"Mr. Yonemoto, I brought you some guavas that I picked from my garden."
"Oh thank you, I always say this but you really didn’t have to! (How do I eat this...?)”
"It's my pleasure. You are always making time to listen to my stories."
My name is Yu Yonemoto, and I am a lawyer. I work at the Yaeyama Himawari Law Office on Ishigaki Island, Okinawa Prefecture. After completing my period of legal apprenticeship, I worked at a public law office in Tokyo for two years. It is almost two years since I moved to Ishigaki Island.
The above conversation shows one of the scenes from my interaction with a certain elderly client. In the semitropical climate of the southern islands, I spend my days working amidst the warmth of such local people.
To illustrate how the legal system works in the remote islands of Okinawa, I will start by explaining the circumstances of legal professionals on Ishigaki Island.
Ishigaki Island, where young people may be familiar for a popular legal drama filming spot, is located in the Yaeyama Islands which include Iriomote Island, Kohama Island (famous for the popular NHK dramaChurasan), Taketomi Island, Hateruma Island, Yonaguni Island (filming site of the TV dramaDr. Koto’s Clinic), and other remote islands. The Yaeyama Islands are located in the southwest corner of Japan, where Yonaguni Island marks the westernmost point of Japan and Hateruma Island is the southernmost inhabited island. The total population of all the Yaeyama Islands is about 55,000.
The Yaeyama Islands fall under the jurisdiction of the Ishigaki Branch of the Naha Family Court and the Naha District Public Prosecutors Office. The court buildings and the public prosecutors’ office are located on Ishigaki Island. Judges, prosecutors, enforcement officers and other officials are stationed at the Ishigaki Branch. There is also a juvenile detention home on the island, so the majority of cases are handled at the Ishigaki Branch. Including myself, a total of five lawyers operate an office inside the branch.
The types of cases which I handle on Ishigaki Island are mainly no different from the ones in an urban area. I am in charge of a wide variety of cases ranging from general civil cases (monetary lending/borrowing, real estate registration, traffic accidents, labor issues, consumer issues, and damage claims) to family affairs cases (divorce, transfer of children, inheritance, domestic violence and custody), debt consolidation (bankruptcy and corporate reconstruction) and criminal cases (including citizen judge and juveniles).
I developed an interest in working on Ishigaki Island during my time at Chuo Law School. During the winter of my second year, I did an externship at Tokyo Frontier Foundation, a Legal Professional Corporation that operates as a city public law office. The main purpose of the office is to cultivate young lawyers who are assigned at Himawari Law Offices throughout the country.
Himawari Law Offices are established in regions which possess a certain population level yet lacks the required number of lawyers, thus making it difficult for citizens to obtain legal consultation. Such regions are referred to as "legal depopulation regions." Lawyers are assigned for a fixed term in these regions and work to resolve the issue of legal depopulation while receiving support from the Japan Federation of Bar Associations (Himawari Fund).
Accordingly, my focus has become to remove the barriers so legal consultation becomes more accessible to citizens.
There are a variety of causes for such barriers, and many of them cannot be removed simply through the presence of lawyers.
First, it is necessary to remove psychological and intellectual barriers. Compared to major urban areas, many people living in rural areas have a strong negative image toward the mere act of seeking legal consultation. Some people are reluctant to confide in lawyers, while others fear that seeking legal consultation will cause their problems to be known throughout the region. Furthermore, many people living in rural areas are unfamiliar with law, and are unable to judge whether they consult a lawyer about their problems.
In order to remove these psychological and intellectual barriers, I am speaking in a three-minute radio program on a local FM radio station on weekdays. I try to show my personality and answer simple legal questions.
However, forming partnerships with other regional facilities is an even more effective method for removing barriers.
When citizens in rural areas have a problem, where do you think they turn to for advice?
If it is not possible to resolve problems by consulting with close relatives or acquaintances, the majority of people will consult with the city hall or town hall. Elderly individuals often consult with welfare workers such as care managers and helpers.
If people whose work brings them into close contact with citizens on a daily basis are knowledgeable about services provided by lawyers, they can refer citizens with legal troubles to lawyers. This alleviates barriers to obtaining legal consultation.
Therefore, on a daily basis, I strive to meet with and talk with as many people as possible. I visit city and town government offices, community general support centers, Spouse Violence Counseling and Support Centers, hospitals, nursing care facilities, and other professionals. I also participate in a variety of meetings, study groups and consultations at these institutions, sometimes as an instructor and sometimes as an observer. Through such interaction, I endeavor to show my personality and increase understanding regarding the methods used by lawyers to resolve certain cases. As a result, the majority of people who visit my office for consultation were introduced by such related institutions.
Furthermore, in addition to being an effective way to remove barriers, my partnerships with related institutions are useful in smoothly processing cases. For example, assume that I am visited by a women seeking legal consultation for domestic violence. If both myself and an employee from Spouse Violence Counseling and Support Center talk to the woman together and decided upon a course of action, then a city official can handle an application for public assistance, the support center can reserve a shelter and support the petition for a protection order, while I can deal with divorce mediation and litigation. In this way, each party plays an important role in resolving the case smoothly and effectively.
There are other types of barriers to obtaining legal consultation. For example, someone may be physically unable to come to the law office for consultation. This is particularly true for the Yaeyama Islands, which has many remote islands and a large elderly population. Physical barriers can be resolved when I receive provisional consultation from a relative or welfare worker, and then visit the hospital, house, or nursing home for further consultation. Another problem is the economic barrier created by legal fees. In response to the economic barrier, I broadly advertise the system of the Japan Legal Support Center which enables free consultation, as well as temporary payments and installments of legal fees.
As described above, in order for local residents living in legal depopulation regions to facilitate access to legal consultation, it is essential to work closely together with local residents. I am the third lawyer to be stationed at Yaeyama Himawari. Thanks to the diligent efforts of preceding lawyers, barriers to legal access in the Yaeyama Islands are gradually being alleviated.
However, while barriers are being "alleviated," they are far from being "eliminated."
In the Yaeyama Islands, there is a waiting period of one to two weeks for legal consultation at my office. Except for extreme emergencies, I am unable to provide immediate consultation. In that respect, it seems that the absolute number of lawyers is still lacking. Moreover, there are some regions where legal consultation is completely unavailable, such as the somewhat remote Yonaguni Island. Even today, I often meet people who express surprise upon learning that there are lawyers on Ishigaki Island. It is necessary to be further exposed in various activities so citizens can build familiarity toward lawyers.
Furthermore, when looking at the entire nation, there are an overwhelming number of issues which must be addressed. For example, in regions with only a single lawyer, the issue of conflict of interest limits the lawyer to providing consultation to only certain clients. In some regions, there are no judges permanently stationed at local branches, and courts can only be opened for a couple days every few months. Additionally, the local branch may not be able to handle certain cases (for example, the Ishigaki Branch cannot conduct labor tribunal proceedings), leading to a decrease in the quality of legal services when compared to areas under the jurisdiction of the central office.
"Equal legal services to all Japanese citizens, regardless of region"—This is the goal of all legal professionals working to eliminate legal depopulation. However, there are still daunting obstacles to achieving this goal. Personally, by drawing upon the assistance of many people, I will continue to work my hardest to eliminate legal depopulation.