Ruling May Loosen Japan’s Restrictions on Explicit Materials

Q Boyer
TOKYO — A publisher has won a case in the Japanese Supreme Court that allows him to import a book of controversial, sexually explicit pictures by the late Robert Mapplethorpe, which could serve to open the country to other sexually explicit products.

The court’s ruling is the culmination of an eight-year court battle by publisher Takashi Asai, who said this week that he hoped the ruling would pave the way for art films and books to be shown in the country without censorship.

“[The ruling] will change the criteria for obscenity so that films shown at film festivals will not be banned from coming to Japan just because they show private parts, and so that books will not be imported or published with private parts covered or scratched out,” Asai said in a statement published online.

Asai first published a collection of Mapplethorpe’s photography in 1994, after a shipment of imported Mapplethorpe negatives slipped past Japanese customs. When Asai brought a copy of the book back with him from a trip to the U.S. in 1999, however, the book was seized by customs officials. Asai has been battling the seizure in the Japanese courts ever since.

According to the Reuters news service, a Tokyo Customs spokeswoman called the ruling “regrettable,” but said that authorities have not yet decided whether they will allow other nude images to be imported into the country.

“We have not received details of the ruling yet, so we will consider what to do once we have them,” the spokeswoman said.

While the Japanese government relaxed its strict interpretation of obscenity laws in the 1990s to allow pictures that included pubic hair, imported sexually explicit publications still are regulated by Japanese customs, and images depicting genitalia reportedly remain banned, pending any adjustment of that policy in response to the court’s latest ruling.