It was the vagina that launched a thousand headlines, millions of social-media posts, a kayak — and a criminal case.
On July 12, 2014, Megumi Igarashi, a Japanese artist also known as Rokudenashiko (“Good-for-nothing Girl”), was arrested in Tokyo under Japan’s obscenity laws for producing, displaying and distributing images of her vagina in the form of 3-D data and a one-man kayak. In May, she was ordered to pay a fine of ¥400,000 for distributing the data alone, based on the possibility that it could be used to produce a 3-D-printed anatomically accurate model of Igarashi’s sexual organs.
In the Anglosphere media coverage of Igarashi’s case, a commonly expressed view has been that Japanese society suppresses artistic expression related to the vagina while celebrating all that is penile, a cultural practice reinforced by police action. This view is untenable: By incorrectly framing the Igarashi case as a misogyny issue, much of the Western media has missed a chance to advance a substantive debate on censorship in Japan and what constitutes obscenity.
Police and court actions resulting in restraints on artistic freedom do not constitute a dichotomy of penises vs. vaginas. Rather, this is essentially a gender-neutral issue affecting male and female artists alike.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not defending Igarashi’s arrest, nor am I denying that there has been valid reporting on the issue. But there has also been poorly reasoned fluff characterized by two common arguments that form the twin pillars of the phallo-centrist/anti-vagina hypothesis:
1) Japan has an annual “penis festival” featuring large phalli paraded through the streets. There is no comparable “vagina festival.” Therefore, in Japan, the penis is celebrated, the vagina suppressed.
The essence of this view is distilled in the video “What’s Japan’s Problem with Vaginas?” posted on The Daily Beast’s website on Jan. 17, 2015. Featuring “penis festival” footage, it condemns Igarashi’s arrest as incontrovertible evidence of an anti-vaginal society, and expresses the hope that someday Japan will have “something to symbolize that real change has come — a vagina festival. And the very thought of that is obscene — at least in Japan.”
There’s just one problem: Japan does have a “vagina festival.”
Every March, the Himenomiya Honen Matsuri (Princess’ Shrine Fertility Festival) is held at Oagata Shrine in Inuyama, Aichi Prefecture. It features — you guessed it — a large vagina mock-up paraded through the streets. There are also Shinto shrines in Japan that feature stone images of both vulvas and phalli. Speaking of which, some interesting inter-shrine diplomacy occasionally occurs during the Himenomiya festival: Tagata Shrine in nearby Komaki holds a “penis festival” called the Honensai (Harvest Festival). During years when both festivals are held the same day, the Honensai phallus is taken for a friendly visit to its female counterpart at Oagata Shrine, where the two are briefly united. (How romantic.)
In those news pieces decrying the Igarashi case as an example of ubiquitous anti-vaginal misogyny, the existence of the Himenomiya and other similar regional festivals — and of vaginal Shinto imagery in general — are implicitly denied. Sometimes this is even done explicitly, such as in a May 10 article produced by ABC News in Australia: “Each year, there is a festival of the penis in Kawasaki just outside Tokyo,” the article rightly says. “There is no similar festival celebrating female genitalia,” it then wrongly reports.
On the July 24, 2014, edition of the popular U.S. TV program “The Daily Show,” host Jon Stewart said: “Japan, you arrested a woman for 3-D-printing her vagina, but you gave dicks their own holiday. What do you have against vaginas?” If Stewart had done a 10-second Google search, he would have realized that vaginas also “have their own holiday.” Instead, he invokes cherry-picked phalli.
On to argument No. 2:
2) Igarashi was targeted by police because of societal suppression of female sexual expression, or even the mere mention of the word “vagina.”
Igarashi is commonly quoted as arguing that in Japan the vagina “has been thought to be obscene because it’s overly hidden although it is just part of a woman’s body.” A related assertion is that the vulgar Japanese slang for vagina — let’s call it the M-word — is bleeped out on TV broadcasts, while the penile equivalent is bandied about freely. Ergo, this argument goes, the vagina is seen as an obscene thing.
