TOKYO — A Japanese high court delivered an unexpected blow to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on Friday, ruling that his visits to a controversial Shinto shrine honoring the nation's military war dead are a violation of constitutional barriers between religious and state affairs.
The ruling was a rare legal victory for those opposed to prime ministerial visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, though it casts more of a political than legal cloud over Koizumi's oft-stated intention to pay homage at the site again.
Citizens groups have launched eight lawsuits in various jurisdictions aimed at stopping the visits, demanding modest compensation for "distress" caused by the pilgrimages. Friday's judgment was the first such ruling by a high court, which declared such visits unconstitutional but also said the plaintiffs were not entitled to any money. The court is outranked only by the Japanese Supreme Court.
Yasukuni honors the souls of Japanese killed in wars since the 19th century Meiji era, including 14 who were tried and convicted of war crimes after World War II. The site includes a museum that presents Japan's march across Asia in the first half of the 20th century as a noble mission to liberate the continent from Western imperialism.
Koizumi has worshiped at the shrine every year since becoming prime minister in 2001. His appearances have provoked a backlash in Asian countries that endured Japanese aggression and occupation, and that regard the visits as a sign of a nationalist tide that seeks to repudiate responsibility for the Pacific war.
The prime minister has occasionally characterized the pilgrimages as expressions of "personal" mourning, adding that he goes to pray for peace.
But the 83-page judgment by the Osaka High Court concluded that Koizumi's claims had been too vague and that the visits could be construed only as political in nature. Presiding Judge Masaharu Otani noted that Koizumi signed the guest registry as "Prime Minister," traveled to the shrine in a state car and kept up the practice despite criticism in Japan and abroad.
"The visits made an impression that the national government particularly supports the Yasukuni Shrine," Otani said. "Therefore we consider this a promotion of a certain religion."
Koizumi immediately rejected the finding.
"I do not think my paying homage at Yasukuni violates the constitution," he told a gathering of lawmakers Friday, according to Kyodo News. "I am not paying visits as an official duty."
Few expect the verdict to dissuade Koizumi from visiting the shrine. Experts said Koizumi could probably skirt legal problems by making it clear that future visits would be strictly a matter of his personal beliefs. Such a move could alienate Japanese nationalists eager for a prime ministerial endorsement of what Yasukuni represents as well as those who resent what they see as foreign meddling in how Japan mourns its war dead.
"Politically, I think Koizumi is correct," said Kazuhisa Kawakami of Meiji Gakuin University. "It is unjustified that another country interferes, and a lot of Japanese are angry at the intervention in domestic affairs."
Koizumi's supporters also note that Friday's ruling conflicts with several other court decisions deeming the Yasukuni visits to be legal. On Thursday, the Tokyo High Court ruled in a similar case that the visits were personal, citing the fact that Koizumi made donations to the shrine with his own money.
But the Osaka ruling is ammunition for those demanding an end to any official connection between the state and the unrepentant version of history propagated at Yasukuni.
"Now he has a duty to respect the law," said Mitsutaka Nakajima, a lawyer who headed the group that made the legal challenge in Osaka. "If he does go ahead and visit Yasukuni after this, it will be an act of outrageous boldness."
Naoko Nishiwaki of The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.