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When police arrested Japanese artist Rokudenashiko last month for distributing 3-D printer plans for models of her vagina, the world was at once baffled and outraged. But despite all the fuss that was raised over the artist’s arrest, it looks like the Japanese police are at it again, this time targeting the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art for an exhibition featuring nude photography by the Japanese photographer Ryudai Takano.

Though no one has been arrested, the museum made headlines after it partially covered some of Ryudai’s photographs with cloth after local police deemed the images “obscene.” However, many in Japan are questioning the legitimacy of the cops’ actions.

The exhibit, called “Photography Will Be,” features photos from nine different photographers and is set to run until September 28. According to the museum’s website, the exhibit is intended to “[examine] our relationship to the photograph and the image.” To that end, Ryudai Takano, who is known for his nude photography, contributed nearly 50 pieces, 12 of which feature male genitalia.

▼From Takano’s 2006 series “How To Ride A Man”

takanoTwitter (@webdice)

Realizing that not all patrons would be happy about being confronted with uncensored frank ‘n’ beans, the museum consulted with an attorney and decided to put a curtain up separating the photos from the others on display and included a warning explaining that the images may be unpalatable for some. A guard was even posted nearby to watch the entrance of the cordoned-off area. Nevertheless, the police showed up on August 12, almost two weeks after the exhibit opened, demanding that the 12 “obscene” photos be removed following an anonymous complaint about the exhibition.

However, rather than simply getting rid the offending photographs, the museum worked out a sort of deal with the police. Cloth was put up over the photos themselves so as to censor the images and prevent anyone from seeing anything that might be glimpsed in an everyday locker room.

Though the photographs remain, many are still upset by the police’s apparent violation of free speech–including Shuji Takahashi, one of the museum’s curators. Takahashi explained that he did not want to engage in self-censorship, but had little choice since he would otherwise face arrest. For his part, Takano explained that there were basically three ways they could deal with the situation: 1) Continue with the exhibit unchanged, 2) Replace the photos in question with “safe” photos, or 3) Cover up the offending aspects of the photos.

▼A tweet showing one of the cloth-covered photos and a link to a change.org
petition calling on the police to reverse their decision.

https://twitter.com/eguillaud/status/502808657751719936/

Since letting the museum staff be arrested was out of the question for Takano, he immediately rejected the first option. He also felt that the second option was equally unacceptable as it would imply that they agreed with the police. The third option, though not ideal, would allow Takano to communicate his protest to patrons without anyone ending up in handcuffs.

By partially covering the photos, Takano is signalling to patrons that the police have become involved–though we imagine that most museum-goers have heard about the incident already. However, Takano’s choice to cover up the “obscene” portions of the photos is not without precedent–in an email sent to and posted by webDICE, the photographer references Seiki Kuroda, a Meiji- and Showa-era painter. Kuroda painted in the Western style and spent many years abroad studying a style that was, at the time, quite foreign to Japan. Upon his return from France, the painter opened an exhibit, including a technically excellent female nude which drew outrage. Takano was apparently inspired by Kuroda’s choice to add a “loincloth” to the painting as a way to deal with critics.

While many were displeased with the police deeming works of art in a museum “obscene,” there is another aspect to the case that has people’s ire up: A lack of transparency. In addition to the obscenity charges being a violation of free speech and free expression rights, the anonymous reporting and sudden appearance of the police demanding the photos be removed is troubling for many, including Takahashi. He explained that the anonymous complaint was frustrating–if the patron had reported it to the museum staff, they would have been able to explain the work to the patron.

But even more troubling for Tohoku University professor Tarou Igarashi is how easy it is for anonymous complaints to cause trouble. “If you wanted to make accusations against a work of art, there are a number of easy ways to do so,” he told Yahoo! Japan News.

Screen Shot 2014-08-25 at 1.53.35 PM

Change.Org petition created by fellow photographer Takashi Arai has received over 3,100 signatures since it appeared online. The petition maintains that the police are legally unable to demand the photos be taken down, and dismisses the idea that any of the photos are obscene. You can read the full statement in English or Japanese at the link above.

Perhaps the crux of the problem though is the ambiguity of what, exactly, obscenity is. As outspoken American comedian Bill Hicks once famously said, “Supreme Court says pornography is anything without artistic merit that causes sexual thoughts; that’s their definition, essentially. No artistic merit, causes sexual thoughts. Hmm…Sounds like…every commercial on television, doesn’t it?”

So, what do you think, dear readers? Is the appearance of male genitalia in a work of art “obscene” or do the Japanese police need to take a few art lessons?

Sources: Yahoo! Japan News, webDICE (1, 2), Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, Change.org, IMA Online, Yumiko Chiba Associates
Images: Twitter (@asaitakashi)Twitter (@webdice) Change.Org