FUKUOKA – Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine in August 2001 was unconstitutional because it violated the separation of state and religion, the Fukuoka District Court ruled Wednesday.
In the first ruling of its kind concerning Koizumi’s visits to the Shinto shrine, which honors the nation’s war dead as well as convicted Class-A war criminals, the court said the visit falls under religious activity that the state is banned from participating in under the Constitution.
The decision was handed down in response to a lawsuit filed by 211 plaintiffs in Kyushu, who claimed that Koizumi’s visit to the shrine on Aug. 13, 2001, violated the constitutional separation of state and religion.
“Despite persistent opposition from the public and from even some members of the Liberal Democratic Party, the prime minister visited the shrine, which is not necessarily an appropriate place to honor war dead, based on political motivations,” said presiding Judge Kiyonaga Kamegawa.
The plaintiffs had sought 21.1 million yen — or 100,000 yen each — in damages from the government, citing the psychological suffering they experienced as a result of the prime minister’s shrine visit.
But the court rejected their compensation demands, ruling the visit did not violate their freedom of conscience.
Tsuneaki Gunjima, leader of the plaintiffs, said: “It is the best ruling. Our request for compensation was rejected, but our purpose was achieved.”
The plaintiffs said later in the day that they would not appeal the ruling.
Masaaki Tsuru, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said the ruling was remarkable in that it acknowledged Koizumi’s visit to the shrine as constituting religious activity.
Tsuru said he believes the state will not be able to appeal because the plaintiffs’ compensation claim was rejected. “There is no reason for the state to appeal. I believe this will be the end of the case.”
Article 20 of the Constitution stipulates that the state and its organizations shall refrain from religious education or any other religious activities.
The suit said Koizumi had visited the shrine accompanied by his secretaries, used an official car and signed the visitors’ book as “Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.”
The plaintiffs described Koizumi’s visit as an unconstitutional religious activity since he paid homage to the shrine and took part in a Shinto ceremony there.
But the state argued that there was no Cabinet decision on the visit and claimed it was not made in his official capacity as prime minister.
Besides the war dead, the shrine honors 14 convicted World War II Class-A war criminals, including wartime Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo.
China, South Korea and other parts of Asia regularly protest visits by Japanese leaders to the shrine, which they regard as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism.
Koizumi has visited Yasukuni Shrine every year since August 2001, straining Japan’s bilateral relations with China. His latest visit was conducted on Jan. 1 this year.
Similar lawsuits have been filed at five other district courts — Tokyo, Chiba, Osaka, Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, and Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture.
The Matsuyama and Osaka courts rejected the plaintiffs’ demands and did not make a constitutional judgment on the visit. The plaintiffs have appealed.
The presiding judge at the Fukuoka court said in handing down the ruling that he and his two fellow judges had issued a constitutional judgment because they believed it was their duty to do so.
“The Yasukuni visit was made without sufficient debate on constitutionality and has since been repeated. If the court evades making a constitutional judgment, the possibility would be high that similar acts will be repeated,” the judge said.
The Supreme Court has ruled that prime ministers’ official visits to Yasukuni Shrine are unconstitutional.
The Sendai High Court ruled in January 1991 that official visits to the shrine by prime ministers are unconstitutional. The ruling was upheld by the Supreme Court, which dismissed an appeal by the state.
In 1992, the Osaka and Fukuoka High courts said there were doubts about the constitutionality of an August 1985 Yasukuni visit by then Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, which Nakasone had said was an official visit.
In Tokyo, LDP Secretary General Shinzo Abe told reporters that Koizumi’s visit should not be considered unconstitutional.
But Akihiro Ota, deputy secretary general of New Komeito, the LDP’s partner in the ruling coalition, said the court ruling jibes with New Komeito’s reckoning that the prime minister’s visit to Yasukuni may be unconstitutional. New Komeito is backed by Soka Gakkai, the nation’s biggest lay Buddhist organization.