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Out of Japan: On a matter of pubic concern

TOKYO - When they were banned in Japan, everyone wanted to see them. Now that the ban has effectively been lifted, they are already becoming passe. In the space of just over two years, heya nudo - nude pictures showing pubic hair - have traversed the horizons of morality and marketability, from the forbidden fruit that was the hottest publishing material in 1991, to today's stale 'body shots' that resort to ever-more outlandish gimmicks to earn space on bookshop shelves.

The latest attempt to tickle the public's fancy is by a fashion photographer, Akira Gomi, who published Yellows Privacy '94 last week. It contains nude shots of 25 young women, accompanied by photographs of the interiors of their flats, their wardrobes, even the contents of their refrigerators and bathroom cabinets. 'I wanted to record their privacy,' Mr Gomi told a magazine.

The ground-breaking 'hair nude' photo-book, which portrayed an 18-year-old Japanese-Dutch actress, came out in 1991. It sold out within days and was followed quickly by one featuring another young actress. The police, who are responsible for controlling pornography, did not attempt to stop the circulation of either book, so the nation's publishers took the cue, and suddenly pubic hair was springing up everywhere.

But the industry quickly discovered how fickle salacious public interest can be. Last year Linda Yamamoto, a 42 year-old singer, thought she would make some extra cash by posing unadorned for a photo book. Soon after it appeared, a radio show in Osaka received complaints from listeners - not about the nudity per se, but about its lack of appeal. The ageing starlet was outraged, and is suing the radio station for 100m yen (pounds 670,000) for defamation, and for damaging the sales of her book.

For decades Japan's obscenity laws contained bizarre contradictions. No publication could show pubic hair or genitals. But rape, under-age sex, graphic depictions of blood and guts: all were tolerated. A minor industry was spawned by the pubic-hair ban: importers of foreign pornographic magazines had to employ teams of people to use wire brushes to scrub out any strand of the forbidden fleece from each page of each magazine.

The police still deny that they have given up the ban on showing pubic hair. According to a spokesman for the National Police Agency, there is still a line of obscenity which they will not allow publishers to cross, although he was vague on where this line is drawn. 'It depends on how the hair nude is depicted, and whether it is artistic or not,' he said.

In theory, the standard for judging whether published material is obscene is a 1957 decision by the Supreme Court on D H Lawrence's novel, Lady Chatterley's Lover. The court ruled that the novel offended the Criminal Code by purposefully stimulating sexual desire, inhibiting the normal sense of sexual shame, and being contrary to a healthy moral sense. The work is still subject to censorship.

But in the wider world of pornography, the idea of a game warden coyly entwining forget-me-nots in the maidenhair of his lover has been far outstripped by snakes, wigs and other stage props.