Rokudenashiko and her manko kayak (photo by Eigo Shimojo)
Last year, there was a flurry of news about Rokudenashiko (the pen-name of Megumi Igarahi) who had made a vagina-shaped kayak and found herself arrested for obscenity. I suspect it struck most Americans and Europeans who read about her as absurd—vaginas are not particularly controversial images in the West, where nearly gynecological photos and video has been an element of easily accessible pornography (including Japanese pornography) for decades. Furthermore, we tend to think of fine artists as a somewhat protected class—in the U.S. at least, where in 1973 the Supreme Court in Miller vs. California defined obscenity thus:
The basic guidelines for the trier of fact must be: (a) whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest, (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. [Emphasis added](I’ve often wondered if the conviction for obscenity of cartoonist Mike Diana in 1991 was in part due to the low status of comics making it hard for them to be judged on the basis of serious literary or artistic value. Maybe now that the status of comics as art has risen in the U.S., it would be harder to obtain an appeal-proof conviction of obscenity for a comic.)
Rokudenashiko and her manko kayak (photo by Eigo Shimojo)
It turns out that Rokudenashiko is a mangaka (comics artist) who has created a book, What is Obscenity?: The Story of a Good For Nothing Artist and her Pussy, about her arrest and trial that combines comics, photos and prose to describe her bizarre legal experiences. Her pen name means “good for nothing” in Japanese, and she was a typical struggling cartoonist before achieving notoriety as a “manko” (i.e., "pussy") artist. The book was translated by Anne Ishii and published by Koyama Press.
Rokudenashiko specialized in non-fiction comics, and when she saw an ad for vaginal reconstructive surgery, she thought it might be a good subject for a first person non-fiction comic. After she had the surgery and documented it in manga, she had the idea of making a mold of her manko. She made a cell phone cover out of it and decorated it, calling it a “Deco-man.” A columnist saw it and suggested she do a workshop on making Deco-mans.
The problem was that pussy is quite taboo in Japan. She was accused of being a pervert and a sex addict, and her husband divorced her. She tried to make a living creating manko art, but it was impossible to publicize the work. News outlets were interested in covering her story, but wouldn’t show pictures of her artwork unless the images were pixilated. But a random positive encounter with a fan revived her spirits as did a positive response overseas (a manko diorama was exhibited at an erotic art festival in Seattle in 2012). But her artwork was still being made from the mold she had made, which limited the size of her pieces. (Note that this book publishes the manga in the traditional format--you read the book from "back to front" and the panels from "upper right to bottom left".)
Rokudenashiko, What Is Obscenity? p. 154
Rokudenashiko decided to create a digital file of her pussy that could be made into a sculptural object of any size using three-dimensional printing technology. She decided to make a kayak with a manko on top because it was a form of transportation that required no license and presumably because a kayak is already somewhat pussy-shaped. But producing a three-dimensional printed object of that size was quite expensive. She decided to fund it via a crowdfunding campaign. As a premium for contributors, she gave away copies of the digital file of her pussy. This is what she was arrested for—distributing three dimensional digital files of her own pussy.
Rokudenashiko, What Is Obscenity? p.23
She was arrested and taken to jail. Made to do a perp-walk in front of TV cameras, she got no love from Japan's traditional media, which called her a "so called" artist. As she was lead into the police station and officially arrested, her thoughts were about how it would make a great non-fiction comic story. And right she was! A lot of this part of the story was about Rokudenashiko's unrealistic expectations (formed from watching cop shows on TV) and the reality (the police try to intimidate her into signing a document saying that they had read her her rights, when they had totally forgotten to, and how they told her multiple lies about how much she would have to pay for her lawyer and how they had a scientific committee that had already compiled a report on how her art was obscene).
After processing her, they transport her to a women's prison, where she will be housed until it's time for her trial. Prison in Japan is a highly regimented and totally dehumanizing experience. She shared a cell with four other women who had been arrested for various minor crimes--one was an illegal alien, one had assisted her husband in a burglary, and one was in for a minor assault. Rokudenashiko's crime was so insignificant that she probably could have been released from jail if she admitted guilt and paid a modest fine. But that was unacceptable to her--she didn't think that her manko art was in fact actually obscene. Furthermore, if she admitted guilt, she wouldn't be able to make art anymore.
Rokudenashiko, What Is Obscenity? p.62
The best part of Rokudenashiko's manga shows her life in jail. The rigorous discipline and hellish trips to the prosecutor's office and to court helps one to understand why Japan has a 99% conviction rate. Police have an amazing 23 days to interrogate prisoners. As a result, many find it easier just to confess than to fight in court. Rokudenashiko had a large legal team working for her, but many Japanese prisoners don't even have lawyers. She was able to get out of jail after only a few days. She was arrested again on the same charges in December 2014. Her trial for the second charge began in April 2015; apparently a verdict is expected on May 9 of this year.
(This is the second manga I've seen about Japan's totalitarian prison regime. I highly recommend Doing Time by Kazuichi Hanawa who did three years in prison for possession of illegal replica guns.)
Now the utter absurdity of this incident has been widely remarked on. Japan apparently has a double standard when it comes to penises and vaginas. For example, no one is convicted for participating in the Kanamara Matsuri (aka the Festival of the Steel Phallus) in Kawasaki, Japan. This is a Shinto festival, so perhaps it enjoys protection for religious reasons.
A giant wooden phallus from Kanamara Matsuri (photo by Gulhelm Vellut)
But what about My Lonesome Cowboy by Takashi Murakami? How is this different from Rokudenashiko's manko art? The only real difference is that it is a penis spraying jizz and not a pussy.
Takashi Murakami, My Lonesome Cowboy, 1998 Fiberglass, acrylic, steel, 9.5 feet x 46 inches x 35 1/2 inches, edition of 3
So what about pussies? Can you get a mass-produced pussy in Japan without being arrested? Well, if this page from a Tokyo sex shop is any indication, the answer is yes. So the question is why did they pick on Rokudenashiko, arresting her twice for the same "crime." Part of it is obviously sexism--her manko art is art made by a woman. And she worked hard to get maximum publicity for it, so it was on the radar of the police and prosecutors. The question I'm left with is why is Japan so hung up about pussy? One of the most amusing things in the manga is the absolute discomfort that many of her interrogators have with the word itself. She insists on using it in her official statements and making people read it back to her. She revels in their discomfort because she finds it clearly absurd.
Rokudenashiko, What Is Obscenity? p.82
Another question is why was Rokudenashiko arrested a second time? This may have been political. After her first arrest, she started serializing "What is Obscenity?" in Shukan Kinyobi (Weekly Friday), a leftwing political magazine. This is unusual (normally this kind of thing would have been serialized in a manga weekly); Weekly Friday is known for its antigovernment stances on war crimes and its opposition to nationalist prime minister Shinzo Abe. At the same time Rokudenashiko was arrested a second time, Minori Kitahara was also arrested. Kitahara owns a woman-centered sex shop, the Love Piece Club, in Tokyo. She is also a writer who has opposed Shinzo Abe in print. So it has been suggested that the obscenity arrests were perhaps merely a pretext to silence or hurt some nettlesome government critics.
We should find out the outcome in about week. If they do issue a verdict on May 9th, I will update this article.