Japanese court rejects latest suit against war shrine

Tokyo, Japan - The Tokyo High Court refused to order Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to stop visiting a war shrine at the center of tensions in East Asia, handing him his latest legal victory.

Critics had asked the court to bar Koizumi and Tokyo's nationalist Governor Shintaro Ishihara from going to Yasukuni shrine, which honors Japanese war dead including war criminals.

Koizumi -- who was last week supported by the Supreme Court -- has gone to the shrine each year since taking office in 2001, infuriating China and

South Korea, which were both invaded by imperial Japan.

Some 137 Japanese and South Korean individuals, including relatives of war dead, and a South Korean group filed Wednesday's lawsuit in which they sought 30,000 yen (258 dollars) each in compensation for mental anguish.

They said top leaders violated the constitution's separation of religion and state by visiting the Shinto shrine.

But High Court Judge Yoshito Abe said the plaintiffs had no grounds for damages and refused to rule on the pilgrimage's constitutionality.

"Whether people feel, and how strongly they feel, against such visits greatly depends on personal and subjective factors such as their historical positions and how they perceive Yasukuni shrine," Abe said.

As the visits do not violate plaintiffs' rights, "The court has no reason to determine whether the visits are unconstitutional," he said.

Plaintiff Yang Soo-Nim, a South Korean, said the ruling cast doubts on Japanese democracy.

She said her father-in-law was enshrined among the war dead at Yasukuni shrine as he died as a forced laborer who was enslaved when Japan ruled Korea.

"I can't help wondering if Japan really is a law-governed, democratic country," said Yang, 62, wearing a white chogori, a traditional Korean robe.

"My father is enshrined next to war criminals to whom Japan's prime minister and a governor pay visits," Yang told a news conference in Tokyo. "I feel they are trying to hurt our feelings over and over again."

She appealed to Koizumi not to visit Yasukuni shrine on August 15, the sensitive anniversary of Japan's 1945 surrender.

But Koizumi, speaking to reporters on a visit to Canada, hinted he was ready to go again to the shrine before he steps down in September.

"It should not become a problem as to however many times I go. It is a matter of personal freedom, isn't it?" Koizumi said.

Ishihara, a novelist turned outspoken city leader, said, "I visit Yasukuni shrine as a Japanese to express respect and mourning for the war dead."

"It's nonsense to separate it between being official and private. The ruling is no surprise," Ishihara was quoted as saying by Jiji Press.

The shrine has emerged as an issue in the race to succeed Koizumi, with the two leading candidates at odds.

Yasukuni shrine honors 2.5 million Japanese war dead and 14 top war criminals from World War II including militarist premier Hideki Tojo, who was hanged by order of a US-led tribunal.

Courts have given divided judgments over a raft of cases filed by critics of Yasukuni shrine.

But the Supreme Court ruled for the first time on Friday, refusing to award damages to critics of the shrine and declining to rule on whether Koizumi's pilgrimage was constitutional.

Koizumi's government hailed the Supreme Court ruling as a victory, saying it set a legal precedent despite the mixed lower court decisions.