Court Rejects Suit Over Japan PM War Shrine Visits

Tokyo, Japan - A lawsuit claiming compensation from Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi for distress caused by his visits to a war shrine was dismissed by a Tokyo court on Thursday.

Japan's Asian neighbours see Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine as a symbol of Japan's past militarism, and relations with China and South Korea have deteriorated in recent years, partly over the prime minister's annual visits. The shrine honours Japan's military war dead and some executed World War Two war criminals.

The plaintiffs, who included several Christians, had argued that Koizumi's visits to the Shinto shrine violated Japan's constitutional separation of religion and the state, but the court ruled that his visits were private acts.

``A major breach of the constitution is taking place, but the court is closing its eyes to that, or even allowing it,'' said Kazuhiro Uetake, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. ``The court is supporting the visits, and I don't think that should be allowed.''

Despite angry reactions from China and South Korea, both of which were victims of Japan's wartime aggression, Koizumi has said the purpose of his visits is to pray for peace and to honor the war dead.

Chief government spokesman Hiroyuki Hosoda expressed satisfaction with the ruling. ``I think the ruling recognized the government's stance and its assertions,'' Hosoda told a news conference. He declined further comment.

The plaintiffs, who had sought a total of 3.9 million yen in compensation, were appealing against a lower court's rejection of their case.

The group is one of several that have claimed compensation over Koizumi's visits to the shrine.

While demands for damages have been dismissed in all cases, the Fukuoka District Court in southwestern Japan ruled in April 2004 that Koizumi had violated the constitution by visiting the shrine.

When Koizumi came to power in 2001 he said he would visit Yasukuni every year, but he has not gone there since January last year. He has not made clear whether he will visit this year, repeatedly telling journalists only that he will make ``an appropriate decision.''