Diehl on Cather, 'Art of Censorship in Postwar Japan'

Kirsten Cather
Chad R. Diehl

Kirsten Cather. Art of Censorship in Postwar Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2012. 336 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8248-3587-3.

Reviewed by Chad R. Diehl (Loyola University Maryland) Published on H-Japan (November, 2014) Commissioned by Austin C. Parks

The Art of Writing about Censorship

In July 2014, authorities in Japan arrested the artist Igarashi Megumi for distributing 3D printer data of the shape of her vagina. Igarashi, they insisted, had violated Japan's obscenity laws. The arrest was discussed with curiosity outside Japan, including on The Daily Show (July 24), where Jon Stewart introduced a "new segment" called "We may have problems, but at least we're not jailing artists for 3D printing their vaginas." Stewart continued by pointing out (as others have) the double standard in Japan of encoding phallus worship in society through such things as festivals, while disapproving of any images of female genitalia, including as artistic expression. Others saw Igarashi's arrest as unprecedented state censorship in contemporary Japan. As The Guardian (July 18, 2014) put it in a headline, Igarashi's arrest "has triggered concerns of clampdown on freedom of expression in Japan."[1] At first glance, Igarashi's arrest may seem perplexing, or somehow unlike the Japan the West has come to imagine, but as Kirsten Cather shows us in her book, The Art of Censorship in Postwar Japan, it is simply the latest case in a long history of suppression of the freedom of expression—especially sexual expression—under the country's obscenity laws.

In her carefully researched and beautifully written book, Cather investigates a series of obscenity trials in Japan from the 1940s to the early 2000s to elucidate the elaborate yet unofficial apparatus of state censorship of art. By "art," Cather means any mode or result of cultural production (including censorship), but she focuses her analyses on literature, film, and manga, as well as on the police, lawyers, judges, and concerned citizens who have made up the censorship apparatus. Scholarship on censorship in Japan has so far focused on either the prewar or Occupation periods, tending to "occlude censorship conducted after the Occupation" (p. 6, original emphasis). Cather's book, then, is a long-awaited and important addition to the literature, and its multidisciplinary approach makes it accessible and useful to a variety of fields, such as history, anthropology, literary studies, film studies, and the visual arts.

Cather puts forth two arguments regarding censorship in general. Firstly, she argues (and nicely demonstrates, especially in chapter 3) that censorship can sometimes "be a moment of collusion that produces something" because the process "can offer fodder for the production, not just destruction, of art" (p. 4). That is, censorship, or the threat of censorship, leads an artist to produce something that would otherwise not have existed. Secondly, Cather suggests that censorship does not need to officially exist or directly seek to suppress political ideas in order to operate as a tool for a government to regulate its citizens' behavior in the name of protecting society. Cather uses the case of Japan and its obscenity trials to illuminate the relationship between sexual expression, politics, and power, and especially the "enduring concern with policing sexual morality in art and in society" (p. 7).

The book is divided into four parts, which are organized both chronologically and by artistic medium, with each part containing a brief analytical introduction followed by two chapters. Part 1, "East Meets West, Again: Trying Translations," looks at literature, specifically a Japanese translation of D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928), which was on trial from 1951 to 1957. Chapters 1, "Lady Chatterley's Censor," and 2, "The Legacy of Chatterley," illustrate how the Chatterley trials were significant in that they "established an enduring legal precedent that would continue to be invoked with great success for over half a century" (p. 10). Taking place on the heels of the Allied Occupation, the trials also "staged a very public struggle to define literary, cultural, and legal identity, engaging a far-reaching debate over the relationship of domestic Japanese and Western traditions" (p. 15). Debates over "cultural identity" were central issues in each of the trials discussed throughout the book, but Cather mentions this only matter-of-factly in most cases, missing an opportunity to deepen the significance of the trials as a mirror of postwar Japanese society. (This may have been a casualty of the organization of the book, which is addressed below.)

Part 2, "Pinks, Pornos, and Politics," looks at a set of films on trial in the 1960s and 1970s. Chapter 3, "Dirt for Politics' Sake," discusses the trial (1965-69) of Takechi Tetsuji's Black Snow (Kuroi yuki, 1965) as a case that elucidates both the productive aspect of censorship and the relationship between artistic, sexual, and political expression. Cather discusses how the input of Eirin, the Motion Picture Ethics Regulation and Control Committee, which was a self-regulatory censor for the film industry, directly influenced the production of Takechi's Black Snow. The film also "combined many hot-button issues of the day into a single work: corrupted youths, antibase and antiwar politics, sex, violence, prostitution, and the death penalty" (p. 89). When his film was indicted under obscenity laws in 1965, Takechi declared that it "was an attempt to suppress antiwar and anti-U.S. ideology under the guise of public morals" (p. 91).

Chapter 4, "Dirt for Money's Sake," furthers the discussion of the censorship of film, exploring the trial (1972-80) of four films by the Nikkatsu Roman Porn production company. At stake in this trial was the "commercial necessity" of "obscene" films in sustaining "an otherwise moribund domestic film industry," or, at least, that was the argument of the defense  (p. 118). But it seems what was truly on trial was Japan's place and participation in a larger international context of sexual expression and regulation of such behavior in the 1970s.

