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Serving as a Lawyer in Remote Islands – Message from Amami Oshima –

Tomohiko Wada

Tomohiko Wada
Lawyer, Manager of Amami Asunaro Law Office of Asunaro Legal Professional Corporation

As a lawyer in southern islands

The crystal-clear sea in the southern part of Amami OshimaThe crystal-clear sea in the southern part of Amami Oshima
I serve as a lawyer in a remote southern island called Amami Oshima. It is one of the islands belonging to Kagoshima Prefecture, and roughly speaking, it is located to the north of Okinawa Prefecture and to the south of Yakushima.

Amami Oshima is in the southern part of Japan, and excluding the coldest period in winter, the climate is hot all year round. In addition, because it has a subtropical climate, we have heavy rainfall throughout the year except for a certain period of time after the end of the rainy season in June, and it is difficult to predict when it starts to rain. I used to bring my umbrella with me but after losing one, I stopped carrying one around. If I get caught in the rain, I will wait until it becomes light.

Working in Amami Oshima is quite different from working in Tokyo or Osaka. Amami Oshima has a very distinctive climate, culture and custom, because of which a multitude of things that would never happen in big cities come about in this island. Although we can communicate in Japanese with people here, some visitors may feel as if they were in a foreign country. In 2007, NHK broadcasted a TV drama titled “Judge,” which was about a judge who arrived in his new post at a court in the Amami Islands. The judge, the main character acted by an actor Hidetoshi Nishijima, worked hard on multitudinous cases occurring around him. Similarly, as a lawyer, I am making strenuous efforts at numerous cases arising here. I would like to tell you about my job and life in Amami Oshima.

What brought me to Amami Oshima

Sunset in the Amami OshimaSunset in the Amami Oshima
After I completed the courses at the Chuo Law School and passed the bar examination, I underwent apprenticeship training in Tokyo. Afterward, I started my career as a lawyer at a law office in Tokyo, the name of which was Tokyo Frontier Foundation, Legal Professional Corporation. This law office was a public law office, and as the name suggests, it was not run by any individuals but established by the Bar Associations. The principle of Tokyo Frontier Foundation, Legal Professional Corporation is to build an equitable society where everyone can see lawyers whenever they are in need of help, regardless of their financial status. After I visited myriads of organizations ranging from individual law offices to corporations, I sympathized with the establishment aim of Tokyo Frontier Foundation, Legal Professional Corporation and the animated look of attorneys working there, and I decided to join the office.

The clients in Tokyo varied from individuals to corporations. Because I was finally able to be admitted to the Bar, every job I was entrusted with as an attorney was profoundly memorable.

One day while working in Tokyo, I was asked if I was interested in a job in Amami Oshima. Specifically, a law office in Osaka has a branch office in the islands and they looked for a lawyer who was willing to take over the job there. Although at that time I was not certain of the exact location of Amami Oshima, I wanted more detailed information about the offer, and thus, I contacted the law office and went to Osaka.

For the first time in Amami Oshima, the rich nature, brilliantly blue sea, delicious local food, and amiable people in the islands welcomed me, making me think that it might be fascinating to hold a job here. This is what inspired me to come to Amami Oshima as a lawyer. I never expected myself to live and work in Amami Oshima when I prepared for the bar examination in Tokyo.

Legal conditions in the Amami Islands

A beautiful beach of Okinoerabujima IslandA beautiful beach of Okinoerabujima Island
I moved to Amami Oshima in January 2016. Officially, Amami Oshima is one of the Amami Islands which consist of 8 inhabited islands: Amami Oshima, Kikaijima, Kakeromajima, Ukejima, Yorojima, Okinoerabujima, Tokunoshima, and Yoronjima. The total population of the Amami Islands is about 120,000 and half the population (about 60,000 people) lives in Amami Oshima.

There are 5 lawyers in the Amami Islands. Only a few of them were born in the Islands, and the rests were transferred from outside of the Islands to solve a shortage of attorneys. I assume that lawyers and doctors share a common issue of a serious labor shortage.

