November 15, 2007 / 2:10 PM / 12 years ago

Publisher challenges genitals picture ban

TOKYO (Reuters) - A publisher has taken to Japan’s top court his eight-year fight over the banning of imported images of male genitals in a book of pictures by the late American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

People look at a photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe October 2, 2007. A publisher has taken to Japan's top court his eight-year fight over the banning of imported images of male genitals in a book of pictures by the late American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. REUTERS/Susana Vera

Publisher Takashi Asai told Reuters he expected to win his case because the court had taken the step of agreeing to hear his appeal of a lower court ruling that the book, which includes sado-masochistic homosexual images, was obscene.

Asai, who heads a film distribution company, translated and published a collection of Mapplethorpe’s works in Japan in 1994, based on imported negatives that customs did not check.

But when Asai carried a copy of his book back from the United States in 1999, it was seized by customs officials and he has battled with courts since to reverse the move.

Japan’s domestic obscenity laws were relaxed in the 1990s to allow pictures of pubic hair, but imported publications are handled by customs and it still bans images of genitals.

“It’s meaningless to have to cover nude photos in this day and age when images are being freely accessed on the Internet,” Asai said in a telephone interview this week.

The book is in the Japanese parliament’s library, he said, and copies were offered for sale on the Web.

In 1992, four of the raunchiest photos in Madonna’s book “Sex” were scratched out by Japanese censors. But a Japanese language edition was published untouched a few months later.

Asai said the Supreme Court hearing would be held in January, but a date for the ruling had yet to be set.

It was unclear if a win in the Supreme Court would pave the way for other nude images to be imported, but it could clear legal hurdles for Mapplethorpe’s work to be exhibited, Asai said.

A Tokyo Customs spokeswoman declined to comment on the case.

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