Lady Chatarei gives Japanese a taste for DH Rorensu

Omae ga hoshiinowa omanko nandana. Jein fujin ni omanko ga hoshii to ittemina. Jon Tomasu to Jein fujin no omanko da! - ... Suruto kanojo no yureru chibusa ga, kataku tsukkitta penisu ni fure, itteki no ekitai ga tsuita.*

Words like these do not normally make it into family newspapers, and until a few weeks ago they could not have been seen anywhere. They come from Chatarei Fujin no Koibito, last and most famous novel of the great modernist Rorensu. Forty-seven years after a scandalous trial, the adventures of Konii, her paralysed husband, Kurifoodo, and the lusty Meraazu with his mighty Jon Tomasu, have once again become widely available to large numbers of Japanese readers.

The book is, of course, Lady Chatterley's Lover, currently enjoying a new lease of life in a long-censored Japanese translation. Since its unexpurgated publication at the end of last year, it has sold more than 200,000 copies and closed the circle on one of the country's oldest and most celebrated literary controversies.

Official Japanese attitudes to obscenity, as many Western visitors notice, are a jumble of messy contradictions. Last year a British diplomat was jailed for three years for bringing home child pornography which he had purchased - quite legally - during a posting in Tokyo. But censors have only just begun to relax the regulations which forced film distributors to obscure all depictions of pubic hair with fuzzy grey blobs.

Violent, sexually explicit comics (like the one about a predatory superhero, with the helpful title Rape Man) are the staple reading of bored commuters. Yet shunga - erotic prints by 18th century wood-block artists - are routinely excised from exhibitions and catalogues of their work. Just as Japan's history has swung between bristly xenophobia and a promiscuous openness to foreign influences, so public morality combines unabashed tolerance with Victorian prudishness.

Lawrence's work reached Japan during one of the country's most relaxed intellectual periods - the 1920s, when young Bohemians listened to jazz and talked European literature in French-style cafes. A young novelist named Sei Ito, a devotee of Proust and James Joyce, translated the unexpurgated Lady Chatterley at a time when, even in English, it was available only in pirated American editions. The rise of militarism in the 1930s and Japan's catastrophic war prevented its publication; with the defeat of the Imperial Army and the new freedoms of American occupation, however, the moment finally seemed right.

But Ito and his publisher, Hisajiro Oyama, found themselves the victim of another historical about-turn. Chatarei Fujin no Koibito was finally published in 1950 as Japan was becoming a mustering-station for troops headed for the Korean War. Fearful of a Communist revival, the Americans revived many of the powers of the pre-war interior ministry. One of its first targets was the pornography which found a ready market among the thousands of GIs stationed in Japan. At the centre of the campaign, 10 years before the famous Lady Chatterley case in Britain, was the trial of Chatarei Fujin.

The hearings lasted through two appeals and eight years. Finally, the Supreme Court convicted Ito and Oyama, and fined them 100,000 yen each, enough to ruin the publisher. "It was a great strain for my father," says his son, Rei Ito, himself a translator and Lawrence scholar. "He was a sensitive man, and throughout the war he had worried constantly that he would be forced to stop writing by the censors. Now he faced the humiliation of being labelled a pornographer. We got anonymous letters saying things like, 'I hope you die - you did this for the money!'" Ito's future success as a writer, however, was sealed, and he even published a fictionalised account of the case, The Trial, to be reissued this spring.

So traumatic was the trial that, until last year, publishers would only put out the Ito version with 80 pages of excisions. New translations were made, but all except one (a little-known version quietly published in the 1970s), contained cuts. Then last year, Rei Ito translated the rude bits and completed his father's work. "Shortly before my father died he said to me that one day the time will come when the complete manuscript can be published," says Rei Ito. "When the publishers asked me, I wondered if the world really needed one more irrelevant book. But I'm getting old too, and the year before last I had cancer. My father had been thinking about Lady Chatterley's Lover just before he died. Now that it is complete I do feel a sense of relief."

Theoretically the Supreme Court's ruling remains in place, but in the age of Rape Man, even the most conservative public prosecutor would be hard pressed to make a case. "When I went into bookshops, and saw the expurgated translation on the shelves, it was like finding a prehistoric Coelacanth still swimming around," says Rei Ito. "Now the Coelacanth has disappeared. I'm rather sorry to see it go."

*[Mellors, addressing his John Thomas] "'C--t, that's what tha'rt after. Tell Lady Jane tha wants c--t. John Thomas, an' th' c--t o' Lady Jane!- ' ... Her hanging, swinging breasts touched the tip of the stirring, erect phallus, and caught the drop of moisture."