if-Toru Yamada dec12 Pic_01_FEATURE

Lost in a Legal Process

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Toru Yamada


Alienating the Public from an International Convention

The Old Gorin Catholic Church in Goto was one of the first Catholic churches in Nagasaki registered as a national heritage property of Japan in 1999. Photo courtesy Toru Yamada

In January 2007, the Japanese national government announced the prospective sites that would be considered for their new World Cultural Heritage national nomination process. The announcement contained a line implying that the new process met with UNESCO’s guidelines on World Heritage nomination (ACA 2007), specifically the guideline encouraging State parties “to prepare their Tentative Lists with the participation of a wide variety of stakeholders” (UNESCO 2005). Local governments and local communities were listed as such stakeholders. Half a year after the national announcement, I started my fieldwork in one of the prospective World Heritage areas from the national announcement: Nagasaki’s Goto Archipelago. While some local municipal officials in Goto were familiar with the developments concerning their nomination project, local residents did not seem to be receiving much up-to-date information. The new nomination process was a legal product of the Japanese government’s vernacularization of UNESCO’s World Heritage guidelines. On paper, it looked as if the process had ensured stakeholders’ participation, but the lived experience of local stakeholders bore out a narrative of uneven access to relevant information.

The ongoing World Heritage nomination projects of Japanese towns represent how the process of putting an international convention into a legal vernacular can create a gap between realities: the reality presented in legal documents vis-à-vis the lived reality on the ground. When government officials prioritize document preparation for a procedurally successful nomination, they can also trap themselves in a legal discourse which alienates those without legal training. In other words, even though officials can smoothly translate UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention to satisfy legal requirements, they may fail to translate the legal language to that of the everyday discourse of local residents.

At a National Periphery

Nagasaki’s Goto Archipelago is located at the western end of Japan, and is approximately 110 miles east of South Korea’s Jeju Island. It is often referred to as Japan’s geographic periphery. Goto’s local residents often reiterate the periphery discourse with reference to economic recession and a half century of depopulation. At the same time, such periphery discourse can also be interpreted and transformed into a positive factor of regional development. By emphasizing the differences of the periphery in contrast to the standard images of Japaneseness and concurrently articulating a consonance with the national standard, the local planners try to turn the negatives into positives.

In Nagasaki, it was the Catholic Church buildings that the national and the prefectural administration regarded as unique. At the same time, the architecture was hailed for its Japanese characteristics. With a history going back to the time of the arrival of the early Jesuit missionaries in the 16th century, the Catholics in Nagasaki consider themselves to be at the center of the denomination in Japan’s national boundary. While Christianity consists of merely one percent of Japan’s entire national population, Nagasaki’s Catholic churches are located in physical centers of towns and villages around the prefecture, leading many visitors to think that the area is largely Catholic. While the national and prefectural government officials refer to Catholic history and its legacy in terms of a uniqueness on par with something foreign, they also present it as Japanese because the Catholic Church buildings (up for consideration for World Heritage status) boast Japanese architectural styles. In September 2006, after some discussions and debates over the national characteristics of Catholicism in Nagasaki, the prefectural government decided to take the step of officially nominating the churches as tentative World Heritage properties.

Legal Translation

Administratively, the World Heritage nomination process involves legally translating the World Heritage Convention and its related guidelines into a nation’s legal system. It is a translation process in the sense that officials have to legally articulate the World Heritage Convention with corresponding domestic statutes, and implement them to “legally secure” the condition of the heritage properties. Concurrently, the officials have to provide documentation convincing enough to UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee that they have followed appropriate procedures throughout their nomination process. In Nagasaki’s case, when the national government announced the new procedure in September 2006, the prefectural officials from one administrative division discussed and reviewed both the legal implementation process and the document preparation process.. The new nomination process was meant to offer an opportunity for prefectural and municipal administrators to voluntarily nominate prospective World Heritage properties to the national selection committee instead of the national government unilaterally deciding on prospective properties. The national government implied that this new nomination process was forged to meet with a guideline of UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention—to accommodate more community participation by providing an opportunity for the prefectural and municipal governments to be involved in proposing sites.

Although this new nomination process seemed administratively sound, it raised new problems. The process was primarily based on the national selection committee’s document review. Therefore, it allowed Nagasaki’s core prefectural government officials to mainly focus on offering documented proof of community participation rather than on fostering understanding of the World Heritage nomination among local residents. In Goto Archipelago, the prefectural officials hosted meetings and workshops on World Heritage for the island residents. Those meetings and workshops were recorded in governmental reports as evidence that prefectural officials provided venues to encourage community participation. These reports were furnished to national evaluators. The dates and the locations of the meetings and symposiums bolstered the governmental record in terms of looking convincing to the national evaluators.

Residents’ Take on Things

Legal anthropologists have extensively analyzed procedural orientations of legal communication (eg, Arno 2009, Conley and O’Barr 1990, 1998, Philips 1998). Legal experts create a shared interpretation of law and due process and practice their interpretation in the professional sphere. In the case of Goto, residents often sensed the procedural-oriented approach of officials and became cautious about even attending World Heritage-related meetings. The prefectural officials organized meetings and workshops, but local residents often did not find the settings of those events conducive to asking questions or expressing their opinions. Some of the events were scheduled during times or dates when many residents could not attend due to work and social constraints (eg, dinner preparation time for local hotel owners, low-tide fishing hours, or busy tourism seasons). The events were often held in a large auditorium which made individuals feel reluctant to state their opinions. Also, the residents often found it was difficult to ask about their concerns because the events were often rigidly scheduled and did not factor in sufficient time for Q&A. The residents believed that officials were merely intent on satisfying the letter of the law in adding to their administrative records and showing how many occasions they provided for residents to discuss the project. Ironically, the more the officials legally tried to translate the World Heritage Convention, the more they alienated the residents from it.

After the Attempted Manipulation

Prefectural government officials’ initial legal translation attempts could be construed as a sociolegal manipulation of sorts. Officials tried primarily to prepare documentation attesting to community participation, but could not adequately secure locals’ support for the nomination project. As the prefectural officials unwittingly alienated the local residents from the nomination process, they found it more difficult to accomplish other governmental projects requiring community collaboration as well. Following the initial missteps, the concern of government officials from all administrative layers—from the municipal to the national—has been related to the reintegration of legal translation to residents’ lived reality. Even as their World Heritage nomination process has made progress, their concern on managing the existing gap between law and lived reality has not been eased as of 2012.

Toru Yamada is a visiting academic researcher at Hosei University in Japan and a lecturer at the University of Hawai‘i.

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