The latest novel by respected Japanese author Haruki Murakami was classified as “indecent” by the Obscene Articles Tribunal earlier this month, sparking a public backlash and raising doubts about the tribunal’s internal composition.

Killing Commendatore, published in 2017, was put into the second tier of a three-tier classification system, meaning it cannot be sold to underage persons, and must be kept in a wrapper that bears a legal warning. The decision was announced in a routine newspaper notice which stated that the tribunal received a request to classify the book on July 9 and made its determination a day later.

Killing Commendatore Haruki Murakami
Killing Commendatore Volumes 1 and 2. Photo: publisher.

Murakami is considered to be a leading figure of contemporary Japanese fiction, and a perennial favourite to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Killing Commendatore follows an artist trying to understand his wife’s sudden request for a divorce, and is described by its publisher as being about “moving between reality and unreality, finding oneself in thoughts and metaphors.”

Twenty-one groups issued a joint petition on Saturday urging the tribunal to rescind its decision. By Monday, it had gathered around 1,800 online signatures.

“Tribunal decisions must be in line with common sense, and the common sense of the publishing industry states that Murakami’s works are not indecent,” the statement read. “This precedent makes Hong Kong the most conservative area in the Sinosphere, and will bring shame to the people of Hong Kong.”

Haruki Murakami.
Haruki Murakami. File Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The statement also said the reason for the classification was unclear, and that descriptions of sexual activity were characteristic of Murakami’s style.

Adjudicator selection ‘problematic’

Pro-democracy lawmaker Roy Kwong, who began his career as a fiction writer, said that the classification was “ridiculous” and “a joke.”

Kwong added that the tribunal’s decision lacked credibility because it was made behind closed doors, and that the system needed to be reviewed and updated.

Ben Lam Siu-pan, who has worked as an adjudicator for the tribunal since 2014, said on Monday that there are 505 adjudicators in total and they were selected from volunteers. Each item would be considered by two or more adjudicators, led by a magistrate. The tribunal’s decision can be appealed within five days after being made.

Roy Kwong Chun-yu
Roy Kwong Chun-yu. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

“When I first heard the news, I thought it was a big joke but I was not really surprised,” Lam said, saying that the current selection process skews the balance towards moralists, who are more likely to volunteer.

Lam proposed that the tribunal should be formed in the same way as a jury, so that it is more representative of public opinion.

The Obscene Articles Tribunal was widely mocked for its decision in 1995 to classify a picture of Michelangelo’s David as “indecent.” The notice that classified Killing Commendatore as “indecent” listed the novel alongside local adult magazine Lung Fu Pao.

Holmes Chan is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. He covers local news with a focus on law, politics, and social movements. He studied law and literature at the University of Hong Kong.