Japan court rejects damage suit for PM shrine visit

Tokyo, Japan - A Japanese court rejected a lawsuit seeking compensation from Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and the governor of Tokyo for visiting the Yasukuni Shrine for war dead, seen by China and South Korea as a symbol of Japan's past militarism, lawyers for the plaintiffs said.

Tuesday's verdict comes days after Koizumi and Chinese President Hu Jintao met to try to mend ties between the two Asian giants, which had slid to their worst in decades due to a series of feuds partly over Japan's handling of its wartime history.

The Tokyo District Court did not rule on whether the visits violated the constitutional separation of religion and state, said Akira Ibori, a lawyer for the more than 1,000 plaintiffs, including some 700 South Koreans.

"Today's ruling opened the way for beautifying the war, violence and discrimination," Shinichi Kaba, a Buddhist monk and a representative of the plaintiffs, told a news conference.

Each of 1,047 plaintiffs had sought 30,000 yen ($284) each in compensation for damages from Koizumi and from Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, who also paid his respects at the shrine.

Among the South Korean plaintiffs were relatives of those who were enshrined in Yasukuni after being conscripted into Japan's Imperial Army and killed in World War Two.

"I can never understand why they rejected the fact that the South Korean victims have been suffering from psychological damage. Our demands were rejected completely," said Yang Soo-nim, 60, whose father-in-law was conscripted into the Japanese army and enshrined in Yasukuni after dying in the war.

"I joined the Japanese plaintiffs because I thought that if we kept silent about visits to Yasukuni by politicians who represent Japan, the old Japan would undoubtedly emerge again."

Koizumi has not visited the shrine this year and on Tuesday dodged the question of whether he would. "I will make an appropriate decision," he told reporters ahead of the ruling.


Ishihara defended his decision to pay homage at the shrine, telling Reuters in an interview: "It (Yasukuni) touches on the core of the Japanese people's spirit and culture."

Koizumi has repeatedly stated that his visits are to pray for peace and that Japan should never go to war again.

Several other similar suits seeking compensation have been rejected. In April 2004, the Fukuoka District Court in southwestern Japan said Koizumi had violated the constitution by visiting the shrine, but rejected demands for damages.

Fourteen "Class A" war criminals convicted by an Allied tribunal in 1948 are enshrined at Yasukuni along with Japan's roughly 2.5 million war dead. Among them is wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo.

Ties with China chilled markedly after Koizumi took office in 2001 and began annual visits to Yasukuni, angering domestic critics and many in South Korea and China, where bitter memories of Japan's past military aggression and occupation run deep.

Anti-Japanese demonstrations erupted across China this month after Japan approved textbooks critics said glossed over its wartime atrocities. Protesters also opposed Tokyo's campaign for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.

The friction put at risk economic links worth $212 billion in annual trade.

Koizumi held talks with Hu in Jakarta on Saturday to try to mend fences, a day after he made an unusually public apology for Japan's past atrocities at an Asia-Africa summit.


In another ruling on a contentious topic, the Fukuoka District Court said on Tuesday that it was constitutional for a city government to have ordered teachers to sing the national anthem at school ceremonies.

But the court ordered the city to rescind salary cuts imposed as punishment for refusing to sing the anthem.

The melancholy "Kimigayo" anthem, whose title translates as "His Majesty's Reign", is seen by some in Japan and elsewhere in Asia as a symbol of Japan's past militarism.

The Tokyo metropolitan government issued a directive in 2003 saying high school teachers must stand and sing the anthem at school ceremonies or face punishment.

Emperor Akihito gingerly stepped into the controversy on Monday, telling a news conference: "Regarding the national anthem and national flag, it is best if individual citizens think about the matter themselves."