What constitutes obscenity in Japan? The term, both legally and morally, has different meanings in Japanese, just as it does in English. In a strictly legal sense, the Japanese word for obscenity, waisetsu, refers to something that maliciously stimulates sexual desire in an inappropriate and immoral manner.

There are plenty of widely available publications nationwide that would appear to fall within this definition: manga that depicts incest, gang rape and sexual abuse of children, as well as magazines and newspapers that publish illustrated stories or photo shoots on similar themes.

Some people might even be offended by the fact that sexual services not only appear to be legal, but they are advertised. You don’t have to look too hard to find clasifieds advertising rates for fellatio or anal sex — both of which are legal — and yet actual intercourse is only legal in some situations. Heavens, child pornography is still technically legal, or at least until the grace period for possessing such material runs out in the middle of next year.

Which, again, begs the question: What constitutes obscenity? As far as the Metropolitan Police Department appears to be concerned, a plaster cast of a woman’s vagina is most certainly obscene.

On Wednesday, police arrested artist Megumi Igarashi, who calls herself Rokudenashi-ko (“good-for-nothing girl”) on suspicion of sending a link “that shows her plan to create a boat using three-dimensional obscene data to a large number of people,” a police spokeswoman said.

Sex toy shop manager Minori Watanabe, 44, was also arrested for “displaying obscene goods in her shop window in collusion with Igarashi” from around October 2013 until July, police said.

It was the second arrest for Igarashi who was taken into police custody in July for distributing data that would allow people to make a 3-D replica of her vagina.

The arrest in July garnered international attention, with rights groups accusing police of censorship and discrimination.

So why did police officers arrest Igarashi again last week? In an article titled “Suppression of free speech: arrested author vanguard of Abe criticism” on Dec. 4, the Nikkan Gendai went as far to suggest the target this time was Watanabe, an author who works under the name Minori Kitahara. Kitahara has also been an acerbic critic of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The newspaper implies that the arrest may be a warning to other critics who have questioned the timing of the upcoming elections. The implication is perhaps not as whacky as it sounds.

In an interview with the Asahi Shimbun in June, Kitahara dumped some fairly hefty criticism on Abe and his cronies.

“I want to say to Abe, ‘Eat a strawberry in one bite (without a fork). Conduct politics like an adult,'” Kitahara said.

“Since Abe came to power, the state secrets law has been passed and the Diet has reinterpreted (the principle of) collective self-defense,” she said. “It’s not a coincidence. We live in a world where hate speech flourishes and we’re closer to going to other countries to kill people. I feel as if we are no longer allowed to criticize the state. It’s scary.”

Japan’s security forces have arrested opposition leaders and suppressed dissent before. On April 22, 2002, Tamaki Mitsui, former head of the public security department at the Osaka High Court Prosecutor’s Office, was arrested on corruption charges — the same day he was going to appear on television and expose prosecutors for using investigative funds for wining and dining.

It’s not a secret that Abe hates criticism just as much as he hates the Asahi, the country’s liberal paper. When the Asahi admitted errors in past reports on “comfort women,” he publicly accused them of “shaming Japan.”

Is it possible that someone in the Abe administration put pressure on the Metropolitan Police Department to silence Watanabe? Theoretically, yes. Abe himself gets to appoint the head of the Public Safety Commission that oversees the National Police Agency. Moreover, the police are almost obligated to make an arrest if a crime has been committed, however minor.

I personally don’t believe Abe would ever put pressure on the police department himself, but his loyal posse? Maybe.

With the state secrets law coming into effect on Dec. 10, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know. The new law stipulates that asking questions about a state secret — whether or not you even know it’s a secret — is a felony that may earn violators up to five years in jail for “instigating” a leak.

This brings us back full circle to the original question: What constitutes obscenity?

Some would argue that the state secrets law the Abe administration passed in December 2013 despite overwhelming public opposition is obscene. What’s more, it’s equally obscene to stifle any last-minute debate on its enactment by making sure that the press are occupied with election coverage.

On this note, it’s also offensive for Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on Nov. 19 to tell reporters that “we shouldn’t question the details of the secrecy laws one by one. The ruling party decides what the vote of confidence is all about. This election is about ‘Abenomics.'” That’s Liberal Democratic Party freedom of the press principles in a nutshell: We tell you what the election is about, don’t introduce other issues.

Shortly before her arrest, Watanabe posted “Sayonara Abe government”in a tweet and then recommended 100 LDP politicians who should be defeated in the next election. In hindsight, was this a mistake?

Perhaps Watanabe’s real mistake was questioning the reason for the election in the first place.

Those of us who are not incarcerated can still ask such questions — at least until Dec. 10. After Dec. 10, asking such a question may itself be a crime.

Whatever punishment is meted out for asking such questions, the answer is always going to be the same: “We are not able to answer that question; it’s a secret.”

In a free and democratic society, that’s really obscene.

Dark Side of the Rising Sun is a monthly column that takes a behind-the-scenes look at news in Japan.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.