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Japan’s Debate Over What’s Obscene Heats Up

June 19, 1991

TOKYO (AP) _ Japan’s obscenity standards can appear baffling - works by world-renowned artists have been censored while pornographic comic books have become part of everyday life.

In fact, the bureaucratic standards have been simple: depiction of the genitals or pubic hair is forbidden. Virtually anything else is OK.

In recent weeks, several arty publications have hit the market with photographs that break the ban.

″Banning pubic hair is ridiculous. Everybody has pubic hair. What’s wrong with that?″ asked Kazuhide Miyamoto, editor of Geijutsu Shincho, a magazine that has defied the ban.

Nobuyoshi Araki, the photographer who took the pictures for Geijutsu Shincho, adds: ″For ordinary people, (pubic) hair is nothing special. Obscenity comes in only when the authority tells us hair is a social problem.″

The authorities are displeased but have allowed sales, sparking a nationwide debate over whether a more flexible standard is needed to determine what is fit for the Japanese to view.

Another magazine in the dispute was the New York-based monthly ARTnews, a trade magazine with a circulation of 80,000.

Customs officials blocked a shipment of the magazine’s May issue for two weeks because an advertisement for a New York exhibition of photographer Joel Peter Witkin’s work included a photo of a nude woman that violated the ban.

After magazine officials complained, customs released the magazine, which has 600 subscribers in Japan, primarily galleries and artists.

″It (ARTnews) has never been stopped anywhere in the world for any reasons,″ said Bernard Krisher, a Tokyo representative for the magazine.

Meanwhile, a similarly revealing Japanese collection of black-and-white photos of a nude actress is creating a sensation.

Police called the editors of Water Fruit in for a warning last week and said the book exceeded standards by showing ″private parts,″ according to Shigeki Akai, chief editor in charge of the project at Asahi Publishing.

But police said the book still could be sold and that no further action would be taken.

″We didn’t expect the book to cause any problem,″ Akai said. ″The police interpretation of what constitutes a violation of the law isn’t as clear as most people think. I don’t think the police have ever said that pubic hair is the factor. They didn’t say that to us.″

In reality, however, publications have long refused to depict pubic hair and genitals because of authorities’ objections.

The ban has prevented Japanese from enjoying some of the world’s most renowned artists. For example, customs officials once blacked out offending portions of imported works by Man Ray.

On the other hand, the ban has not stopped the proliferation of pornographic comic books that depict kinky or violent sexual scenes but do not show the offending body parts.

And Japanese television is allowed to run prime-time broadcasts of movies with explicit sex scenes, such as Brian De Palma’s ″Body Double,″ as long as the ban is observed.

Some publishers interpret the recent reluctance of the police to bring obscenity charges against the art publications as a sign the standards may be changing.

Police may be less willing to enforce the ban in some cases because of increased public support for artistic expression and freedom of speech, they believe. It also is possible that Japanese authorities are responding to changing mores.

Foreign publications with nudity, such as Playboy, still are required to get rid of offending material.

Importers hire people to touch up photographs at customs warehouses in Yokohama before forwarding the publications to Tokyo for inspection.

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