Review of What is Obscenity? by Rokudenashiko
This book is an important contribution to the history of censorship. Written in the form of a Japanese Manga, or graphic novel, it tells the story of “vagina artist” Megumi Igarashi, who was subjected to some rather brutal censorship. She tells the story in her own words and through her own art. This gives it an immediacy and makes the story deeply personal and involving.
In the interest of accuracy, while her art is referred to as vagina art, it is more technically accurate to refer to it as vulva art, since it depicts the outer genitalia. She refers to her art as manko art, which is equivalent to cunt or pussy. Manko, by the way, also refers to wetlands in Naha, Okinawa.
When she began doing art involving the vagina, she adopted the name Rokudenashiko. This is derived from the Japanese word Rokudenashi, which means “useless” or “good for nothing”, so it essentially means “good for nothing girl”.
It just so happens that this book came in to my hands while I am working on doing a final edit of the section on Japanese erotic artists for my book, Passion: Artists and Their Nudes. The book chronicles the artists featured in some of the galleries in our Sexual Heritage Preservation Project.
Japan has a long history of erotic art. Historically, it has tended to be far more sexually explicit than Western art. That is not true today, however.
From the 16th to the early 20th centuries, a popular form of art was Shunga. These were often very sexually explicit, but with enormously exaggerated genitals. In most cases, the couples having sex were fully dressed. In Japan, mixed sex communal bathing was common, so mere nudity did not carry that much of a sexual charge for them. Shunga was hugely popular and not considered shameful.
Modern Western influences led to stricter Japanese censorship, although they always had censorship. Shunga artists made their art more acceptable by adding moralizing messages. The Meiji government (1868-1912) wanted Japan to be a “modern nation”, and as part of that the Publication Ordinance of 1869 banned pornography, and in 1889 they passed Directive 39 banning all nude illustration. As always with censorship, artists found ways around the restrictions.
During the Occupation of Japan after World War II, most censorship laws were relaxed officially. Censorship against sexual content remained strict. It was also against the law to even mention censorship, which created an environment in which government censorship thrived.
Modern obscenity law in Japan is still derived from Article 175 of the Japanese Penal Code, first established in 1907. Article 175 is notoriously ambiguous. It bans obscenity without ever defining it.
The uncertain meaning of the law has led to the peculiar censorship of Japanese porn through pixelating (known is Japan as bokashi ) the genitalia in porn scenes. Interestingly, they often do not pixelate the anus even in videos that feature anal sex.
The nudity taboo has become very strict. Mixed nude bathing is a thing of the past. It is also a very misogynistic society.
That is the environment in which Rokudenashiko began doing her manko art. She tells how and why she got involved in making casts of her genitals and then decorating them, and then experimenting with different types of manko art. That is an interesting story in and of itself.
Her life completely changed when she decided to make a boat based on a scan of her vagina. This seems like the least likely work of art to generate a major obscenity trial against an artist. None the less, on the morning of July 12th, 2014, ten police officers burst through her door, took her computer and her art, and took her to jail.
She tells an indicting story of police abuses and a terrible prison system (although the U.S. prison system is much worse, the problems are different). Her story of her time in jail is frightening, as is the whole notion that you can be dragged from your home because of an art project.
Telling the story through art is highly effective. A regular narrative would simply not have as much impact. She tells the story in a light-hearted way, though, with a lot of humor.
I would love to tell you all about the interesting events in her book, but I think I will leave that to her. I can tell you about what happens to her after the publication of her book, which came out in English in May of this year just as her trial was taking place.
She faced two years in prison or a fine of up to $25,000 for distributing obscene objects. Astonishingly, what she was accused of distributing is digital scan data of her vagina. The first time she was arrested was for her Crowd Funding campaign to raise money to make her manko kayak. A handful of top funders got a digital download of the scan data she used to make her kayak. That data is the source of the charge of distribution of obscenity. Her second arrest that same year was for exhibiting a plaster copy of her vagina-shaped kayak at an adult shop in Tokyo. I do not know for sure, but I suspect you could buy a pocket pussy in that same store.
She was found not guilty for displaying her kayak, since the female judge felt that it was not realistic enough to be arousing. She was found guilty for the digital scan data, though. The judge claimed that someone could use a 3D printer, print out a version of the data in single color plastic, and then become sexually aroused, which she felt was a crime. The fine was around $3,700, with no additional jail time.
She will appeal. The case made her an international celebrity, and as typically happens, promoted her manko art rather than successfully suppressed it. It made Japan’s censorship laws look foolish in the eyes of the world, something Japan is rather sensitive about.
The book began as a series in Weekly Friday magazine. Her second arrest took place while her series on her first arrest was still running. It includes the complete original series along with supplemental photos and text describing additional aspects of her case and her life.
It may also open up a dialogue in Japan about censorship and the law’s obsession with genitals. Virtually any type of perverted sex act can be depicted, even those with extreme violence, as long as no genitals can be seen. This strikes a lot of people as bizarre, as does her conviction.