Part 3, "The Canon under Fire," looks again at literature. Chapter 5, "Pornographic Adaptions of the Classics," recounts the trials of The Safflower (1948-50) and The Record of the Night Battles at Dannoura (1970-76). The issue of readership and reception, which was present in each of the obscenity trials, became especially important in the case of these texts as they were not written in modern Japanese, but rather in classical Japanese, or they contained so many literary metaphors that reading them was an "intellectual endeavor" (p. 163). This was the most interesting chapter (at least for me), but its brevity (ten pages) limits its analytical contribution to the overarching themes of the book.  The reader is left wanting, for example, more discussion of the role of the obscenity trials played in "larger debates about cultural identity, particularly in the 1970s, when the place of classical language and literature education was begin hotly debated" (p. 165).

Chapter 6, "Kafū: Censored, Dead or Alive," discusses the case of a 1924 story by Nagai Kafū, "Yojōhan fusuma no shitabari" (Underneath the Papering of the Four-and-a-Half-Mat Room), which was put on trial under obscenity laws from 1948 to 1950, and again from 1973 to 1980, after its re-publication. As Cather notes, "the trials were as much exercises in literary criticism and canonization as they were attempts to regulate social morality," because "[a]t stake in both trials and in literary criticism is the sanctity of canonized authors like Kafū" (p. 168).  The thread that connects this trial with the other postwar obscenity trials is the discussion among participants in the trials about the relationship between language and national identity. The Kafū "text was inaccessible to average readers," which fueled discussions of the necessity for Japan to preserve its "linguistic heritage" before it lost its "national character" (p. 185).

Part 4, "Trying Text and Image," analyzes "hybrid media" to "facilitate our exploration of the perceived affective powers of text and image" (p. 194). Cather illuminates the concern with domestic readership and reception of artistic media throughout the book, but of all the parts, part 4 best shows the central role that "international perceptions" played in "Japan's censorship proceedings." At stake in these trials was "the representation of Japan, both its culture and its laws, to the international community" (p. 195). Chapter 7, "A Picture's Worth a Thousand Words," explores the trial (1976-82) of a 1976 book version of Ōshima Nagisa's internationally acclaimed film, In the Realm of the Senses, which contained the screenplay and twenty-four photographs of scenes in the film. Chapter 8, "Japan's First Manga Trial," discusses the trial (2002-07) of the 2002 erotic manga, Honey Room (Misshitsu). The judges in the Honey Room trial relied on the precedent set in the Chatterley trial of 1957 to reiterate "the court's right and duty to police sexual morality" because it was obvious that moral boundaries in society "had been obliterated and then some" (p. 271).

And there the book abruptly ends. Perhaps its only real weakness, the book is missing an analytical conclusion or epilogue, a missed opportunity to revisit, discuss, and provide analyses of several of the key themes of the book, including those that went beyond censorship.  For example, a final discussion of the significance of obscenity trials and censorship on postwar Japanese debates over "cultural identity" might have nicely tied together the entire book. Instead, discussions of cultural identity are scattered throughout only some of the chapters, even though the issue seems to have been central in every trial. Furthermore, a conclusion or epilogue could have also provided space for some discussion about the applicability of the issues raised in the book to societies all over the world. The presence of censorship in so-called free societies has hardly been unique to Japan, nor is a government's interest in regulating the bodies of its citizens.

On a related note, the overall organization of the book creates a noticeable imbalance of content and analysis. For example, part 1 (65 pp.) includes an introduction (9 pp.), chapter 1 (47 pp.), and chapter 2 (9 pp.), while part 3 (37 pp.) contains an introduction (2 pp.), chapter 5 (10 pp.), and chapter 6 (25 pp.). Normally, perhaps, chapter length would be unremarkable or of little concern, but the lack of consistent length in Cather's book makes for a bumpy ride. Having said that, the book's topic and Cather's clear and engaging prose pull the reader through any turbulence for an overall pleasant and exciting read.

In addition to her writing, one of the key strengths of the book is Cather's selection of primary sources. Cather combines an impressive reading of trial records with numerous interviews—including with Ide Magoroku, former president of Eirin, and Yamaguchi Takashi, the head defense lawyer in the Honey Room trial—to piece together a narrative that is both intellectually stimulating and addictive. This book is definitely a page-turner. Reading the vast amounts of trial records, especially, could not have been an easy task, but Cather demonstrates her mastery of them, and of her understanding of the artistic media on trial.

Cather buttresses her analyses of each of the artistic media on trial with an impressive bibliography of secondary literature, demonstrating her grasp of the fields of literature, history, film studies, and others. In short, the strengths and contributions of this book far outweigh any of its weaknesses, as Cather has produced a convincing case study for looking to such historical phenomena as "censorship" as useful gateways to a myriad of topics on postwar Japan and beyond. This is a must-assign book for any course on modern Japan, visual arts and society, or modern legal, social, or cultural history.


[1]. "Japanese artist released following arrest over vagina selfie for 3D prints," The Guardian, July 18, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/18/japanese-artist-released-arrest-vagina-selfie... (accessed September 3, 2014).



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Citation: Chad R. Diehl. Review of Cather, Kirsten, Art of Censorship in Postwar Japan. H-Japan, H-Net Reviews. November, 2014. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=40266

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