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NAHA, Okinawa — A group of Okinawa women plan to fight an appeals court ruling last week that took away their right to inherit lease payments for land their families own on U.S. military bases on Okinawa.

The finding by the Fukuoka High Court overturned a Naha District Court ruling last November that knocked down a traditional practice by landowners in the northern Okinawa town of Kin. The custom restricted lease payments to male descendants of residents who bought parcels of woodland from the Japanese government in 1906.

The land was requisitioned by the U.S. military after World War II to build the Marines’ Camp Hansen.

In 2002, 26 women sued, claiming the policy discriminated against women and violated the Japanese constitution. They were seeking 80 million yen (now worth about $727,000) in back lease payments covering the past 10 years.

The Kin Community Landowner’s Association appealed the district court ruling, arguing that local customs had priority. The association limited full membership to the original landowners’ male descendants. Widows could receive the lease payments only after their husbands died and daughters were excluded.

After the ruling, association chairman Seiichi Nakama lauded the decision to respect “a custom handed down by our ancestors.” However, he acknowledged there was “room for improvement” in the group’s bylaws and that “gender equality is a trend of the times.”

“There is a room to improve them,” Nakama said. “But because we are a conservative group, we need to take time to discuss and reach a consensus about making any changes.”

The women who filed the suit said they were devastated by the appeals court ruling.

“In our small rural community, it took four to five years before we could actually take a legal action against long-held unreasonable discrimination against women,” said Michiko Nakama. “To make our community a better place, we, women want to have a say. But, in order to do that, we have to be a full member of the group. We will appeal to the Supreme Court to seek the justice,” she said.

Michiko Higa, a professor who specializes in women’s history at several Okinawa universities, said the ruling was based on an outmoded value system still prevalent among older Japanese.

“The presiding judge must have a belief that the head of a family must be a man,” she said. “Based on this thinking, the right to become a full member of the descendents’ group is duly limited to men. Being a man himself, the judge cannot understand the suffering these women have endured because of this discrimination.”

Under the associations’ rules, all men have right to membership and a share of the lease payments once they reach the age of 20, even if they are not the head of the family. All they must prove is that they live apart from their family, even if it’s only a separate room and kitchen in the same house.

Each member of the group receives about 600,000 yen (about $5,454) a year.

Women can be members only if there are no male heirs, and even then only for 33 years after their parents’ death. Divorced women who are the sole heirs are excluded unless they re-adopt their family name and are older than 50, when, it was believed, they could no longer can bear children.

Higa said the court fight, however, was not just for inclusion in the lease payments.

“It is not the money, the rent, that these women are fighting for,” she said. “They are fighting for their dignity. What they seek is (to be) a full-fledged member in their community.”

Before the common property was taken from them for military use, all of the residents were able to enjoy the land and made their own contributions to the common good, she said.

“When it became military land, the dividend took on a monetary form and the group unduly excluded women from full-fledged membership, excluding them from receiving the dividend,” she said.

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