Washington International Law Journal


Yuri Obata


On February 19, 2008, the Japanese Supreme Court delivered a decision declaring that a collection of photographs by the late American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe did not violate obscenity laws in Japan. The fact that the Japanese Supreme Court publicly found close-up and detailed images of male genitalia in Mapplethorpe’s work no longer obscene perhaps makes the decision a landmark one since the present-day restriction of sexually explicit expression in Japan respected the obscenity standard from the 1957 precedent, the Lady Chatterley’s Lover decision, which ruled that the translation of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was obscene. However, close reading of the 2008 Mapplethorpe decision reveals the Court’s uninterrupted interest in maintaining a boundary between art and obscenity, and also in preserving the doctrine of the public welfare as a fundamental principle regulating obscenity. The new approach to restricting obscenity by the 2008 Mapplethorpe Court is so narrowly constructed that its ability to further deregulate images of genitalia and sexual intercourse is utterly limited. In this study, the 2008 Mapplethorpe case and the court decisions are analyzed, and a brief overview presented of landmark cases of obscenity in Japan. There follows a discussion of two phenomena important to the 2008 Mapplethorpe decision: 1) the public welfare doctrine, and 2) the relation between obscenity and the state ideology of cultural identity. The discussion explores the values and beliefs that support the Court’s effort to restrict sexually explicit expression in Japan. Overall, this paper finds that the decision appears innovative but still supports the long-established rationale of the Court for continued regulation of obscenity.

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