You’ve probably heard of Japanese artist known as Rokudenashiko (“good for nothing girl”), who was arrested in 2014 for sending the 3-D data of her genitals to patrons of her successful crowdfunding campaign to create a vagina-shaped kayak.

And although the Japanese-language press echoed the police’s description of her as a “so-called” artist and orchestrated a public shaming, your reaction was likely to be one of disbelief. That a woman could be arrested in this day and age for such an act — and in a country where sexually explicit manga and imitation-vagina sex toys are sold at convenience stores — seemed absurd. Surely the police had more “obscene” things to go after?

What is Obscenity?, by Rokudenashiko, Translation by Anne Ishii.
168 pages
Koyama Press, Nonfiction.

It seemed not. The police were quite serious. They detained Megumi Igarashi, who made work under the pseudonym Rokudenashiko, for a week before she was freed by a legal appeal. She was then arrested again in December of the same year, as was the female owner of a sex shop where Rokudenashiko had displayed her work. She was later indicted and faced trial in 2015, in which prosecutors sought a fine of ¥800,000. Their verdict is due on May 9, just before she is set to leave for a North American tour for her new book. Her publishers fear she may miss the trip.

The book — titled “What is Obscenity?” — is a manga that illustrates Rokudenashiko’s battles with Japan’s legal and penal system, as well as her personal and artistic history. The central theme is how male disgust and censorship of her work have only galvanized her to fight harder for the female sex organ’s right to be treated with respect rather than fear or revulsion.

The book is an amusing, infuriating and poignant read: from her treatment at the hands of petty police and prison officers, to the way family and friends shunned her even before her arrest, and her public shaming after it. Rokudenashiko’s struggles are portrayed with humor, but also anger. Her public persona and the cutesy aesthetic of her “vagina art” — including frilly pink figurines, bejeweled iPhone cases, and dioramas featuring miniature figures frolicking among vaginal landscapes — belie a difficult past that once drove her to contemplate suicide. They also conceal her real self: an intelligent, gutsy woman determined not to let the patriarchy win.

The English translation of her book is smart, sassy and up-to-date; in trans-aware 2016, the book is careful to note that only “cis females” are born with vaginas — “cisgender” is a relatively new term used to describe people who are not transgender. Cultural references are also explained for those unfamiliar with Japanese culture, from Mami, the sweet Morinaga-brand milk drink that Rokudenashiko is served with her prison meals, to the scandal of a Tokyo assemblywoman subjected to sexist jeers from her male counterparts in 2014.

The manga also details various incompetencies and slip-ups by the authorities. Rokudenashiko was informed neither of her right to remain silent nor her right to a government-funded lawyer. And neither the police nor judges knew what crowdfunding was, despite her arrest being predicated upon it. The book illustrates the dismal conditions and harsh, arbitrary rules in Japanese prisons that are designed to drain inmates’ morale.

Rokudenashiko, however, refused to be broken down. She was historically extraordinary for refusing to make a plea bargain or allowing the police to draw out an admission of guilt in a country with a 99 percent conviction rate and a reputation for forced confessions. In fact, in her account she wore down investigators by having them repeat an extremely vulgar term that references the female sex organ, which Rokudenashiko says they found so embarrassing that they seemed to become increasingly reluctant to question her.

This example illustrates how much shame is elicited by the word, which is mainly used in erotic or pejorative contexts. Rokudenashiko points out Japan’s hypocrisy when it comes to male and female genitalia. While representations of penises are relatively common in Japan — with enormous pink ones used in celebrations at an annual festival in Kawasaki — female genitalia is considered too rude to even mention and is usually referred to with the word “asoko” (“down there”), even by medical professionals.

But the police’s attitude to male and female genitalia is actually quite consistent in terms of censorship. In Japanese pornography all genitals must be pixelated. And not long after arresting Rokudenashiko, the police also ordered the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art to remove displayed photographs of nude male bodies.

Why do the police consider genitals obscene? In her book, Rokudenashiko quotes Article 175 of the Japanese Penal Code that says obscenity is “anything eliciting sexual desire, excitement or arousal in vain, or that violates a reasonable person’s sense of propriety or principles of righteous and moral sexuality.” However, the actual definition of what is “obscene” is left up to interpretation.

Takeshi Sumi, Rokudenashiko’s court-appointed lawyer, says it is absurd that her artworks and the vector file of her scanned vagina could be construed as titillating. Another lawyer on her legal team, Takashi Yamaguchi, said at a talk at Tokyo’s Temple University in 2014 that police are fighting to keep the obscenity law in practice rather than simply on paper, with genitals as the final frontier. Erotic texts, general nudity and pubic hair are no longer considered obscene. Yamaguchi believes the police fear exposed genitals becoming socially acceptable because it would be seen as a loss of power.

Whatever the reasoning, Megumi Igarashi’s story is enough to make you scream out from the injustice. The fact that she was put on trial for transgressing the same ridiculous standard she sought to challenge is infuriating, but we can only hope that her struggle isn’t all in vain. At the very least, let’s hope she will change the discourse in Japan on sexual inequality — and enable all women to embrace their “shameful,” but sacred, body part.

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