopic to interpret the Savoie case as merely a reflection of international dissonance, and not an indictment of the way we understand race and assimilation to the United States. Of course, it remains on one level a sad story about a family -- and one in which each media angle seems to claim the best interests of the Savoie children. But it would be unfair to Noriko Savoie not to see in it the messy ways in which the complexities of immigration and assimilation are anchored to race. It is in this space, literally at the borders of Asian America, in which I hope to write for this blog.


Winston Chou


Winston Chou is a graduate student in sociology at UCLA. He is especially interested in issues of immigration and second-generation assimilation, but would almost always rather talk about obscure NBA players from the '90s. (Remember Chris Gatling?)



The thing you are missing is that Noriko had lived in the USA prior to moving back to get a divorce. In fact she moved back to get a divorce in exchange for a hefty cash ($900k) payment and a large alimony payment. She knew she was moving back to get a divorce and that in exchange for that she could bring the kids to Japan for 6 weeks in the summer while living the life of a very wealthy divorcee. Don't feel sorry for poor little Noriko - she got her $900k then took the kids and ran to Japan (where she would not have gotten $900k in the divorce settlement).
I'm your average white american couch potato and I think Noriko made a bad, bad choice but she is way more sympathetic than Chris.The coverage here in the US is awful.And Jerry, love the way you have inflated the settlement. First of all Chris is a CEO, so they have plenty of cash.And the amount was 700k+ and some college money for the kids making it approach almost 800k.It's not clear to me whether the money was actually ever transferred. Apparently Chris Savoie gave some weaselly answers about it in court.
Jerry,First of all, it is not 900K... in fact it is more than 700K... Then she had to pay for lawyer which left her with 680K.I think she deserved that much money, which I think it is not as much as what Christopher's company worth.She stayed married and supported her husband for 14 years.Second, she lived in USA starting June 2008 when her husband asked her to bring their 2 kids to USA presumably to mend their dying marriage. But instead, the day she arrived in USA in June 2008, she was served with a divorce paper.So, it is not true that Noriko had lived in the USA prior the divorce.What is true is that the divorce process began as soon as she arrived in USA in June 2008 and was finalized in January 2009.She was essentially held as "prisoner" in USA because she could not take her children back to Japan.Please notice that the 2 children were born in Japan, raised in Japan, and were taken to USA merely because Christopher requested Noriko to bring them. What happen next upon Noriko's arrival in USA is that she was served with divorce paper.
The first tenuous assumption you make is that Noriko could chart the divorce proceedings better than Christopher -- please. Not only does Christopher speak fluent English, he holds a Ph.D., an M.D., and is working towards a degree in law. It isn't that those titles are necessarily equivalent to a knowledge of divorce law -- it's that, if anything, we should question the assertion that Christopher Savoie was Noriko's hapless pawn.Which brings us to your second assumption-- that Christopher had no vested interest in moving the case to Tennessee. Even if we grant that Noriko was aware of the discrepancy in cash settlements between Japan and the United States, we can all agree that the real prize here was the Savoie children, and their presence either in Japan or the United States. Why would Noriko risk losing custody of her children and assuredly lose the right to raise them in Japan (where they lived prior to June 2008)? A second question: why Tennessee? Why wouldn't Noriko select an area with a larger Asian American community who could provide her with financial, legal, and emotional support?The third and final assumption I'll mention is that Noriko Savoie did not warrant the settlement. Had this case played out between two white Americans, we might certainly be asking: what kind of callousness does it take wed another woman a month after one ends a fourteen-year marriage? Now ask: what kind of callousness does it take to compel a Japanese woman to live in Tennessee to see her children?I understand that your viewpoint is informed, and that it speaks of a certain righteous indignation. But to close -- is it not a bit condescending to assume that Noriko wouldn't rather be with her children in Japan for more than six weeks than live the life of a wealthy divorcee?
Who cares if Noriko moved to the U.S. for a hefty cash payment? Norkio, like most Japanese women, was a stay at home wife. She was totally financially dependent on Savoie both in Japan and the states. Despite the Savoie moaning about the lack of visitation rights for fathers in Japan, there has been little or nothing said about the lack of CHILD SUPPORT in Japan. It's almost impossible for a custodial parent to get child support from a non-custodial parent. A japanese woman, who was a stay at home mom for years, is at a real financial disadvantage after a divorce especially when she has custody of her kids. And Japan is horribly expensive. In Japan, it's almost impossible to get a divorce unless both partners agree. Savoie had lots of money, a good job, spoke good japanese, and had Japanese citizenship. Savoie and Noriko were seperated for 3 years in Japan. I assume Noriko had primary physical custody of the