A banner that a plaintiff held up outside the nation’s top court on Friday aptly summed up a ruling made the same day. It read: “Supreme Court avoids deciding on the constitutionality (of the issue).” The issue is Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine on Aug. 13, 2001, his first as head of government.

A total of 278 people from Japan and South Korea, whose relatives are enshrined among Japan’s war dead at Yasukuni, had filed a lawsuit demanding compensation for their “spiritual suffering” that followed Mr. Koizumi’s visit, which, they allege, violated the principle of the separation of state and religion.

In its first ruling on visits to Yasukuni by a prime minister, the top court said people are not necessarily entitled to compensation just because their religious feelings are hurt, or they otherwise feel discomfort, after a certain person, including a prime minister, visits a shrine such as Yasukuni. In effect, the four Second Petit Bench justices decided that the plaintiffs had no legal grounds for filing the damages suit.

This logic relieved the top court of the need to pass judgment on the constitutionality of the issue. The justices know well that compensation lawsuits are the only legal recourse for people who seek a court judgment on the constitutionality of an action by a government official. Friday’s ruling would virtually deprive people of means of seeking a constitutionality judgment on Yasukuni and similar religious issues.

The Supreme Court also avoided ruling whether Mr. Koizumi’s visit was private or official, even though the prime minister used his official car and signed the shrine guest register using his official title.

The Fukuoka District Court and the Osaka High Court previously had found Mr. Koizumi’s visits unconstitutional. In handing down its ruling, the Fukuoka court said it believed that judging the constitutionality of the issue was its duty. It must be questioned whether the Supreme Court is really conscious of its duty and role as the highest guardian of the Constitution.

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