TOKYO (AFP) — Japan's top court ruled on Tuesday that pictures by late US photographer Robert Mapplethorpe were not obscene, putting an end to nearly a decade-long battle over the country's censorship laws.
The verdict was hailed as a victory for artistic freedom by a Japanese publisher who filed the lawsuit. His copy of a Mapplethorpe book was seized in 1999 when he tried to bring it from the United States for personal use.
Reversing a lower court ruling, the Supreme Court ordered customs to lift its ban on bringing in the book of photographs, entitled "Robert Mapplethorpe."
In the 2003 ruling, the Tokyo High Court ruled that the book, which included images of male genitals, went "against good sexual morality."
But Kohei Nasu, the presiding judge, said at the Supreme Court: "The book and pictures do not fall into a category that would disturb the public," as quoted by Jiji Press.
Pornography is widely available in Japan but the laws are complex. Customs rules ban the import of images that graphically portray genitals, which are generally pixellated in Japanese versions of foreign films.
The Supreme Court had ruled in 1999 in a separate case that a book of Mapplethorpe's pictures was obscene.
Customs officers at Tokyo's Narita airport had stopped publisher Takashi Asai, who is also a film distributor, saying that 20 of the 260 pictures in "Robert Mapplethorpe" were obscene.
Asai voiced hope that the ruling would open the way for Japan to be more open about artistic portrayals of genitalia.
"Until now the customs authorities have been incapable of considering artistic qualities and could ban films even if there was only a 30-second shot in a two-hour film," Asai wrote on his website.
"This time, artistic quality as a whole was recognised," he said. "I hope that this kind of verdict will allow for the entry of more films."
"However, I fear that just because the court this time judged there was artistic quality, cases may emerge where items are branded as obscene for lack of artistic quality," he said.
Mapplethorpe devoted much of his career to nude forms, particularly of men, looking for artistic representations of the body which he presented as sculpture.
Mapplethorpe died in 1989 at age 42 from complications of AIDS.
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