children during that time, and Savoie saw them regularly. Why didn't Savoie negotiate a divore IN JAPAN under the same circumstances that he used to get Noriko to Tennessee? He could've easily have said he would pay Noriko so much money a month in exchange for visitation with the kids. After all, Noriko was financially dependant on Savoie. If she was desperate enough to come to Tennessee, she probably would've been open to Savoie having visitation rights in Japan in exchange for child support. No visitation, no child support. OTOH, I think the answer to why Savoie talked Noriko to come to the states is pretty simple-AMY SAVOIE. Amy was married, living in Tennessee, with 3 kids. When she got a divorce, she most likely was not free to take her kids to Japan to live. Face it,Savoie wanted his cake and eat it too. It was okay for him to uproot his ex-wife and kids from the only culture they've ever known so that Savoie could marry Amy Savoie, and he used Noriko's financial dependance on him to achieve this. And in the meantime, he sure didn't do anything to help either Noriko OR his children adjust to a foreign and racist culture like Tennessee. I read Christopher's Savoie's testimony on court transcripts from the hearing to try and prevent Noriko from going to Japan from the children. Many websites posted Noriko's testimony as some kind of proof that she knew about the divorce and/or lied to the courts about going back to Japan. However, they neglected to include Christopher Savoie's own testimony. Well, I'll tell you, I didn't empathize with this guy at all. He was rude, arrogant, and interruted the judge and lawyers until they threatened him with jail. He called his wife names via email while bragging about how smart he was. He signed papers giving Noriko final say about the children's activities, and than whined that he signed the papers "under duress", and claimed he didn't know that language was in the final parenting plan. He accused Noriko of not "cooperating" with him on his parenting plan, but had a bunch of excuses about why he failed to do the things he agreed to do. This guy is a real jerk, and his own testimony gives a lot of insight into what it must've been like for Noriko to have to deal with this guy on a regular basis. No wonder she said enough is enough, and went back to Japan with the kids and a big chunk of his money. I know that I would've told this jerk sayonara do fast, his head would spin. Face it, Savoie didn't come to Tennessee in order to get visitation with his kids. He came to Tennessee so HE COULD BE WITH AMY. He's a selfish jerk as far as I'm concerned, and he and Amy deserve each other.
I'm guessing the answer to why Tennessee might have something to do with Amy's divorce and custody agreement between her and her ex-husband for her own three children.
Um. She decided to raise her children in Japan? Huh? She had a court order saying she couldn't do just that. Regardless of what you think about Noriko, she is a criminal. She broke the law in the US, and thanks to her, the whole deviant, archaic and underhanded house of cards here in Japan is going to crumble.This isn't about Asian immigrants to America, although that's how it started. It's about American immigrants to Asia. It's odd that there's no press on this in Japan, no? Why do you think that is, Winston? What do you know about the Japanese family courts? I'm curious as to your experiences with them.Personally, I think they're both jerks, but that's just me.
I'd like to add that Noriko didn't need to move to the US to get a divorce; she just had to come to the US. This means she moved to the US to give Christopher a chance at being in the kids' lives. Second, since when have we become so judgmental about a woman getting her share of the pie in a divorce settlement? I can't understand how the settlement is an aspersion on Noriko. The whole things sounds a bit mysoginistic and racist to me.
okazakiOm:It's actually a misconception that the US legal system is always right.Regarding your second point: perhaps I decided that there had been enough coverage from Christopher's perspective?
okazakiOm: "It's odd that there's no press on this in Japan, no?"For Japanese it is not really odd. Although some that I have asked aren't sure why it is that way. The majority that I asked felt that such a story was private. They were curious as to why we are so interested in it.
Winston: are you going to be writting a prespective on the Henne family as wellThey have a lot of issues
Jeff,Wasn't planning on it -- Claire already gave an excellent take on the situation in the post below this one. Besides, I'm probably not nearly up to date on that whole circus.Do appreciate the question, though.
thanks for your view on this issue. it is well thought-out and carries appropriate weight.
The US family court system is far from perfect, but it's a great sight better than what we have here. Savoie had the money and moxie and the smarts to know when to pull this stunt. Hopefully, foreign parents in Japan will be the beneficiaries of any positive outcome from this.Regarding the press brownout here in Japan, that's just the kisha clubs closing ranks. Typical poor performance from what passes for the Fourth Estate here.
"Regarding the press brownout here in Japan, that's just the kisha clubs closing ranks. Typical poor performance from what passes for the Fourth Estate here."There is no denying the J Press is clubby and kowtows to certain institutions, but does this include what the Japanese are calling family matters? For example, the press do not show photos of family members in these kind of cases, as a rule. Is that a "brown out" or just culture?