Court says Koizumi's shrine visit official, rejects damages

The Chiba District Court on Thursday ruled that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visit to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo in August 2001 was made in his official capacity but rejected the plaintiffs' claims for damages and refrained from ruling on whether the visit was constitutional from the point of view of the separation of religion and the state.

Presiding Judge Hiroko Ando said in handing down the decision, ''There is no need to make an objective judgment (on the constitutionality) of the visit as it does not infringe specific rights or legal interests'' of the plaintiffs.

In the case, 63 plaintiffs sought 6.3 million yen, or 100,000 yen each, in damages from the state and Koizumi, arguing that the visit violated their constitutional right to freedom of religion, thought and conscience.

The plaintiffs protested the ruling as ''unjust'' and said they will appeal.

The court's decision is the fifth ruling on Koizumi's pilgrimages to the controversial war-related Shinto shrine and comes after China again lodged a strong protest against the visits.

Similar lawsuits against Koizumi's Yasukuni visits have been filed at five other district courts -- in Tokyo, Naha, Osaka, Matsuyama and Fukuoka.

The previous four rulings all rejected compensation demands, and the Osaka court also ruled that the premier's shrine visit was official.

The Fukuoka District Court ruled Koizumi's visit was unconstitutional.

In the suit filed at the Chiba court in December 2001, the plaintiffs argued that Koizumi's Aug. 13, 2001 visit was made in his capacity as prime minister, thereby endorsing the Shinto shrine with the state's authority although the Constitution requires the separation of religion and state.

The visit was the first in a series the premier has made since he came to power in April 2001.

Koizumi's defense argued that the visit was private and did not violate the constitutional separation of religion and state.

In a news conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda said the court accepted most of the government's arguments but that he felt ''regret that the court did not recognize the premier's argument that his visit was made in a private capacity.''

The plaintiffs include 47 Christians, one Buddhist monk, and 11 people with no professed religion. Four others have relatives enshrined there.

The plaintiffs also claimed that Koizumi's visit was tantamount to coercing them to espouse a particular faith that they do not believe in, resulting in psychological pressure.

According to the ruling, Koizumi visited the shrine as part of his official duties since he was accompanied by a secretary, used an official car and gave his title as premier in signing the shrine's visitors book. He also sent to the shrine 30,000 yen worth of flowers that he had paid for, in his name.

''In cases which call into question whether or not the premier's action is official or private, the premier must consider making clear that his action does not constitute an official duty...but there have been no traces'' of the premier making such an attempt, Ando said.

The judge also dismissed the argument from Koizumi that the premier cannot carry out an official duty without Cabinet approval, saying that is not necessarily the case.

The plaintiffs also claimed the visit threatened their right to live peacefully because of the shrine's link to wars in Japan's history and concerns over a possible return of Japan's militarist past.

The court, however, dismissed the claim.

The shrine is dedicated to some 2.5 million people who have died in wars since the mid-19th century, along with 14 Class-A World War II criminals, including executed wartime Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo.

''I would like to reject the state unilaterally glorifying the death (of my father) and (the Shinto shrine) honoring him as it pleases,'' one of the plaintiffs, Akira Kobayashi, a Christian pastor, said earlier.

His father, Tsuneichi, was a police officer on the Korean Peninsula when it was under Japanese occupation. He was sent to a Soviet detention camp after the war and has not been heard of since. In 1968, Kobayashi received a letter from Yasukuni, saying his father has been enshrined as ''a martyr.''

After the ruling, Kobayashi expressed disappointment at the decision, saying he felt the court evaded a decision on the shrine visit's constitutionality.

''It is an unjust ruling,'' said Kazuhiro Uetake, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers. Shigenori Nishikawa, a supporter of the suit, said, ''It was far from what I had expected...The ruling was toned down compared with the Fukuoka court, which gave a constitutional judgment.''

The Fukuoka District Court in April stated the premier's shrine visit was unconstitutional as it violated the separation of religion and state.

In its ruling, the Osaka District Court in February did not rule on the constitutionality of the visit, but stated that the visit was considered official because Koizumi ''went in the capacity of prime minister.''

Koizumi's visits to the shrine continue to spark uproar at home and abroad. China and some critics in Japan consider the shrine a symbol of Japanese militarism and consistently denounce such visits.

China has put mutual visits by top leaders of the two countries on hold since October 2001 because of the shrine visit issue. Koizumi has met with Chinese leaders only on the sidelines of international gatherings.

Chinese President Hu Jintao described Koizumi's visits to the Shinto shrine as the ''crux'' of the problem in Japan-China relations when the two met Sunday on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit in Santiago.

Koizumi made his second visit to the shrine on April 21, 2002, and visited again Jan. 14, 2003 and on New Year's Day this year.

Unlike former premier Yasuhiro Nakasone, Koizumi has avoided visiting the shrine on Aug. 15, the anniversary of the end of World War II, although he said earlier he would visit the shrine on that date.