Japan: Is it obscenity or is it art?

On February 19, the Japanese Supreme Court ruled that a Robert Mapplethorpe book, confiscated at Narita Airport in 1999 on the basis of its perceived pornographic content, does not violate obscenity law. The book in question, titled “Mapplethorpe”, contains 384 pages of photographs of various subjects, 19 of which contain closeup photos of male genitalia. Asakai Takashi, the publisher of the Japanese edition of “Mapplethorpe”, came back from the US with the book in 1999, at which time the customs authorities confiscated it. After this incident, he suspended sales of the Japanese version when he received a warning from Tokyo Police in 2000, and later he took the case to court. For samples of Mapplethope's works, see the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation website (declaimer: explicit nudity). Many Japnaese bloggers took up and discussed the news.

zmgojdha at Slightly out of fortune comments:




This is the first time I've heard of this kind of case being brought through the court.

“Legal theory of artistic quality and obscenity” may be created as a word. That's why it is as funny as it is, but also as inevitable as it is.

The reason they came to this verdict, I think, is that if you take some parts [of the collection] it could be argued that they are obscene, but from an artistic point of view this is not an obscene book. This makes me wonder. You could say that this verdict [in favor of] Robert Mapplethorpe was a result of him having an established reputation as an artist.

karubi, although happy with the verdict, does not believe that this recurring controversy is something that can be solved by court.


The Supreme Court judges (or, if not the judges, then the people who are assigned [to this case]) should go out with the Mapplethorpe book and ask about 1000 passers-by in the street: “Do you find these photographs containing male genitals obscene?” I am seriously thinking about this. Then probably over 800 people would say: “these are not obscene”, or [they would say that they are] “beautiful”, or [that they are] “interesting”. Common sense is not something that can be deliberately created by discerning judges in high positions, rather it is something that is shaped naturally by common people who sense the trends of the time.

On the other hand, some bloggers expressed their negative views on the verdict as well as on the artist's works.

kosodatejityan1 says he has difficulty understanding Mapplethorpe's works.

それにしても 私の常識では

そういうものを 一部とはいえ アップの写真集にして
世間に自分の存在を知られたく思う神経が 私には理解出来ません。

山川草木 動物や小鳥 自然の中に 幾らでも題材はあるはずですのにね 〜。

余程 写真芸術家として 
表現するものが無かったのでしょう と思ってしまいます。

Anyway, from a common sense viewpoint, I don't know if there is any artistic element to this,
but I can't understand the psychology of taking closeup photos of these things and putting them together to make a photography collection — even though they [the obscene things] are just some parts of [the collection] — and making yourself known for this.

You've got mountains, rivers, plants, trees, animals and birds, there are many themes in nature.

I am thinking he must really not have anything to express as an artist.

Another blogger is strongly disappointed at the decision.




I can't understand the judgment at all that closeup pictures of genitalia are art, and not obscenity. There is no doubt that this is offensive to public order and morals. The court cannot judge whether it is art or obscenity to begin with. It is because it's up to an individual's subjectivity, and for this reason there is no objective standard on which the judgment can be based. Therefore, there is no choice but to automatically judge pictures of genitalia as obscene.
So, Judge Yukio Horigome is correct in objecting with the argument that: “Pictures explicitly depicting genitalia are pornography. It is impermissible to deny their obscene nature using artistic quality as an excuse.”
The concept that “the naked human body is art” does not traditionally exist in Japan anyway. It’s a counter-reaction to the Medieval era of Europe. I think pictures of genitalia are obscene and I love female ones (lol). However, I wonder if it's right to look at it openly like this. Freedom of expression should obviously be regulated based on history, traditions and public order and morals. What's the use of the Supreme Court if it can't stop things like this.

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.