Religious freedom debated in Japan. Court ruling a blow to rights, some say

Japan's Supreme Court handed down a controversial ruling Wednesday in a precedent-setting case on constitutional guarantees of religious freedom. The court reversed two lower-court decisions upholding the complaint of Yasuko Nakaya, a Christian woman, that her deceased Army-officer husband was deified in a Shinto shrine at the behest of the military and against her will.

Opponents of the 14-to-1 vote ruling Wednesday, say it will threaten the rights of minorities to practice their religion and undermine the constitutional separation of church and state.

``Japan lacks a legal system to protect human rights,'' said Kazuki Nobe, a minister in the United Church of Christ, where Mrs. Nakaya is a member. ``It is like the days of [the Japanese Empire] when religious freedom was only allowed so long as it did not threaten the Emperor system.''

In recent years, the church-state link has become a public issue because of the visits of Japanese Cabinet officials to Shinto shrines, including Yasukuni Shrine which is dedicated to Japan's war dead. For a long time, such visits were taboo because they smacked of a revival of the association between prewar militarism and the elevation of Shintoism into a state creed.

In the early 1980s, Yasuhiro Nakasone made an annual pilgrimage to Yasukuni as prime minister. He halted the practice when it sparked strong protest from neighboring Asian nations who were victims of Japanese wartime aggression. They saw the visits as a calculated insult, given the enshrinement there of men condemned as war criminals by the Allies.

Still, Cabinet members annually descend as a group on Shinto holy places such as Yasukuni. ``When they go there as a group,'' argues Nobuyoshi Ashibe, a law professor at Gakushuin University, ``they are representatives of the government. That's a violation of the Constitution in principle.''

``I don't think people should worry too much whether officials' visits here are against the Constitution or not,'' says To Kanno, chief priest of Yasukuni, ``since they visit here just to express their appreciation for those who died for the country.''

There are reportedly 11 cases now in Japanese courts regarding issues of religious freedom, including one specifically challenging the Yasukuni visits. ``The influence of the Supreme Court's decision on future similar suits is beyond measure,'' worries Mr. Ashibe.

The court ruled on two issues - the role of the state and lower court assertions of a constitutional protection of a person's right to religious practices.

Nakaya's husband was a lieutenant in the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force (SDF) who died in a traffic accident while on duty in 1968. Though not a Christian, he was buried in her church in Yamaguchi. In 1972, SDF in Yamaguchi informed Nakaya it was going to enshrine the soul of her husband in Gokoku Shrine, a Shinto place of worship for war dead. In Shintoist practice, enshrinement means the person achieves a deified status.

Nakaya filed a damage suit in 1973 against the state and the SDF veterans' association that carried out the enshrinement, demanding cancellation of the enshrinement.

Both a district and high court ruled that the actions of the SDF violated the Constitution. The high court decision defined a new concept of ``personal rights based on religion,'' including the right to ``cherish the memory of a deceased person without interference.''

The Supreme Court's decision said it was not a violation of the separation of church and state because the SDF role was only to collect documents. The actual application for enshrinement was made by the veterans group. The SDF role, the court said, was aimed at promoting the morale of servicemen and had no religious nature.

The court rejected the concept of ``personal rights based on religion'' and said that the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom calls for ``a mutually generous attitude'' toward the religious activities of others unless they harm or coerce. They said Nakaya should be tolerant of the Shintoist practices, which did not infringe her rights.

The decision, says Yoichi Higuchi, a constitutional law expert at Tokyo University, reflects the Japanese attitude toward religious faith. Japanese, he said, see no difficulty in observing different creeds at the same time. According to government statistics, most Japanese observe both Buddhist and Shinto rituals. There are about 1.4 million Christians among the 122 million Japanese.

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