Supreme Court sides with revisionist authors over library’s trashing of texts

The Supreme Court on Thursday overruled a lower court decision that rejected a damages claim filed by the authors of a revisionist history textbook against a municipal library that had discarded a large number of other books they wrote.

The top court sent the case back to the Tokyo High Court so it can review its earlier decision on the suit, which was filed by the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, a nationalist group of academics, and the seven authors. The authors are expected to win.

They plaintiffs sought 24 million yen in damages for mental anguish caused by the library’s disposal of the books in August 2001. The library is based in Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture.

The Supreme Court’s No. 1 Petty Bench said: “A public library is a facility whose role is to convey the thoughts and opinions of authors, and discarding (books) at their own discretion violates the authors’ interests.”

Presiding Justice Kazuko Yokoo said that staff at public libraries are obliged to handle books and other materials fairly, without being biased by personal tastes or dogmatic judgment.

At the time the books in question were thrown away, there was a heated public debate about whether the history textbook — edited by the society and published by Fusosha Publishing Inc. — should be adopted for use in junior high schools. Critics argue the textbook glosses over Japan’s wartime atrocities.

“The fact that the librarian decided to dispose of the books out of resentment toward the society and its supporters is a violation of work obligations and an illegal act” that violates the authors’ interests, Justice Yokoo added.

Two lower court rulings recognized that the librarian who discarded the books acted illegally toward the city, but rejected the compensation claims, saying the city has discretion over the management of the library’s books and the city and library staff are “not obliged to buy the group’s books or make citizens read them.”

The top court opened its hearing on the case last month after the authors appealed, arguing that the rulings could lead to a massive disposal of books and that the authors should have been awarded damages.

A librarian at Funabashi Municipal Nishi Library got rid of 107 copies of books penned by the seven writers in August 2001, although these books were not on the facility’s disposal list.

In May the following year, the municipal board of education punished five people, including the librarian, with pay cuts or warnings. Most of the lost titles were repurchased and restocked in the library’s collection.

However, the group sued in August that year, arguing the librarian’s acts were tantamount to oppression of thought, and that their constitutional freedom of expression had been violated.

The city, for its part, maintained that freedom of expression was ensured through the free distribution of their writings, and that imposing rules on how to handle the books it purchases violates the freedoms of the buyer of the materials.

Masakatsu Mitoma, a former professor at Shukugawa Gakuin College who specialized in library science, said Thursday’s ruling went further than the two lower court rulings in clarifying the mission of a public library.

However, at the same time, Mitoma voiced concern about the fact that the ruling might be interpreted in a way that gives excessive protection to authors, and restrict the judgment of libraries regarding their books.