OSAKA – Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to Tokyo’s war-related Yasukuni Shrine were “official” acts and “religious activities” that violated the separation of state and religion under Article 20 of the Constitution, the Osaka High Court ruled Friday.
The ruling is a flip-flop from Thursday’s Tokyo High Court decision in a similar suit.
Like the Tokyo court, the Osaka High Court also rejected demands for damages. The plaintiffs in the Osaka suit, some from Taiwan, had demanded compensation from the state, Koizumi and the Shinto shrine for mental anguish caused by the visits. The court said the visits did not harm the plaintiffs’ freedom of thought or belief.
Presiding Judge Masaharu Otani said Koizumi “should publicly make clear” if the visits were made in an official or private capacity because the issue has been disputed in the context of the separation of state and religion.
When Koizumi visits the shrine, he always signs the guest book “Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.”
The judgment was the first by a high court to rule the visits unconstitutional, and is an about-face from Thursday’s Tokyo High Court ruling in a separate appeal. The Tokyo court also dismissed damages claims, saying a visit Koizumi made to the shrine in 2001 was personal and not in an official capacity.
Commenting on Friday’s ruling, Koizumi denied his visits to the shrine are unconstitutional, and later reckoned he won the suit.
“I do not think my paying homage at Yasukuni violates the Constitution,” Koizumi told the House of Representatives Budget Committee. “I am not paying visits as an official duty. I have difficulty in understanding why they violate the Constitution.”
Asked later in the day if he would continue to visit the shrine — seen by other parts of Asia and some quarters in Japan as a symbol of the country’s militarist past — Koizumi said the Osaka ruling would not affect his decision on whether he may go this year.
Speaking to reporters in the evening at the prime minister’s office in Tokyo, Koizumi figured, “I won the lawsuit.”
In a supplementary statement, the high court also ruled Koizumi’s visits, as official, violated Article 20’s separation of state and religion.
Koizumi, when asked, however, denied being of the understanding that his activities at the shrine were religious in nature.
The plaintiffs in Friday’s case were appealing a May 2004 Osaka District Court ruling that did not make a judgment on whether Koizumi’s visits violated the Constitution’s ban on religious activities by the state. Instead, the court said the visits didn’t cause any damage to the plaintiffs and were private acts.
In that case, the plaintiffs had demanded 10,000 yen each from the state, Koizumi and Yasukuni Shrine for emotional anguish they claimed they suffered because of Koizumi’s repeated visits.
There were 236 plaintiffs in the initial suit, including 124 from Taiwan, which was under Japanese colonial rule from 1895 through 1945. The number of plaintiffs was reduced to 188 in the high court appeal.
The Taiwanese plaintiffs include kin of soldiers who served in the Japanese military and are enshrined along with Japan’s war dead and Class-A war criminals at Yasukuni.
The court Friday regarded the visits as official because Koizumi used an official car, has not denied making the visits in an official capacity, and deemed the aim of the visits as political.
It said Koizumi made the visits despite strong criticism here and abroad, giving people the impression that the government provides special support for Yasukuni Shrine that goes beyond the limit of the relationship the state is allowed to have with religion.
The visits have been a source of diplomatic tension with China and South Korea, two victims of Japan’s wartime aggression that have protested Japanese leaders’ visits to the shrine.
Yasukuni Shrine said Friday’s ruling was regrettable.
The court said the visits violate the third paragraph of Article 20, which says, “The state and its organs shall refrain from religious education or any other religious activity.”
Since becoming prime minister in April 2001, Koizumi has made four visits to Yasukuni Shrine, the latest in January 2004.
The suit sought damages for the first three visits.
About 900 people have filed eight suits against the shrine visits with six district courts. Rulings have been handed down in seven of the eight cases, and all have rejected demands for damages.
In April 2004, however, the Fukuoka District Court ruled Koizumi’s visit as prime minister in August 2002 was unconstitutional in terms of the separation of state and religion.