Time to review the Obscene Articles Tribunal

Branding Haruki Murakami’s latest work as ‘indecent’ makes Hong Kong an international laughing stock

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 July, 2018, 7:31pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 July, 2018, 10:45pm

The ruling by the Obscene Articles Tribunal to censor the latest work of renowned Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami has defied common sense, to say the least. It was even more ridiculous that the decision coincided with the annual Hong Kong Book Fair, prompting sellers to take the novel off the shelves. The saga has not just reflected badly on the city’s image; it has also reopened the chapter on the assessment mechanism for indecent and obscene articles that has once again made us an international laughing stock.

Little is known about how the novel, Kishidancho Goroshi, or Killing Commendatore in English, landed in the hands of the Obscene Articles Tribunal. Released in the city late last year, the book, in two volumes, tells the story of a 36-year-old portrait painter who lives on a mountain after his wife seeks a divorce, and depicts the incidents happening around him. The tribunal apparently stepped in after receiving a complaint earlier this month and rated the work as indecent. Sellers at the book fair were caught by surprise when the ruling, placed in a notice in a local newspaper, was eventually picked up by the media last week. The book has to be sealed in wrappers with warnings and cannot be sold to those aged under 18. Public libraries followed suit, and moved their copies to the restricted section.

How Killing Commendatore got its ‘indecent’ rating in Hong Kong

Occasional explicit sex scenes are typical of Murakami’s writing. But it is not the reason why his works have been translated into dozens of languages and won him numerous prestigious awards in the literary world for so many years. That is not to say that the works of accomplished writers must never be put to the indecency test. But we are not aware that Murakami’s books have ever been censored anywhere. The city’s move to restrict his latest work, which can be freely read on the mainland and in Taiwan, undermines the perception of our public morals and judgment.

To be fair, the tribunal has made countless rulings without backlash over the years. But this is probably due to the straightforward nature of the articles under scrutiny. There were times when the rulings were absurd. In another injudicious decision in 1995, the body came under fire for putting one of the world’s greatest works of art into the indecent category, declaring a picture of Michaelangelo’s sculpture David unfit for publication. Regrettably, calls for an overhaul of the body’s operation and the assessment criteria were only met with half-hearted reforms.

We trust the tribunal has felt the heat amid a petition to rescind the latest ruling. The controversy has also renewed the momentum for a review of the entire mechanism. From the way the adjudicators are drawn to the standards applied, there is much room for improvement.