This past weekend, a group of 66 Japanese astronomers gathered to discuss the proper course of action to take in the event a signal from an extraterrestrial intelligence is discovered. The astronomers, who met specifically to determine which national authorities to notify after receiving an alien signal, failed to reach a decision before the meeting was adjourned.
According to the Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence -- a set of guidelines adopted by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and other international astronomy organizations -- the discoverer of an alien signal is strictly prohibited from informing the general public until after he/she verifies that the signal is extraterrestrial in origin, informs other observers or research organizations involved so that they can independently observe and monitor the signal, and notifies the "relevant national authorities."
While these guidelines have existed for nearly 20 years, the Japanese SETI community has never formally discussed who exactly Japan's "relevant national authority" is until this weekend's conference. The meeting was held at the Nishi-Harima Astronomical Observatory (NHAO) in Hyogo prefecture, which for the past several years has been using its 2-meter NAYUTA telescope (Japan's largest) to search the heavens for high-intensity laser pulses sent our way by an extraterrestrial civilization attempting to communicate.
At the meeting, the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) and the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications were named as possible "relevant national authorities," but some participants rejected these nominations and called the IAU's adopted guidelines into question by repeatedly warning that government authorities might cover up the truth if given a monopoly over the information.
In the end, the astronomers agreed to form a working group to study the issue, and they plan to announce their decision in 2009, which has been named the International Year of Astronomy. Should aliens establish contact in Japan before then, it will be up to the discoverer to decide who to notify.