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Number 1 Shimbun

Obscenity, Thy Name is Vagina

White out: Koppu no Fuchiko, a popular 5cm-high character in various poses to fit on the lip of a cup,
is available from “gacha” toy-vending machines.


Anyone who’s attended a Japanese festival

that celebrates the penis would be shocked

at the recent heavy-handed police

crackdown on female genitalia

by Andrew Pothecary



here was no warning. On July 12, artist Rokudenashiko, whose real name is Megumi Igarashi, found 10 members of Tokyo’s police force at her door and herself arrested for distributing obscene material. The main target of their visit were CAD files from which applicants to her website could purchase and print a 3D model of her vagina*.

She was using this process to crowd-fund further work, but until then there had been no hint of approbation from the authorities regarding her art, nor had she considered it bordering on the illegal. She assumed herself to be making pieces about society’s attitudes toward female genitals, not anything obscene. As she said at a press conference at the FCCJ on July 24, “It may be obscene if you are depicting something actually engaging in sexual activities, but I’m just presenting a part of my body just as it is. I don’t think that is obscene.”

The taboo, the transgressive, or merely the human body itself has been a favored subject for artists through the ages. What is obscene, or the reaction to what is obscene, in art usually involves three considerations: what people generally deem so (from individuals to the wider society); what is acceptable under the law; and – a sometimes non-compatible combination of those – what is actually enforced. There can be confusion along the way among any of these.

I’m just presenting a part of my body just as it is.

I don’t think that is obscene.”


What gave Rokudenashiko’s story legs (so to speak) is the continuing confusion over obscenity here. Japan is, after all, the historical home of explicit shunga, Ai no Corrida (the 1970s real-sex feature film) and Takashi Murakami’s sperm-shooting boy sculpture. Not to mention the proliferation of hentai manga, Lolita fixations or fetish pornography.

And the confusion isn’t necessarily recent. Shunga have had many ups and downs since the 1722 Japanese edict banning them from being published without permission, but now they are part of art exhibitions. Though the sex act was being reenacted in strip clubs in many cities around Japan, in 1976, Ai no Corrida director Nagisa Oshima not only had to shoot his actors’ sex scenes and process the film in France, but Japanese audiences had to take tours to Guam to see the unedited version. To this day, it is impossible to view the film without mosaic – or pretty much at all – in Japan. (I saw it uncut in 1978, in the UK, and it didn’t receive an official certificate there either until 1991.)


That certainly makes shunga and Ai no Corrida both very Japanese – although both were made against out-of-step obscenity laws and remain more readily available abroad.

To a foreign audience, Rokudenashiko’s arrest made yet another “weird Japan” story, even becoming fodder for a significant segment of the popular U.S. comedy program The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Stewart contrasted Rokudenashiko’s criminalized genitals to the Kanamara Festival, where the penis is celebrated in public with erect models. As Stewart pointed out, there’s a legend behind this festival of successfully dominating a vagina dentate (a castrating, toothed vagina).

Rokudenashiko addressed this seeming acceptance of the penis at the Club: “I think there is hypocrisy . . . I was arrested because some people have a bad image of the word ‘vagina,’ that it is something bad that should not be given attention. Such social notions are based on men’s viewpoint and there is a lack of independence of the women’s viewpoint.” She noted also how the Japanese slang word for vagina (manko) is often bleeped from TV.Is the vagina particularly hidden in Japan? If so, that would make the UK Independent’s report even more odd: seemingly oblivious to this aspect, it referred to the vagina and artwork as “p***y” and “p***y boat” – suggesting some hiding is not just in Japan (or just about the law).



When the original women’s kabuki was banned for being too erotic in 1629, men took over female roles in what could be taken as an example of putting men first when it comes to public morality. But if the sidelining of the woman’s parts (and women’s parts) is something that began 400 years ago with the manning-up of kabuki, perhaps a lingering effect backs Rokudenashiko’s argument.

The male sculpture is anatomically all there

and virile, while the female sculpture seems

to confuse sex with breast milk

Another example might be found in a couple of celebrated artist Takashi Murakami’s sculptures, which add to the confusion over Japan’s legal approach to what can be made and displayed without being arrested. His 1997 “My Lonesome Cowboy” is of a larger-than-life-size, naked manga-inspired man gripping an erection spurting a spiraling swathe of ejaculate. Murakami wasn’t arrested (nor should he have been) and the piece was displayed to the public in galleries in Japan and worldwide. His female equivalent was “Hiropon,” who spurted an equally copious rope of milk from her oversize breasts. She was naked too, but her pudenda were featureless. The male sculpture is anatomically all there and virile, while the female sculpture seems to confuse sex with breast milk, as she has nothing between her legs.


