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  • Sep 20, 2014
  • Updated: 7:50am
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Thai surrogate mother for Japanese mystery man recalls day she met him

Bangkok slum dweller who bore one of Japanese 24-year-old's 16 children tells of day she met him, and of her fears for baby

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 September, 2014, 11:36pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 September, 2014, 11:36pm

When the young Thai woman saw an online ad seeking surrogate mothers, it seemed like a life-altering deal: US$10,000 to help a foreign couple that couldn't conceive, but wanted a child.

Wassana, a lifetime resident of the slums, viewed it as a nine-month solution to her family's debt. She didn't ask many questions.

In reality, there was no couple. There was instead a young man from Japan and based in Hong Kong named Mitsutoki Shigeta, whom she met twice but who never spoke a word to her. This same man - reportedly the son of a Japanese billionaire - would father surrogate babies with 10 other women in Thailand, police say, spending more than US$500,000 to help conceive at least 16 children for reasons still unclear.

What if they’ve done something bad to the baby? Did I deliver him to some terrible fate?
THAI SURROGATE MOTHER

The mystery surrounding Shigeta has riveted Thailand and become the centre of a growing scandal over commercial surrogacy. The industry that catered to foreigners has thrived on semi-secrecy, deception and legal loopholes, and Thailand's military government is vowing to shut it down.

Wassana's story, which she shared on condition that her last name not be used so as to protect her family and eight-year-old son, offers clues into an extraordinarily complex puzzle.

Interpol is investigating Shigeta for human trafficking and child exploitation, but Thai police say they haven't found evidence of either. The 24-year-old, now the focus of an Asia-wide investigation, has said through a lawyer that he simply wanted a big family.

He has not been charged with any crime and is trying to get his children back - 12 are currently in Thailand cared for by social services. His whereabouts are unknown; he left Bangkok after police raided his condominium on August 5 and discovered nine babies living with nine nannies. Police say he sent DNA samples from Japan that prove he is the babies' father.

Key to unravelling all of this are the women Shigeta paid to bear his children. And Wassana, whose account has been corroborated by police, was his first.

Wassana's Bangkok is not the city of skyscrapers and spas that most visitors see. The petite, softly spoken 32-year-old with little education has spent her life in a slum, scraping by selling traditional Thai sweets from a food cart and sharing a damp tenement with seven relatives. At US$6 a day, it was affordable until her late father's medical bills drained the family's savings. They couldn't pay rent for a year and faced eviction.

When her sister stumbled on an ad seeking surrogates in 2012, Wassana didn't hesitate.

"I thought that any parents who would spend so much money to get a baby must want him desperately," she says. "The agent told me it was for a foreign couple."

She assumed it was customary to keep the biological parents' identities confidential. In a country where deference is expected - especially for poor, uneducated women -she didn't probe.

She wondered, though, who the baby's mother was.

"I don't know if the doctor used my eggs or another woman's," she says. "Nobody told me."

During the pregnancy, she developed pre-eclampsia, a condition that causes dangerously high blood pressure. She was rushed into the delivery room two months early and on June 20 last year she underwent a caesarean section, giving birth to a boy.

The infant was placed in an incubator and after six days, Wassana returned home. She's not sure when the baby was released from the hospital to Shigeta's custody.

Two months later, she finally met Shigeta for the first time at the New Life fertility clinic, which had posted the internet ad.

He was tall, with shaggy, shoulder-length hair, and was dressed casually in jeans and a wrinkled, button-down shirt he left untucked. His lawyer had accompanied him to the meeting, where he and Wassana signed a document granting him sole custody.

There was no "thank you" for carrying his child, she says.

"He didn't say anything to me," she says. "He never introduced himself. He only smiled and nodded. His lawyer did the talking."

A month later, the same lawyer, Ratpratan Tulatorn, told her to go to the Juvenile and Family Court to finalise the custody transfer. Under Thai law, a woman who gives birth is the legal mother, and, if she is married, her husband is the legal father. A court approval is required to transfer custody, which experts say often involves perjury.

Police Colonel Decha Promsuwan, who has questioned five of Shigeta's surrogates, said several of the women told police that Ratpratan had instructed them to tell the court they'd had an affair with Shigeta, resulting in a child their husbands did not want. Ratpratan said he is no longer Shigeta's attorney and declined to comment on the women's statements.

During the hearing, Shigeta told the judge he owned a finance company in Japan.

Several Japanese magazines and online publications have identified him as a son of Japanese tycoon Yasumitsu Shigeta, founder of mobile-phone distributor Hikari Tsushin.

The company said it can neither confirm nor deny the father-son relationship, calling it "a personal matter". Multiple stock filings show the elder Shigeta has a son named Mitsutoki and his company has a shareholder with the same name. The stock papers show that Yasumitsu's child was born on February 9, 1990, the same birth date as the Mitsutoki Shigeta in the surrogacy scandal, according to Thai media.

Yasumitsu Shigeta did not respond to a request for an interview and Mitsutoki Shigeta's current lawyer did not respond.

In early August, barely a year after Wassana's court date with Shigeta, she saw his face again - this time, on television. She almost didn't recognise him; his hair was now neatly trimmed.

Wassana was floored.

Police said Shigeta hired surrogacy clinics and nannies, registered apartments in the infants' names and completed legal paperwork for birth certificates and passports. The deliveries were spread out at nine Bangkok hospitals.

The New Life clinic, which is closed pending investigation, stopped working with Shigeta after two surrogates got pregnant and he requested more, said founder Mariam Kukunashvili.

Shigeta told New Life "he wanted to win elections and could use his big family for voting," Kukunashvili said.

"He said he wanted 10 to 15 babies a year, and that he wanted to continue the baby-making process until he's dead."

Kukunashvili said she reported his requests to Interpol in an April 8, 2013 fax to its French headquarters, but never heard back. Thailand's Interpol office said it never saw the warning.

She rejected Wassana's account that the New Life agent had portrayed the parents as a couple and withheld Shigeta's identity.

"At New Life, surrogates are always informed fully and never treated this way," she said.

Since 2010, Shigeta has made 41 trips to Thailand and police say he travelled regularly to Cambodia, where he holds a passport and brought four of the babies. Cambodian police have refused to comment on the case.

One of the babies in Cambodia might be Wassana's - a prospect that riddles her with guilt.

"What if they've done something bad to the baby?" she says. "Did I deliver him to some terrible fate?"

The money she received for bearing Shigeta's child cleared the family debt but was not enough to drag them out of the slums. She still lives in the same derelict tenement.

She told police that she would be willing to raise the boy if he was being mistreated.

"I thought he would be with a good family that would love him," she says. "That's what I thought."

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