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The vagina on trial: more absurd than obscene

by Philip Brasor

Special To The Japan Times

Though the obscenity trial of the artist known as Rokudenashiko — real name Megumi Igarashi — ended earlier this month with a conviction on one of her charges, we haven’t heard the last of her. She plans to appeal the verdict, which is good news for the press and the public, since few court trials of recent memory have been as entertaining.

Rokudenashiko’s crime was distributing 3-D data to sponsors of one of her projects: a kayak in the shape of the artist’s own vagina, big enough to launch in open water with a human in the driver’s seat. According to police the data qualifies as obscene material, so Rokudenashiko was basically distributing pornography. She said the data constituted a work of art and was thus protected by free speech statutes. She also emphasized that the purpose of the project was to challenge the notion that depictions of female genitalia are inherently “shameful.”

“I wanted to get rid of that image,” she said before the trial began, “so I created artworks that were humorous.” She drew comics and other graphic pieces featuring vaginas and colorful, silly motifs. None of them seemed to bother the police, but the 3-D data, since it represented actual genitalia, was too much, even though the only way someone could possibly be sexually stimulated by it would be to input it into a 3-D printer and produce a cast, which no one except the prosecution did, apparently. The vast majority of people do not have such devices at their disposal.

And it was this aspect of the trial — the idea that police, prosecutors and judges were the only people making claims that Rokudenashiko’s work was arousing — that gave the story its eyebrow-raising subtext. The artist’s aim of countering the authorities’ reception of female genitalia as something disgusting through the use of humor found its most successful expression in the courtroom. The trial itself was a work of art, though it was definitely not a solo show.

The prosecution’s case was based on the idea of pornography as something that stimulates sexual desire to the extent that the consumer feels “self-loathing.” This is a highly subjective call. The prosecution would have to generalize the reaction to the 3-D data, which is hypothetical anyway, since none of the people who received it turned it into something that resembled a vagina.

So the strategy became one of subtraction: remove the “art” component and what you have is pornography, because according to their logic there are only two ways to consume information of a sexual nature.

The Asahi Shimbun’s detailed coverage last November of the cross-examination of defense witness Michio Hayashi, a Sophia University professor of art history, was particularly diverting. The defense established the idea that while most people can tell the difference between pornography and art, obscenity is more personal. To Hayashi, pornography is designed to be “commercially consumed” by “provoking lustful feelings,” and to him Rokudenashiko’s work satisfied neither of those criteria.

“If you told me (Rokudenashiko’s work) depicts female genitalia, I would recognize it as such,” he told the court. “But that doesn’t mean I think it’s obscene.”

The prosecution tried to undermine this approach by entering as evidence a paper by a criminal law scholar who stated that the artistic value of Rokudenashiko’s work cannot be recognized “by the average person,” thus suggesting that those without a grounding in aesthetics will look at her kayak and see something dirty. Hayashi said it doesn’t make sense to judge artistic merit based on reactions of “the general public” because it isn’t always the purpose of art to be appealing.

“Everyone has a different way of seeing,” he reiterated and went on to assert that something originally produced to elicit lust can later be seen as having artistic value, such as the erotic shunga drawings of the Edo Period (1603 to 1868). Sometimes both exist at the same time. Nagisa Oshima’s 1976 film, “In the Realm of the Senses,” could be “marketed as art or as pornography” with equal effectiveness, said Hayashi.

When one of the judges asked what “art” means to him, the scholar induced chuckles by remarking, “That’s the kind of thing you write books about.”

A few days later the artist herself took the stand and threw the prosecution’s reasoning back in their face while explaining the history of her “vagina art,” pointing out that visitors to one of her exhibitions complained that her depictions “weren’t explicit enough.”

“They told me they got no sexual gratification from it,” she said, because to those people there’s nothing exciting about female genitalia unless it is seen as being forbidden.

In response, she tried to make her recreations more realistic, which is how she came up with the idea of 3-D scanning her own vagina. When she was asked why she chose to print the data as a kayak, she said, “I wanted to make a vagina car, but I couldn’t afford an engine.”

In the end, the prosecution couldn’t prove that the vagina kayak was obscene since it was so stylized, but the 3-D data — which only they had “seen” — was. So the court fined her only ¥400,000, or half the amount the prosecution had demanded. It’s notable that the sentence was delivered by a female judge, who nevertheless failed to revert the misogynistic essence of the case.

Manga artist Jun Miura was especially tickled by this fact. During a discussion on Bunka Hoso radio, he said the legal rationale for obscenity implied that the prosecution was in a constant state of arousal during the trial, and to a person like him, who revels in lewdness as a matter of professional duty, it proved the value of Rokudenashiko’s work: “It’s good to be excited by art, isn’t it?”

If you took the prosecution’s argument at face value, as he pointed out, then so many things can be deemed obscene. Fortunately, Miura’s own fetishistic sensibility was not the source of the law’s definition. Otherwise, all sorts of things would be banned.

“I go into a department store and see a row of bright red high-heeled shoes,” he said, “and I get really turned on.”