Japanese court rules PM's shrine visit unconstitutional

Tokyo, Japan - A Japanese court has ruled that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to a controversial war shrine violated the constitution, in a moral victory for victims of Japan's war-time aggression.

The Osaka High Court in western Japan said Thursday that his trips to the Yasukuni shrine, which have strained relations with Japan's neighbours including China and

South Korea, contravened the constitutional separation of politics and religion.

But Koizumi, who has visited four times since taking office in 2001 and who has hinted he will go again this year, rejected the verdict and said the trips were not part of his official duties.

"I don't understand why my visits to Yasukuni violate the constitution ... as I have paid homage to express my grief over people killed in war and pledge not to cause that kind of war again," he told parliament.

Yasukuni honours Japanese war dead, including some infamous war criminals, and the visits are at the heart of a debate over whether Japan should seek to appease neighbours over its past militarism or assert its right to remember its dead and perhaps even revise its pacifist constitution.

While the court ruled the visits were unconstitutional, it rejected a claim of damages from 188 plaintiffs including relatives of war dead from Taiwan on the grounds his visits to Yasukuni did not infringe on their individual rights.

The Taiwanese argued that they had suffered mentally because many of their indigenous ancestors, who were conscripted by Japan under colonial rule, were enshrined at Yasukuni with Japanese soldiers who staged acts of aggression.

"Prime Minister Koizumi should not visit the shrine again if he thinks Japan is a country under the rule of law," said Kao Shin Sumei, one of the plaintiffs and a member of Taiwan's parliament who represents indigenous Taiwanese.

"We are angry with the joint veneration of the souls of our ancestors at Yasukuni," she told a nationally televised news conference in Osaka.

The leading lawyer for the plaintiffs, Mitsunori Nakajima, said the ruling was "epoch-making."

Judge Masaharu Otani said the visits were "religious activity forbidden" to be carried out by a government representative under the constitution.

"The prime minister's visits ... in the face of strong opposition at home and abroad lead to promotion and encouragement of a certain religion," he said, according to Jiji Press news agency.

The link between the state and Yasukuni had gone "beyond limitations," he added.

It is the first ruling that the visits were unconstitutional by a high court. The Fukuoka District Court handed down a similar verdict in April 2004.

Only the Supreme Court has power to make binding rulings on constitutional issues.

The Shinto shrine, which is seen by neighbouring countries as glorifying Japan's past militarism, honours 2.5 million war dead, including World War II leaders hanged by the US-led allied powers as war criminals.

The lower Osaka District Court had ruled in May last year that the pilgrimages were "personal" in nature.

The latest ruling came a day after the Tokyo High Court dismissed a separate appeal challenging the visits to the Yasukuni shrine.

The Tokyo appeals court did not rule whether the visit violated the constitution. Another verdict on the visits is due next week from the Takamatsu High Court in southwestern Japan.

Shinto, a Japanese animistic religion based on the worship of ancestors and spirits in nature, served as state religion during World War II, with Emperor Hirohito revered as a living god.