The Amami Islands have 2 branches of the Kagoshima District Court: the Naze Branch and the Tokunoshima Office. Two judges and a judge of the Summary Court are permanently stationed at the Naze Branch, and they go to the Tokunoshima Office to hold court as needed. In some of the islands with no court, the judges may arbitrate at community centers. Special cases such as ones tried with the lay judge system are taken by the Kagoshima District Court in Kagoshima City, while many other cases are handled by the 2 branches.

Legal activities in the Amami Islands

I often go on business trips by propeller plane.I often go on business trips by propeller plane.
My major clients are the residents of the Amami Islands and they have multifarious concerns and requests.

In principle, I ask my clients to come to my office; however, when it is difficult for some people to come due to their age or physical condition, I visit such people in their houses or hospitals for consultation.

No train runs in the Amami Islands, and our primary means of transportation are cars or bicycles. The Amami Islands still have many villages, and roads through such villages are very narrow; therefore, I own a minicar. The car I now use is a small square minivan that could be used by a clerk of a liquor shop for delivery. It has plenty of room for baggage, which is really useful not only during working days but also at weekends.

Since I started to work in the Amami Islands, I have used airplanes more frequently. I travel by air to other islands of the Amami Islands and, on occasion, to Kagoshima City, Tokyo and Osaka. I often fly to other islands of the Amami Islands by propeller plane. Moving from island to island by a small propeller plane over the beautiful blue sea makes me feel like I am taking a short trip. Besides, I sometimes use ships. When I go to the Kakeromajima Island which is adjacent to Amami Oshima, I travel by ferry with my car on board.

The types of cases do not differ very much from those in Tokyo; however, technical disputes over buildings, which I used to handle in Tokyo, hardly occur in the Amami Islands. In addition, here I am less likely to have major disputes between corporations and requests for consultation about intellectual property such as copyrights.

On the contrary, the number of cases concerning land, inheritance, divorce, and traffic accidents is slightly larger in the Amami Islands.

While working in the Amami Islands, I am involved in a wide variety of situations unique to southern islands. One of the distinctive features of the Amami Islands is a closer relationship forged in this isolated and very limited environment. This means that everyone knows each other and a strong notion of mutual cooperation remains even today. On the other hand, if something wrong arises and the intimate relationship is destroyed, people may suffer from the adverse effects of such troubled relationships. Asking attorneys for advice means that an issue which one is faced with will come out into the open. When this happens, many people are unwilling to confide issues they have because they worry too much about what others think of them, including reactions from others around them. Therefore, although it is, of course, important to reach a legal conclusion, we always have to consider the best path to a solution for parties concerned. Since people here have built a deeper relationship with each other, it is necessary to value the process of discussion.

There are many people who were brought up in the Amami Islands but left the islands for cities such as Tokyo, Osaka and Kagoshima. As a result, when cases of inheritance occur, it is quite time-consuming to gather heirs who live in a lot of different places for discussion. In such cases, an arbitration process may have to be initiated by a court, but it is also difficult to choose a proper court. In addition to inheritance cases, I receive a relatively large number of requests involving any persons who live outside of the islands and requests from outside of the islands. I always handle several cases which require proceedings at courts located outside the islands.

Whereas the Amami Islands are drawing attention as a tourist spot and development plans are proposed to build hotels and ports for cruise ships, what we should be concerned about is how to maintain the attractive pristine wildness in the islands. With a movement for registration to the World Heritage list getting bigger, I assume that this issue of environmental protection will have influences on the future of the Amami Islands to some extent.

Life in the Amami Islands

Foodstuffs unique to the islands. We eat Japanese boars and goats here.Foodstuffs unique to the islands. We eat Japanese
boars and goats here.
I have to say that working here is extremely demanding; however, some clients tell me after trial or arbitration proceedings that they are glad to have asked me for advice. This makes me have a stronger sense of responsibility as a lawyer in the Amami Islands where only a small number of attorneys are working. People in the islands share food with me, and I have never suffered a scarcity of food since I came here. Because people in the islands are fundamentally very kind-hearted, they give me a hand in any situations if I open my mind to them.

There is a proverb: When in Rome do as the Romans do. I believe that, both in work and life. You can’t enjoy yourself unless you fit in with the local culture and custom.

