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Complex tales of censorship in 20th-century Japan

by Mark Schilling

THE ART OF CENSORSHIP IN POSTWAR JAPAN, by Kirsten Cather. University of Hawaii Press, 2012, 342 pp., $45.00 (hardcover)
REDACTED: The Archives of Censorship in Transwar Japan, by Jonathan E. Abel. University of California Press, 2012, 376 pp., $44.95 (hardcover)

Censorship in Japan has long been hot-button topic for everyone from journalists reporting on the latest police porn crackdown to academics delving into wartime controls on artistic expression, but as Kirsten Cather notes in “The Art of Censorship in Postwar Japan” — her fluently written, industriously researched study of seven postwar obscenity trials — the writer’s intent is often to score points off the evil censors, not examine the actualities and implications of each side’s argument.

Cather has thus set out to examine “the often-overlooked connection between the censor and critic, a link that is crucial to understanding the dynamic relationship of censor, artist and text in modern Japan.” In these landmark trials, prosecutors have frequently played the role of, as Cather puts it, “narratologists, reception theorists, critics, editors, or even coauthors (or auteurs),” basing judgments on criteria that shift from case to case, era to era.

Following Japan’s World War II defeat in 1945, the U.S.-led Occupation assumed the mantle of censor, while officially encouraging freedom of expression. But in the first postwar obscenity trial, which started in 1951 over an unauthorized translation of the D.H. Lawrence novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” the Japanese prosecutors were firmly in charge, if at first hesitant about how exactly to proceed since the new constitution, written under Occupation aegis, expressly forbade censorship. They took recourse in Article 175 of the prewar Criminal Code, which defined “obscene objects” as those that “produce the sense of shame or disgust in human beings.”

Naturally, the defense argued that the new constitution took precedence over a Meiji Era (1868-1912) statute, but the trial, as Cather describes in blow-by-blow detail, was hardly as simple as legally determining who was on first. By the time the Supreme Court handed down its guilty verdict in 1957, the Constitution-vs.-Article-175 debate had long been overshadowed by the judges’ concern, backed by the prosecution’s supposedly “rational” evidence (including lie detector tests purporting to measure sexual response), that the book indeed titillated readers in socially dangerous ways. “At the core of the guilty verdict,” Cather notes, “was the fear that readers would uncritically identify with unscrupulous fictional characters.” Lady Chatterley, c’est moi.

This landmark trial set a precedent that strongly influenced subsequent obscenity cases, despite differences in medium and shifts in social mores. Judges were concerned with protecting “innocent” readers or viewers, particularly if they were young and female. Also, realism, be it of imagery or description, continued to be cited as contributing to a work’s perceived obscenity. Fiction, even of Lawrence’s highbrow sort, was considered worse than “scientific” depictions, since a skillful writer could conjure visions in a reader’s head more compellingly actual than any anatomical drawing. Lastly, the triumph of the “native” criminal code over the “foreign” constitution in the trial proved lasting.

Verdicts in succeeding obscenity trials were hardly uniform, however. Tetsuji Takeuchi’s pioneering 1965 pinku (soft-core porn) film “Black Snow” was ruled obscene by the High Court, since the judges regarded its cinematic pornography as more dangerous than the printed variety, while dismissing its “redemptive” ending as too little, too late. On the other hand, a 1972-1980 trial prompted by four soft-core films released by the Nikkatsu studio under its Roman Porno label ended in victory for the defense. This time the prosecution overreached by indicting not only filmmakers, but also the industry self-censorship board Eirin, which had given their work its seal of approval. The High Court judges ended up acquitting everyone, while praising Eirin for maintaining a “minimum degree of sexual morality.”

All this will be fascinating to not only students of censorship, but anyone interested in Japanese society’s evolving attitudes toward freedom of expression — including the freedom to be violently pornographic. Cather has succeeded admirably in presenting the complexity of an ongoing legal debate between censor and censored, as well as the social, political and cultural backdrop of her selected cases.

At the same time, it’s hard to avoid the impression that as both sides wrangle over the months and years in showcase trials, larger cultural and economic forces are simply passing them by.

