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Japanese Court Rules Prime Minister's Visits to Yasukuni Shrine Unconstitutional


A Japanese high court for the first time has ruled that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's controversial visits to a war memorial shrine are unconstitutional. But the prime minister is giving no indication he will desist from making future visits to the Shinto shrine.

Overturning a lower court decision, the three judges of the Osaka High Court on Friday ruled the prime minister's visits to Yasukuni Shrine are official acts and religious activities that violate the Constitution.

The shrine honors those who died fighting for Japan, including several men who were convicted of war crimes for their actions in World War II.

The Osaka ruling comes a day after the Tokyo High Court found nothing illegal with the shrine visits - ruling that they were personal and not performed in Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's official capacity.

Mr. Koizumi, speaking in Parliament on Friday following the Osaka ruling, said the legal process is far from over.

He reiterated that he believes he is not visiting the shrine as an official duty.

But the Osaka court disagrees, saying that because Mr. Koizumi used an official car and that his intention was clearly political, the visits are not private.

However, the judges declined to award any damages to the 188 plaintiffs, who claimed mental anguish and each asked for about $100 compensation.

They included people from Taiwan whose relatives joined the Japanese military when the island was ruled by Tokyo. Gao Jin Sumei is one of the plaintiffs from Taiwan.

Ms. Gao says the prime minister should abide by the Japanese constitution and not make further visits to the shrine.

The visits have damaged relations between Japan and its Asian neighbors, who suffered under Japanese militarism in the first half of the last century. The visits especially enrage officials and members of the public in China and in South Korea.

Although the visits have not turned into a major domestic political issue for Mr. Koizumi, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party, Seiji Maehara, went on the offensive after Friday's ruling.

Mr. Maehara says any such visit by the prime minister has to be considered part of his official duties and Mr. Koizumi should seriously reflect on the judges' decision.

As prime minister, Mr. Koizumi has made four visits to Yasukuni - the last one in January 2004.

The visits have sparked at least eight court cases with some 900 plaintiffs. Seven district courts rejected the plaintiff's arguments, but one court last year ruled that one of Mr. Koizumi's visits violated the constitution.

The prime minister, prodded by opposition lawmakers about whether he intends to continue visiting the shrine, would only say he would make an "appropriate decision."

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