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Billboard for ViiV Healthcare in Shinjuku Ni-chome (pre-censorship)
Artwork by Poko Murata (村田ポコ)

In December 2013, gay artist Poko Murata was hired to make artwork for a billboard promoting HIV awareness in Tokyo’s gay neighborhood, Shinjuku Ni-chome (新宿二丁目). Now, the billboard has been censored by decree of the Shinjuku ward office, which asserted that Murata’s artwork runs contrary to “public order and morality” (公序良俗). Murata made a revised version of the image, seen above, which was also rejected by the government office because it contained “visible underwear.” Poko Murata rightly calls out the decision as gay discrimination on his blog, and one only needs to glimpse the motorized sex robot advertisements that float around Shinjuku to sense a double standard at play. 

It was an event of no minor significance that Murata’s artwork found its way onto a billboard to begin with. Male-male eroticism once played a significant role in Japanese culture— in the Edo period, a booming print industry allowed for erotic “shunga” woodblock prints, as well as an entire genre of literature about male-male sexuality, to flourish. In the wake of the Meiji Restoration, and throughout most of the 20th century, that history was swept under the rug of “old Japan” in the name of rapid Westernization. Gay artists sought refuge in the small-circulation “perverse magazines” of the post-war era, and their pieces were displayed not publically, in museums, but on the walls of gay establishments in neighborhoods like Shinjuku Ni-chome. 

Gay artwork began edging out of the shadows in the the 1970s, when Barazoku (薔薇族) magazine became the first mass market gay publication in Japan. The early days of Barazoku weren’t easy— frequent police interference resulted in writers, artists and the magazine’s publisher being charged with crimes of obscenity by the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department’s “public morals” office. Never defined explicitly by Japanese law, “obscenity” in practice often comes down to the visibility of genitals, which explains the various self-censoring techniques employed by the publishers of gay manga. Those thin black lines are there for a reason, namely police intimidation. 

Since the ‘90s, Japanese gay artwork has started to surpass the boundaries of the gay press. The BDSM manga of Gengoroh Tagame (田亀源五郎) and the comic essays of Kumada Poohsuke (熊田プウ助), among others, have reached a broader audience within mainstream Japanese culture. This doesn’t mean the situation is any less dire for artists who dare to show just a little too much male skin. In April 2013, fashion photographer Leslie Kee was targeted in a sweeping censorship dragnet by the Tokyo Metropolitan Police, after Kee published a series of nude photos of late porn star Koh Masaki. The police arrested Kee, his gallerist, his publisher, and even the 61-year-old manager of Lumiere (ルミエール), the famous gay bookstore in Shinjuku Ni-chome. 

Amidst this climate of censorship, Poko Murata’s artwork being featured on a billboard seems like a truly extraordinary thing. In a post about the billboard on his blog, artist Yuji Kato (加藤悠二) characterizes Murata’s artwork as humorous, yet refined— charming, with a little sex appeal. Murata’s pieces are generally upbeat, flirty, and heartwarming. He’s contributed to sexual health awareness campaigns before, including two campaigns for Quality of Gay Life (QOGL), put on by the Japanese non-profit Tokyo Gay Friends for AIDS. Kato calls Murata’s work for HIV awareness part of “a growing desire,” on the part of gay artists, “to contribute in their own way to the gay community.” You can see evidence of this encouraging trend in the efforts of artists like Gengoroh Tagame, Inu Yoshi and Jiraiya, who have all contributed artwork to causes promoting sexual health. 

While the billboard in Shinjuku Ni-chome is ostensibly a public service announcement about HIV awareness, it’s really an ad for ViiV, “a pharmaceutical manufacturer that specializes in the development and sale of HIV treatments,” owned by GlaxoSmithKline. Late last year, ViiV announced Poko Murata as the winner of a contest to illustrate the billboard for the first six months of 2014, with an artist yet to be chosen to decorate the ad space in the second half of 2014. 

Murata’s resulting image is notable for including a variety of gay types: a gachimuchi (ガチムチ) central figure, a middle-aged “ossan” (おっさん), a chubbier “debu” (デブ) figure, even a couple of bishonen boys. Their arrangement is casual yet provocative. It seems to imply, without judgement, that these people could have sex in any number of non-heteronormative configurations. It’s an ad about HIV that doesn’t stigmatize sexuality or shame the gay community. Almost immediately after the billboard went up, the Shinjuku Ward Office targeted the advertisement, alleging complaints from local residents about the “unpleasant” artwork.

Poko Murata was not included in discussions between the ad agency and the government office. He’s told they were given an ultimatum by the Shinjuku officials: “accept the guidance of public office in order to continue the project beyond two terms.” After his revised version of the ad was once again rejected, the agency further covered up the central figure in Murata’s drawing. “The final adjustments were not by my hand,” he writes.

Murata sees this interference with his artwork as indicative of systemic prejudice and discrimination against gays, and reflective of the larger problem of excessive regulation in Japan today (see also: the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund’s excellent pieces about the increased censorship crackdown in the lead-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics). The incident has soured what should have been a positive experience, leaving Murata disappointed, full of anger and chagrin. He predicts the second term of ViiV’s billboard project will be met with much more scrutiny and restraint by the ad agency. 

Ultimately, the incident amounts to little more than a multinational pharmaceutical company bowing to the pressure of the Japanese government’s homophobic politics, alienating the drug company’s target audience along the way. Poko Murata was given an opportunity to spotlight gay artwork in a public space, and it was immediately covered up by the very officials who are supposed to be representing the gayest ward in Tokyo. 

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