Of course, I sometimes feel inconvenience. In the islands, some foodstuffs sold at supermarkets are shipped from the mainland. When a typhoon approaches, ships cannot sail in and we are run out of several kinds of food including milk and perishables. Higher surcharges for delivery to remote islands hinder me from ordering furniture or home electronics and make me want to go get one.

I do not do shopping at large stores in the Amami Islands like in Tokyo; however, I can enjoy shopping at huge stores when I go back to Tokyo. Here, people give me numerous things, and when I go to my favorite place to dine out, they offer meals cooked with ingredients available in the day. Besides, I am sometimes invited to houses of the locals for meals.
Turbanshells harvested in the islands and will be cooked in its own shellTurbanshells harvested in the islands and will be cooked in its own shell
So far, I have been pressed with work including consultation and tasks at courts during weekdays and cannot have enough days off; however, on my holidays, I have a try at diverse activities such as going fishing and seashell digging. When my friends visit me, we together enjoy great outdoors by watching Amami rabbits, sea turtles and whales, and going to the primeval forest or diving. This summer, I participated in the local boat rowing game with work-related friends. The boat rowing game is an event where 7 people row a traditional Japanese-style boat made of wooden sheets. I immersed myself during practice for the game in the evening, temporarily taking my mind off work.

The future role of lawyers in the Amami Islands

A sugarcane field spreading out over the Kikaijima Island. This sugarcane field was used as a shooting place for a TV drama titled “Water Boys.”A sugarcane field spreading out over the Kikaijima Island.
This sugarcane field was used as a shooting place for a TV
drama titled “Water Boys.”
I expect that the number of jobs will grow here in the Amami Islands. Among the companies for which I serve as an advisor, some extend their business to the outside of the islands and others make transactions with foreign companies. With greater involvement with people or companies from outside of the islands, it is more challenging to maintain healthy business relationships with them if people in the islands continue to stick to their own traditions and customs. I think that, in such situations, how lawyers can help businesses in the islands is one of the issues worth considering.

The headquarter of the law office I work for is located in Osaka and, in addition to requests from individuals, it is engaged in tasks for corporations such as confirmation of contracts and business reorganization. Besides, the Osaka Head Office can undertake other requests including cases concerning foreign affairs and environmental cases.

Cases that require expertise are emerging also in the Amami Islands, and I cooperate with the Osaka Head Office to deal with such cases. Even though I am the only attorney working at the Amami Branch, this cooperation allows me to undertake and handle large-scale cases and cases that require special knowledge, in collaboration with multiple lawyers of the Head Office. There are residents who emigrated from abroad, and some of them come to my office for consultation. In that situation, a certain degree of proficiency in English is essential. Today, even in remote islands, lawyers have to accept and adapt to such situations to fulfill the responsibility of attorneys.

As mentioned above, although the Amami Islands are away from the mainland, diverse tasks exist, and I assume that it is required for attorneys to deal with manifold cases with expertise.

At the same time, even if the time continues to change, local features will remain the same. As long as the law is the social rule, it is inevitable to reflect the regional uniqueness. As an attorney in the Amami Islands, I believe that it is crucial to take accounts of the attitude and characteristics of people in the islands when doing my job. The experience in these islands makes me feel that the job and the role of lawyers vary not only with practice areas but also with regions where each lawyer is stationed. I will continue seeking for the responsibility of lawyers in the islands together with people in the Amami Islands.
Tomohiko Wada
Lawyer, Manager of Amami Asunaro Law Office of Asunaro Legal Professional Corporation

In 1981, Tomohiko Wada was born in Tokyo. He graduated from Jiyunomori Gakuen Senior High School and Department of Law in the Waseda University School of Law.
In March 2010, he completed the courses in the Chuo Law School.
In September 2012, he passed the bar examination and started apprenticeship training in Tokyo.
In December 2013, he joined Tokyo Frontier Foundation, Legal Professional Corporation (Daini Tokyo Bar Association).
In November 2015, he joined Asunaro Legal Professional Corporation.
Since April 2016, he has held his current position (Kagoshima Bar Association).