In a country that celebrates the male phallus, Japanese artist Rokudenashiko has been charged with the distribution and dissemination of obscene materials and faces up two years in prison and a $20,000 fine for using her own vagina as the subject of her artwork.
Last year, self-proclaimed feminist artist Megumi Igarashi — known as Rokudenashiko — was arrested after having a 3D replica of her vagina made into a functional kayak, which she then used in order to raise awareness about the subjective laws that regulate representation of female genitalia and sexuality in Japan. Along with her vagina kayak, Rokudenashiko has also produced numerous sculptures, created her own mascot, Mango-chan (“Little Pussy”), and written a manga that use the likeness of her own vagina as the foundational subject matter.
“I started to think about why vaginas are so vilified in Japan,” said Rokudenashiko in a recent Broadly expose, “Vagina Art & the Paradox of Japanese Censorship Laws.” “I thought it was absurd.” With each new piece, she attempts to change Japanese people’s perceptions of the vagina while standing up for her right to free speech and representation. Her most recent piece, though, is what has landed her in hot water with the Japanese authorities, and over the past year and a half she has been arrested twice and continues to be in a legal battle with the courts to defend her artwork and freedom of expression. Last year, when she used a crowdfunding campaign and a 3D printer to generate a physical replica of her vagina, she was arrested by police for the distribution of “obscene” materials.
In a country that embraces a sex culture and has very loose and subjective laws regarding what constitutes “obscenity,” the arrest came as a shock to both Rokudenashiko as well as the general public. “Oh, they’ve made me a criminal,” commented the artist. “I’m probably the first woman in Japan to be arrested for using her own vagina as an expression.” Her lawyer himself admits that there are no clarifying points in the bylaws that define what it means to be “obscene” and with that in mind the police authorities and judges are at liberty to determine that definition themselves in a legal setting — a setting that leaves the accused in a situation in which they are more likely to be punished.
Such a subjective approach to the matter has led some artists to self-censor and others like the outspoken Rokudenashiko to be punished by the law for expressing herself. “There is something very random about what gets targeted, and the authorities refuse to spell out what you can and cannot do,” said Kirsten Cather, Professor of Asian Studies.
Where this case has become more complicated from the perspective of the law, though, is Rokudenashiko’s usage of crowdfunding and 3D printing technology to produce and share her art.
“For the authorities this is a kind of dangerous new intersection of technology and something that they haven’t seen before,” notes Cather. In many ways the technological world is growing faster than the laws are changing and that has spooked authorities to set a precedent with Rokudenashiko’s case to curb the usage of tech to promote anything related to sex and sexual representations.
One of the biggest issues, though, in this case and with this thought process — and the point that Rokudenashiko is fighting for most — is the intersectionality of sex and technology, with Japan being a country that has a booming consumer-based sex industry. Moreover, Japan is already at the crossroads of sex and traditional culture, which makes this case all the more challenging and paradoxical. In a religious setting, celebration of the penis is acceptable, but when the cultural context is changed, as in the case of Rokudenashiko’s artwork, genitalia is seen as vulgar, obscene, and punishable by the law. This being said, though, Rokudenashiko continues to fight for her rights and her artwork, and she hopes that ultimately “it’ll become easier for everyone to stand up for themselves.”
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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!