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In a case that could affect Japan’s relations with both China and Taiwan, the Supreme Court on Tuesday abruptly overturned a two-decade-old lower court ruling that recognized Taipei, not Beijing, as the owner of a Kyoto student dormitory.

In its ruling, the top court said China assumed the plaintiff role over Taiwan when Japan switched its diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei in 1972, even though the structure was purchased by the Taipei government.

The top court’s five-justice third petty bench, led by Justice Tokiyasu Fujita, overthrew the 1987 Osaka High Court decision favoring Taiwan and sent the 40-year-old suit back to the Kyoto District Court for re-examination, court officials said.

Neither party in the suit — the Taiwan authorities and a group of former Chinese students — received prior word from the top court before the decision was handed down.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman declined comment, saying the ministry “is not in a position to make comments about a civil suit.”

The student dormitory at the center of the dispute, named Kokaryo, was set up by Kyoto University as a facility for Chinese students in a lease deal with a corporation in April 1945, four months before Japan’s defeat in World War II.

The Chinese nationalist government, which fled to Taiwan from the mainland in 1949, purchased the dormitory in 1952 from the Japanese owner of the facility.

In 1967, Taiwan filed a suit with the Kyoto District Court seeking a court order to evict pro-Beijing students from the dormitory.

The case was still pending in the district court in 1972 when Japan recognized the Beijing government and severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

In a 1972 joint statement with China, Japan accepted Beijing’s argument that it was the sole legitimate government of China.

In 1977, the district court ruled in the pro-Beijing students’ favor, declaring that ownership of the dormitory was transferred to the government in Beijing following its recognition by Japan as China’s sole government.

The Osaka High Court later sent the case back to the district court for a retrial, saying the nationalist government continues to exist, although its territorial control is limited.

In the retrial, both the district and high courts ruled in Taiwan’s favor.

In January, the Supreme Court broke its two-decade silence and opened a legal process to hear arguments involving the dispute, urging the parties to determine which side has the authority as a state to be the plaintiff in the suit.

In response, the former students from mainland China presented their argument that Taiwan no longer has any power to engage in the suit.

Taiwan claimed that it, not mainland China, has the authority to be the plaintiff in the suit and that it owns the dormitory.

Currently, students from mainland China reside in the five-story Kokaryo dormitory, located in Kyoto’s Sakyo Ward. It is currently managed by an organization under a contract with the Chinese Consulate General in Osaka.

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