In fact, the male term is bleeped out as well — usually. But this is no place to get into the minutiae of TV station policies, and I won’t dispute that the male slang word is censored less often. But even assuming it’s really that important which gender’s privates are getting bleeped out more, does it follow that the vagina is somehow reviled?
I would agree that there is markedly more hesitance to use the female than male genital slang term, but it’s a huge stretch to conclude that this is because of revulsion toward the vagina itself. For example, if a man declines to say the M-word in conversation with a woman, arguably it is because he thinks she would be offended and angry, not because he perceives that part of a woman’s body to be obscene. Is it not possible that some people are simply uncomfortable with slang terms for genitalia, and that social conventions and rules are set accordingly? And does all this really affect how men versus women are treated by the police in obscenity cases?
If the penis is unreasonably “celebrated” in Japan, presumably a man who produced and distributed penile images would get lenient treatment. Not so. In 2013, photographer Leslie Kee was arrested in Tokyo for producing and selling a photo book featuring fully nude men. He was found guilty and fined ¥1 million. Less-serious cases include an effort to cover up the penis on a replica of Michelangelo’s “David” in Shimane Prefecture in February 2013 and police pressure to cover the male genitals in photos displayed at the Aichi Prefectural Museum in August 2014. (Those inclined to cherry-pick might declare it sexist that while Aichi has an annual “vagina festival,” male nudes must be covered.)
If there’s unrelenting penis worship going on here, it’s hard to pin down.
But in a more general sense, are expressions of female sexuality suppressed in Japan? In this regard, there is in the press an oft-repeated quote by Japanese feminist Minori Kitahara: “Japan is still a society where those who try to express women’s sexuality are suppressed, while men’s sexuality is overly tolerated.”
In fact, Japan has plenty of sex-related media created by and for women: “ladies comics,” which include titles containing hard-core sex scenes; “boy’s love” manga featuring explicit sex between young men; Japanese translations of Harlequin Romance novels; women’s magazines with articles detailing ways to make sex more enjoyable. Contrary to Kitahara’s claim, it would seem there is plenty of unsuppressed expression of female sexuality going on.
How does the obscenity law fit into all this? Let’s have a look at the relevant portion of Japan’s Penal Code:
(Distribution of Obscene Objects)
Article 175: A person who distributes, sells or displays in public an obscene document, drawing or other objects shall be punished by imprisonment with work for not more than two years, a fine of not more than ¥2.5 million or a petty fine. The same shall apply to a person who possesses the same for the purpose of sale.
Vague, isn’t it? No definition of “obscene.” So let’s consider how it is usually interpreted.
Anything in Japan deemed legally obscene has commonly meant realistic images of genitalia, either male or female. If you produce a sexually explicit image for display or distribution, anything is permitted as long as the genitalia are obscured. In this view, genitals = obscenity.
It was on the basis of this narrow definition that both Kee and Igarashi were arrested. Courts may declare exposed genitalia to be permissible if they are deemed integral to a work of art; this was the defense used in both the Kee and Igarashi cases. This probably explains why the authorities don’t touch the fertility festivals: The penile and vaginal images are essentially a form of votive art that historically predates the modern Penal Code. So any inconsistency in applying the obscenity law is not a “penis vs. vagina” issue.
Whatever misogyny issues there are in Japan, this isn’t one of them. It’s a gender-neutral problem centered on the legal definition of obscenity. Considering the law’s interpretation, a vigorous debate in Japan on what constitutes obscenity versus art is long overdue.
The English-language media can contribute greatly to such a debate, with a cultural background characterized by contention over creators such as Anais Nin, D.H. Lawrence and Robert Mapplethorpe. But this requires basic fact-checking and critical thinking, the very antithesis of shoehorning important issues into a predetermined paradigm. In the age of free and frenzied mass communication, the reputation of large, professional media outlets depends on preserving these qualities and processes. Without them, they have no more legitimacy than the average blogger.
Arthur O’Keefe is a lecturer in English with the Department of International Studies, Showa Women’s University, in Tokyo. Many thanks to Florian Seidel of Abandoned Kansai and John Dougill of Green Shinto for use of the photos. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion about issues related to life in Japan. Your comments and story ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org