The New York Times

September 30, 2005

Japanese Court Rules Against Koizumi's Visits to War Shrine

TOKYO, Sept. 30 - A Japanese court today handed a rare victory to those opposed to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to a controversial war shrine here, ruling that the visits violated Japan's Constitution, which rigorously separates religion and the state.

Experts said the ruling by the Osaka High Court probably will not force the prime minister to stop visiting the Yasukuni shrine, which honors Japan's war dead, including those hanged for criminal conduct during World War II. But they called it a symbolic victory for critics here and elsewhere, who view the visits as a measure of Japan's lack of contrition for wartime atrocities.

"This will strengthen Koizumi's opponents," said Hiroshi Nakanishi, a professor of international politics at Kyoto University. "More people will be encouraged to speak out against the visits."

There was no immediate reaction from either China or South Korea, which have been the two countries most vociferously opposed to Mr. Koizumi's visits, and the publication of history textbooks that critics say underplay numerous atrocities Japan committed during the war.

This is the second time a Japanese court has ruled against the visits, while courts have rejected eight other cases, including a ruling Thursday by the Tokyo High Court dismissing a civil suit. Plaintiffs in that suit said they would appeal to Japan's Supreme Court.

Mr. Koizumi, who has promised to restructure the Japanese government, is a nationalist. While he has issued apologies for Japan's wartime conduct, notably last spring at a meeting of Asian and African leaders in Jakarta, his popularity in Japan is in part a reflection of a desire among many Japanese to see their country play a more assertive role in global affairs and to disentangle itself from its burdensome wartime past.

At the same time, the number of court cases brought over the Yasukuni shrine issue reflects the intense emotions that the prime minister's visits provoke among some Japanese and elsewhere in the region. Outrage has been particularly acute in countries like China and South Korea, where memories of Japanese atrocities are still raw.

The case decided today was brought by 188 people, including 116 citizens of Taiwan, a former Japanese colony. The court rejected a request for about $90 in compensation for each plaintiff for "psychological damages" caused by the visits. Many of the Taiwanese are relatives of soldiers from Taiwan who died fighting for the Japanese in World War II and had been memorialized in the Yasukuni shrine against the wishes of their families.

Mr. Koizumi has paid annual visits to the shrine, a sprawling Shinto complex in central Tokyo that is a favorite gathering spot for veterans and rightist groups, since taking office four years ago. Politicians and experts say Mr. Koizumi goes mainly to prove his patriotic credentials to conservative members of his governing Liberal Democratic Party. This bloc has been growing more vocal in recent years, asserting that Japan needs a stronger sense of national pride as it gropes for a political status on the world stage commensurate with its economic wealth. Critics say the visits actually undermine Japan's efforts to take a larger role in global affairs by irritating its neighbors and making the country appear unrepentant.

Mr. Koizumi has not visited the shrine since January 2004, but there has been widespread speculation he may try to squeeze in a visit before the end of the year - a move sure to anger Beijing and Seoul further.

"I don't understand why my visits to Yasukuni violate the Constitution,"Mr. Koizumi told Parliament after the ruling, The Associated Press reported. "I'm paying my respects to those who died in the war, with the conviction that we must never wage such a war again. I visit Yasukuni as a private citizen, and as prime minister, but not in a public capacity," the A.P. quoted him as saying.

The apparent contradiction in that statement, of visiting as prime minister, but not as a public figure, captures the difficult position in which Mr. Koizumi now finds himself following the ruling, experts say.

In the ruling, the court said his visits were a public act and therefore violated the Constitution's separation of religion and state. In the past, Mr. Koizumi had tried to sidestep the legal aspects of his visits by leaving vague whether he went as a private citizen or as a public figure. But the court ruled that by leaving his status visits vague, they appeared to be public acts. "Regardless of the strong criticism at home and abroad, he continued the visits, giving the impression that the nation is providing special support for Yasukuni Shrine, and supporting a particular religion," said the presiding judge, Masaharu Otani, according to a daily newspaper, Asahi Shimbun.

Experts said the ruling may force Mr. Koizumi to state that he is visiting as a private citizen. But doing that would anger conservatives, who want the prime minister to honor Japan's war dead in an official capacity. Professor Nakanishi said the case carried extra weight for opponents because it was handed down by a higher court. The previous ruling against the visits was by a district court, the lowest court level, in Fukuoka in April 2004. He also said the ruling today would be hard to appeal because of its legal technicalities and the logic advanced in it. This means it is unlikely the government will bring it before the Japanese Supreme Court for an appeal, which would be the next step in the legal process. None of the cases against the visits has reached the Supreme Court. Even if one does, the court typically takes years to issue a ruling.

Mr. Koizumi said he will step down next September, so the Supreme Court is unlikely to reach a more binding verdict on the constitutionality of his visits even if it considers the case, Mr. Nakanishi said. "There probably won't be any real resolution to this while Koizumi is in office," he said.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company