Nikkatsu had made hundreds of Roman Porno films by the time the legal fate of four of them was finally decided in 1980. Likewise, the obscenity trial of the hardcore comic “Honey Room,” which started in 2002, was the first ever of a manga, while dozens of similar previous comics featuring violent rape had slipped under the censors’ radar. The prosecutors are not so much rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic as arguing even after the ship has settled to the bottom.

Also, Cather alludes to the many censorship activities, such as Eirin’s vetting of hundreds of films annually, that stop short of a court trial. But she does not contextualize or expand much on them, though they have arguably had a larger impact on the cultural products Japanese read and watch daily. It’s somewhat like writing a book about Nepal that focuses almost exclusively on the more notable Everest climbs. Interesting, certainly, comprehensive, no.

The battle between free expression and censorship, from the official to the personal, plays out in all societies, even in ones considered liberal — and especially in ones that are not.

As Jonathan E. Abel shows in “Redacted,” his study of censorship in what he calls “transwar” (pre- to postwar) Japan, Japanese censors of the time possessed formidable powers, including the threat of torture and death, though the dirty work was usually done by their associates in the Kempeitai (secret police).

Nonetheless, Japanese writers and publishers of this era, from hardline communists to seedy writers of racy novels, could be wily and defiant. Forced to redact — cut or obscure — words and even entire passages, they found ways to suggest what could not be clearly stated, until the frustrated censors resorted to outright bans rather than play cat and mouse games with fuseji (X’s, O’s and other marks used to redact text).

Abel, however, rejects the usual evil-censors-versus-heroic-writers story line, persuasively arguing that the reality was more complex and conflicted, with many writers not only passively acquiescent, but actively self-censoring, even after the U.S.-led Occupation supposedly freed them from wartime strictures.

He takes this argument into dense thickets of academic jargon and on shaky flights of theorizing, but his thorough, wide-ranging research has also uncovered long-buried works and long-forgotten authors, while upending received wisdom about censorship in the period.

In place of the cliche of the beady-eyed, text-butchering censor, Abel introduces Takahiro Tachibana, a censor/author who not only published an ironic 1932 memoir about his days wielding a red pencil but later wrote crime fiction using his insider knowledge to evade or deflect censoring by his former colleagues. “As a censor, it was Tachibana’s duty to ban literature that might be deemed to disturb the masses,” Abel writes, but as an author he produced crime fiction that was on a par “with the master he had banned.”

In addition to such individual portraits, Abel offers more broad-ranging data, from obscure lists of banned prewar books (some of which later surfaced in postwar editions) to a chart showing that nearly half the authors serialized in the widely circulated Asahi newspaper from 1932 to 1961 were banned by the Home Ministry while, postwar, 44 percent were banned by the Occupation. These were not wild-eyed radicals, but popular, established writers who found themselves, in Abel’s words, as both “censored and canonized.”

They were the proverbial protruding nails, who were hammered by both domestic and foreign censors.

No wonder that for so many authors of the period self-censorship became second nature, to the point that, during the Occupation, from 1945 to 1952, American censors never resorted to fuseji. (They also did not use or need the harsher methods of their wartime Japanese counterparts.)

One vivid example is Shohei Ooka, whose story “Record of a Prisoner of War” (“Furyoki”) was published in the February 1948 issue of “Bungakukai” magazine and won a major literary prize. Abel’s analysis of Ooka’s manuscript, including his cross-outs and revisions, reveal an author deeply conflicted, particularly when editing a scene in which the Japanese soldier narrator encounters an American soldier — but doesn’t pull the trigger. “The narrator’s anxiety about why he did not kill the American soldier reflects (or extends) Ooka’s anxiety about what was permissible to say in the postwar period,” Abel notes.

Compared with the clarity of such passages, Abel’s attempts at grand theorizing produce the usual academic murk. (One example: “The opening created by this move is evanescent if not balanced by the continual remembering of both the historical process by which the dismembering of texts occurred and the new moment in which the remembering of the forgotten happens.”) Also, he questionably calls for reinstating the “marks of redaction” in texts produced during this period, which might be of interest to scholars of censorship, but would only be a distraction to general readers.

Despite the impenetrable and questionable parts, the book sets a new benchmark for scholarship on its subject, which has long been popular with foreign academics and journalists alike. Abel explodes their errors and misconceptions with uncommon insight and rigor.

Mark Schilling is the senior film reviewer for The Japan Times and the Japan correspondent for Variety.