However, before we think that it’s only vaginas that are the problem, let’s not forget the 2013 arrest of Tokyo-based photographer Leslie Kee after an exhibition of male nudes and its accompanying book. What upset the moral powers at that time were penises.

In fact, Kee, too, had no idea that what he was doing was illegal, he simply also wanted to explore the usually hidden. In an interview in Bouin Artinfo he said, “I appreciate the beauty and strength of a natural man. Most of my commercial and fashion works are retouched – I have never seen an unretouched photo in a beauty campaign. However, for “Forever Young,” I try to keep them un-retouched and uncensored.”

The fact that both artists – and anyone else in Japan – could be unaware of illegality is born out simply enough by the uncommented-upon appearance of the August 2014 mainstream art magazine Geijutsu Shincho. Its cover feature was “Female and male nudes.” Among works inside by Munch, Lucien Freud and Ryoko Kimura, there is a reproduction of a work by artist John Curran entitled “Deauville:” it is a couple masturbating each other, she gripping his erection, he inserting fingers into a clearly and realistically painted vagina. As far as I know, nobody has been arrested for distributing obscenity for this.

While Rokudenashiko has been released (although her case is not closed), Kee was not so lucky: he was fined ¥1 million, though fortunately escaped a maximum two-year jail sentence.



If the police charge was about distributing CAD files, the media story was about double standards. With possession of child pornography having been criminalized in Japan only the month before, the Guardian’s Justin McCurry, for example, was one who noted calls for another new law: “Commentators have pointed out the hypocrisy of her arrest, which comes soon after Japanese authorities resisted pressure to ban pornographic images of children in manga comics and animated films.”

However, in the light of Kee’s and Rokudenashiko’s arrests, are calls to increase opportunities for artists to be arrested the way forward? After all, editors of manga publications have been prosecuted for selling and distributing material that has been deemed obscene under the existing law. Instead of adding to the confusion with new laws, why not focus on the need to understand what exactly is obscene? What about referencing societal attitudes to bring clarity to what people generally deem offensive – that third strand to defining obscenity?

Instead of adding to the confusion

with new laws, why not focus on the need

to understand what exactly is obscene?

In September 2009, for example, the respected Japanese design magazine Idea published a special issue dedicated to manga and anime. Included was a four-page look at 61 covers of the manga LO. (LO is short for Lolita Only: the first issue’s ad copy could be translated as, “So they're children. Do you have a problem with that?”) As a designer from the UK, the fact that a manga like LO exists was odd enough. Most of the covers were merely fully clothed schoolgirls, meaning you can decide if you have a problem with that. But there were plenty of swimsuited poses where an innocent “eye” becomes questionable – and even a nude with budding pre-pubescent breasts where the question stared out from the cover.

To neutrally celebrate its design and art in a publication that I was involved in would be unthinkable to me – at least without comment. (It’s quite obviously not that the UK has some moral high ground on pedophilia – in fact, it’s dealing with the fallout of a major pedophile scandal right now – but that such everyday societal acceptance often goes unchallenged in Japan.)


Questionable attitudes are not limited only to manga and anime. Only last month I turned on commercial TV to find a game show featuring many foreign “talents” intent on identifying who among a group of women in a schoolroom set was actually the junior-high-school girl and who were adults. To my eyes this was far more obscene than an adult woman artist exploring ideas of the body.

Developing general attitudes can help in leaving artists freer to explore the taboo without arrest – by deciding what is just unacceptably offensive and what is more clearly an arrestable obscenity.

Should an adult woman artist be locked up for six days, at times handcuffed in hot and airless rooms, when she was unaware that she had transgressed the law, only that she wanted to transgress repressive attitudes to the adult vagina (pixilated in imagery of real sex and AKB’d to oblivion in popular culture)? Doesn’t this confirm to us that the real obscenity is not the image of a part of the body, or even its associations with sex, but the arrest itself?

*Although this story is often about hidden female genitalia, everyone and Rokudenashiko herself refers to her works as about the vagina, when in fact it is mostly the vulva she has been dealing with. However, for simplicity, I’ve continued the nomenclature.

Andrew Pothecary is a freelance graphic designer and the art director of Number 1 Shimbun.


Published in: September 2014

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