The Supreme Court on Thursday rejected charges by seven residents of Minoo, Osaka Prefecture, that municipal subsidies paid in fiscal 1976 to a local organization of relatives of the war dead violated the separation of church and state as stipulated in the Constitution.
The First Petty Bench of the Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling and rejected the demand by the plaintiffs that then Mayor Buhei Nakai return roughly 450,000 yen — provided through municipal social welfare programs — to city coffers.
The main focus of the trial was whether the court would recognize associations of relatives of the war dead as being religious organizations because they follow Shintoism.
The plaintiffs argued that the local group, which falls under the umbrella of the Japan Society of Bereaved Families of the War Dead, is a religious organization seeking state protection of Yasukuni Shrine.
The controversial Tokyo shrine is the main Shinto entity dedicated to Japan’s war dead.
The defense countered that the group is a secular organization dedicated to honoring the war dead.
Presiding Judge Motoo Ono said in his ruling that the basic aim of the group of relatives is not to carry out specific religious activities, therefore it cannot be called a religious group.
The rejection was unanimously approved by all five judges.
Ono defined a religious group as one whose essential aim is to observe, worship and propagate a religion.
He added that because the money was used to promote the welfare of the war dead’s next of kin and not to support or oppress any individual religious body, the use of public funds did not violate the Constitution.
The Supreme Court recognized that some the organizations’ activities, such as visiting Yasukuni Shrine to pay homage to the war dead, have religious undertones.
However, these are not the main objectives of the organizations, but activities in line with the wishes of its members, Ono continued.
Both the 1988 ruling by the Osaka District Court and the 1994 ruling by the Osaka High Court on the issue also said the organization was not a religious entity.
In February 1993, the Supreme Court similarly rejected a lawsuit demanding the repayment of money the municipal government of Minoo spent to move a monument dedicated to the war dead.
As a result of the Supreme Court’s decision, all cases brought before the courts by Minoo residents regarding the issue of public funds and the group of relatives of the war dead have concluded after 22 years, with all the rulings going against the plaintiffs.
Observers said Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling follows the judicial trend that condones the state’s participation, in some form, in the activities of the organizations of relatives of the war dead, presumably because they do not list the practice of religion as the aim of their activities.
However, some said they question whether the notion of a “religious group” can simply be defined by looking at the title an entity carries.
Reiko Kamisaka, one of the plaintiffs, said it was regrettable such a conclusion was reached after such a long legal battle.
“I would have liked the Supreme Court to hold hearings and listen to our case,” she said.
She added that she feared the line separating church and state would become further blurred with Thursday’s ruling.
Meanwhile, Minoo Mayor Takashi Hashimoto said he highly respects the decision of the nation’s top court, and added that the city would continue providing subsidies to relatives of the war dead.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.