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The Naha District Court rejected a lawsuit Friday over Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to Tokyo’s contentious Yasukuni Shrine.

The suit was filed in September 2002 by a group of 94 Okinawa residents who said Koizumi’s visits to the Shinto shrine in August 2001 and April 2002 flouted the constitutional division between state and religion. The shrine honors Japan’s war dead as well as convicted war criminals.

But the court avoided touching on the constitutionality of Koizumi’s visits, with presiding Judge Kazuto Nishii saying, “There is no need to judge the responsibility of the defendants because there was no infringement of the plaintiffs’ legal rights or interests.”

The plaintiffs were seeking a combined 9.4 million yen from Koizumi and the state, citing emotional anguish caused by the visits. They had argued that Koizumi’s visits were made in an official capacity, thereby violating Article 20 of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion and provides for the separation of religion and the state.

Some of the plaintiffs’ relatives died in the Battle of Okinawa during World War II and are honored at Yasukuni, and the judge said he understood the emotional anguish Koizumi’s visits caused the relatives. But he said they cannot demand compensation because it does not infringe upon any specific right and they do not deserve any special treatment.

The court ruled that separation of state and religion is more a guarantee of a certain system rather than a specific right protected by law.

“The state would have had to treat the plaintiffs disadvantageously based on their religion” for their religious freedom to have been infringed upon, the judge said.

The ruling sparked anger and dismay among the plaintiffs, who had said in their petition that the visits “violated the freedom to remember the war dead based on each person’s values.” Their lawyers said they will appeal the ruling.

Shunji Miyake, head of the secretariat for the plaintiffs’ lawyers, said the court abandoned its duty to uphold judicial independence and had evaded its responsibility to rule on whether the prime minister’s visits were public or private in nature.

“We openly entered through the front entrance, asking for a judgment on whether the visits were official. But the ruling came out the back door,” he said.

In the course of the trial, Nishii and the other judges in the case — in line with a request by the plaintiffs — visited sites of the Battle of Okinawa and listened to survivors’ accounts of the war.

Choho Zukeran, who gave testimony on what had occurred at the time during the visit, said he felt betrayed.

“I was grateful to the judges . . . for going all the way to the battlegrounds and had high hopes” regarding the verdict, the 72-year-old said tearfully.

But Kazunori Zakimi, chairman of the prefectural association of next of kin of war dead, said he was satisfied with the verdict.

“We’d like to see visits to Yasukuni Shrine by the prime minister and other Cabinet ministers become an established event,” he said.

Koizumi’s visits to the shrine continue to spark protests both at home and in neighboring parts of Asia that suffered under Japanese colonial and wartime rule.

Koizumi, who assumed office in April 2001, visited the shrine on Aug. 13 that year. He returned on April 21, 2002. The suit did not cover his subsequent visits in 2003 and 2004.

The state claims Koizumi visited the shrine in a private capacity, not as prime minister. It says the visits do not infringe on the specific rights or legal interests of the plaintiffs.

However, Koizumi signed the guest book on both occasions as “Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.”

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