NAHAN, Okinawa — Limiting lease payments for U.S. base land only to male heirs of the original landowners is unconstitutional, Naha District Court ruled Wednesday.

The ruling knocks down a traditional practice by landowners in the northern Okinawa town of Kin, next to Camp Hansen. The practice restricts lease payments to male descendants of residents who bought parcels of forest land from the Japanese government in 1906. The land was requisitioned by the U.S. military after World War II.

In 2002, 26 women sued, claiming the policy was discriminatory and violated the Japanese constitution. They sought 80 million yen in back payments covering the past 10 years.

The women claimed the community group that distributed lease fees paid by Japan’s government had an internal rule limiting full membership only to the original landowners’ male descendants.

In practice, widows could receive money only after their husbands died and daughters were excluded.

In handing down the ruling, Chief Judge Kazuto Nishii said the Kin group’s policy was “unreasonable discrimination” and invalid. He ordered 78 million yen in compensation be paid to the women. The Japanese government makes the lease payments.

“The women deserved this ruling,” said Suzuyo Takazato, a Naha City Council member, calling it “natural justice.”

“The deep-rooted problem is that residents in the community would not change the policy, claiming that it was an established practice, despite the fact that their policy violates the constitution,” Takazato said.

The Kin community policy was made during the Meiji era, she said, when Japan’s old constitution did not acknowledge women deserved full-fledged human rights.

“Of the 26 women involved in the suit, the oldest one is in her 90s,” she said. “These are the women who planted the trees, trimmed branches, cut the grass and worked just as hard as men in the community to take care of the forest.

“Yet, their rights were denied under the old practice.”

She called the judicial decision a victory for all women who question the fairness of such traditional practices, saying, “The court ruling will have a great impact on Okinawan society.”

— Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.

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