The Osaka High Court on Friday found unconstitutional Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s three visits to Yasukuni Shrine from 2001 to 2003. The court said the visits violated Article 20, Section 3, of the Constitution, which prohibits religious education and any other “religious” activity by the state and its organs.

The ruling came only a day after a separate decision by the Tokyo High Court dismissed an appeal by 39 plaintiffs who had sought damages for Mr. Koizumi’s August 2001 visit to the shrine. Even so, the Osaka High Court’s decision carries great weight in that it represented the first decision by a high court to find Mr. Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits unconstitutional and marked the second “unconstitutional” ruling to date following the one by Fukuoka District Court in April 2004.

Technically, however, the prime minister and the state won the Osaka lawsuit because the high court denied any compensation to the plaintiffs, who had claimed that they suffered psychological pain as a result of the Yasukuni visits. If the plaintiffs decide not to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court, the ruling will become final since the prime minister and the state, as victors in the lawsuit, cannot appeal.

After becoming prime minister, Mr. Koizumi visited the shrine — which memorializes 2.46 million war dead and 14 convicted Class-A war criminals, including wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo — four times by Jan. 1, 2004.

As to whether he will make a Yasukuni visit this year, he has said only that he will “make a proper judgment.” He said Friday’s court ruling will not affect that judgment, although it is expected to restrain him. It should be noted that none of the eight previous judicial rulings concerning his Yasukuni visits had explicitly affirmed them as constitutional; in fact, the constitutionality question was avoided for the most part.

If Mr. Koizumi does visit Yasukuni again while he remains a public official, he will contravene the spirit of the apology he made Aug. 15 for Japan’s colonialism and aggression in East Asia before and during World War II. Such a visit would surely work to Japan’s disadvantage in its relations with neighboring countries, especially China and South Korea.

The lawsuit handled by the Osaka High Court had been filed by 188 people. Symbolically, 116 of them were non-Chinese native Taiwanese whose relatives had died as soldiers or civilian workers of the Imperial Japanese armed forces during World War II and were enshrined at Yasukuni. Taiwan was a Japanese colony from 1895 until the end of the war.

The plaintiffs had protested the enshrinement of their relatives at Yasukuni together with the Japanese “aggressors.” The lawsuit concerned Mr. Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits on Aug. 13, 2001, April 21, 2002, and Jan. 14, 2003.

The court said his visits should be regarded as having occurred in his official capacity as prime minister in view of the surrounding circumstances including that (1) the visits appeared to comply with political promises he had made before becoming prime minister, (2) the motives and purposes expressed in his statements concerning the visits were political and (3) he never denied that his visits were official.

The court went on to criticize Mr. Koizumi for failing to clarify whether his visits were of a private nature, saying that if a prime minister causes the legal nature of the shrine visits to appear vague the visits should be regarded as official.

Viewed objectively, Mr. Koizumi’s acts of worship at the shrine should be regarded as religiously significant acts, as they left the public impression that the state was giving special support to Yasukuni Shrine and thus treating it as a special religious group apart from others. But the court turned down the plaintiffs’ demand for compensation after deciding that Mr. Koizumi’s acts resulted neither in coercing their thoughts nor in encouraging or forcing them to visit the shrine.

Immediately after Friday’s ruling, Mr. Koizumi again — as he did after the Fukuoka court ruling in 2004 — said he could not understand why his Yasukuni visits were branded as unconstitutional. It is troubling to see that Mr. Koizumi does not seem to grasp the full ramifications of the constitutional guarantee of freedom of thought and conscience, including religious freedom, and the importance of the constitutional principle of separation of religion and state.

These guarantees and principles are among the constitutional pillars that effected Japan’s fundamental postwar change — from a nation where sovereignty had rested with the emperor and where state Shintoism, with Yasukuni Shrine at the center, had served as a war vehicle, to one where sovereignty rests with the people and where state intervention in thought and religion is rightfully prohibited.

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