BANGKOK // 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 wanted a child but couldn’t conceive.
Ms 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 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 go on to make surrogate babies with 10 other women in Thailand, police say, spending more than half a million dollars to father at least 16 children for reasons still unclear.
The mystery surrounding Mr Shigeta has riveted Thailand and become the focal point 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.
Ms Wassana’s story offers clues into an extraordinarily complex puzzle that boils down to two questions: Who is Mr Shigeta and why did he want so many babies?
Mr Shigeta is being investigated 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 being 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 Mr Shigeta paid to bear his children. And Ms Wassana, whose account has been corroborated by police, was his first.
An answer to eviction
Ms Wassana’s Bangkok is not the city of skyscrapers and spas that most visitors see. The petite, soft-spoken 32-year-old with a ninth grade education has spent her life in a trash-strewn slum, scraping by selling traditional Thai sweets from a food cart. 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.
So when her sister stumbled upon an ad seeking surrogates in 2012, Ms 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 to authority 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, 2013, she underwent a cesarean section, giving birth to a boy. Ms Wassana’s family came to visit, but Mr Shigeta did not, she says.
The infant was placed in an incubator and after six days, Ms Wassana returned home. She’s not sure when the baby was released from the hospital to Mr Shigeta’s custody.
Two months later, she finally met Mr 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 Ms Wassana signed a document granting him sole custody.
He wasn’t personable. There was no “thank you” for carrying his child, she says. There was, in fact, no communication at all.
“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, called and 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 Col Decha Promsuwan, who has questioned five of Mr Shigeta’s surrogates, said several of the women told police Mr Ratpratan had instructed them to tell the court they had had an affair with Mr Shigeta, resulting in a child their husbands did not want.
Mr Ratpratan said he is no longer Shigeta’s attorney and declined to comment on the women’s statements, saying, “I don’t want to touch that point because it’s a legal matter.”
During the hearing, Mr 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.
Yet even his heritage is shrouded in mystery. The company says it can neither confirm nor deny the father-son relationship, calling it “a personal matter” and Thai police and Interpol say they are investigating his family ties. Multiple stock filings, meanwhile, 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 Feb 9, 1990, the same birthdate as the Mitsutoki Shigeta at the centre of the surrogacy scandal, according to Thai media that published his passport page.
Yasumitsu Shigeta did not respond to a request for an interview and Mitsutoki Shigeta’s current lawyer did not respond to requests for interviews with his client.
‘10 to 15 babies a year’
In early August, barely a year after Ms Wassana’s court date with Mr Shigeta, she saw his face again – this time, on television. She almost didn’t recognise him; his hair was now neatly trimmed.
The Thai media was calling it the “serial surrogacy” case. It had broken just after another scandal involving an Australian couple who paid a Thai surrogate to carry twins, then left behind the one with Down syndrome.
Ms Wassana was floored.
Mr Shigeta’s acquaintances offer varying accounts of his motives.
The New Life clinic, which is currently closed pending investigation, stopped working with Mr Shigeta after two surrogates got pregnant and he requested more, said founder Mariam Kukunashvili.
Mr Shigeta told New Life “he wanted to win elections and could use his big family for voting,” Ms 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.”
Ms 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.
The medical council of Thailand, meanwhile, spoke with Ms Wassana’s doctor, Pisit Tantiwattanakul, before he closed his All IVF fertility clinic and emptied it of all patient files after the scandal broke. His whereabouts are unknown, but he has vowed to present himself for a police interview in early September.
Mr Pisit told the council Mr Shigeta said he had businesses overseas and wanted a large family because he only trusted his own children to take care of them.
Interpol has asked its regional offices in Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, Hong Kong and India to probe Mr Shigeta’s background. Since 2010, he 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 Ms Wassana’s – a prospect that leaves her riddled with guilt.
“What if they’ve done something bad to the baby?” she says. “Did I deliver him to some terrible fate?”
She has held the boy just once, when Mr Shigeta handed him to her briefly in court. But she told police that she would be willing to raise him if he is being mistreated.
“I thought he would be with a good family that would love him,” she says. “That’s what I thought.”
* Associated Press