Japan High Court Thinks Long & Hard About Mapplethorpe Book

February 19, 2008 · Print This Article

Mapplethorpe vs Japan
Japan’s Supreme Court has issued a landmark decision opening the way for the sale of a book of collected erotic photographs by the late Robert Mapplethorpe.

This would over rule a 2003 decision by the Tokyo High Court that banned the book’s sale because it was deemed indecent. Tuesday’s ruling is believed to be the first time the top court has overturned a lower court decision on obscenity.

Publisher Takashi Asai called it “groundbreaking” and predicted the ruling might “change [Japan's] obscenity standard.”

Justice Kohei Nasu said the black-and-white portraits were from an “artistic point of view” and led the majority opinion of the five-judge panel that Mapplethorpe was “a leading figure in contemporary art.”

The justices did, however, throw out Asai’s demand for government compensation of arround $20,000 US.

Japan’s domestic obscenity laws were relaxed in the 1990s but imported publications are handled by customs and the laws still ban images of genitals.

Asai, of Uplink publishers, had argued that the import ban was obsolete, pointing out the Mapplethorpe book was in the Japanese parliament’s library and that copies were offered for sale on the internet.

His company had been selling the Japanese version of Mapplethorpe’s 384-page book since 1994. The book, entitled “Robert Mapplethorpe”, contains 20 close-up photos of male genitalia.

Everything changed in 1999 when airport customs officials in Japan confiscated a copy of the book that Asai had been carrying.

Then Tokyo police visited him and gave him a warning, causing Asai to voluntarily suspend sales of the book in 2000.

Asai decided to go to court and in 2002, he won a case in Tokyo District Court. The government was ordered to give back his book and to pay $6,480 US in damages. But a year later, a higher court overturned that ruling. At that point, Asai took the case to the highest court in the land. Leading to today’s ruling.