“My pussy (まんこ) is not indecent!” Japanese artist fights sexist obscenity laws

“My pussy (マンコ) is not obscene.”

The Japanese artist, Megumi Igarashi, who was arrested July 12th (a Saturday) for distributing “obscene” design files that can be used to make 3-D-printed models of her vagina was released from custody last Friday the 18th, in Japan.

The artist Rokudenashiko holds up the comic book she wrote explaining why she makes art about female genitalia & her own vagina. (After being released from custody for obscenity charges)
The artist Rokudenashiko holds up the comic book she wrote explaining why she makes art about female genitalia & her own vagina. (After being released from custody for obscenity charges)

Ms. Igarashi had sent the data to over 30 people around the country who had donated to a crowd-funding project she started last year to build what she called the “pussy boat”–a kayak in the shape of her genitals. She will also be giving a press conference today, July 24th, at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan, in which various foreign media outlets are expected to be in attendance. After her detainment, the lawyers for Ms. Igarashi protested to the court that the prosecution’s request to hold her for ten days was unwarranted, and in an unusual decision, a panel of judges agreed. Typically, once someone is arrested in Japan, release from custody is rare. The working assumption is presumed guilty until proven guilty

Takashi Yamaguchi, one of the lawyer’s for Igarashi said, “We were delighted by the court’s decision which would also seem to be a rebuke to the police for arresting her in the first place. There was no need to put her in detention. ” At the press conference, the demure Igarashi, also known as and prefers to go by Rokudenashiko (ろくでなし子・good-for-nothing child), said that she had received no warning from the police that her activities and artwork were considered obscene and was taken aback when the police stormed her residence unannounced Saturday morning (July 12th) and arrested her on “obscene electromagnetic record distribution charges.” Ms. Igarashi has not denied distributing data that would allow people to make a 3D printing of her vagina; however, she does deny that the images are obscene.

“My pussy (マンコ) is not obscene.”

For many in Japan, it is puzzling that Ms. Igarashi was arrested at all, when you consider that events such as the Kanamara Festival (かなまら祭り), which celebrates fertility and penis worship, is held every year.  The festival centers around penises, which are carried as sacred objects and appear as candy, hats, and trinkets. Phallic-shaped objects or anything that has to do with sex are sold all around the shrine. As part of this year’s festivities, men and women carried a gigantic pink penis shrine with testicles attached while visitors, including children, watched on. For a detailed description, please see this year’s earlier photo essay.

Ms. Igarashi in response to JSRC’s question as to why penises are not considered obscene under Japan’s obscenity laws but her vagina images were, bemusedly responded, “It baffles me, too. I think it’s a kind of sexual discrimination. For instance, on television, (you can say the word for penis but) you can’t say manko (Japanese slang for vagina)—they’ll bleep it out. In my artwork, which celebrates female genitalia, I try to challenge this concept of women’s sexual organs themselves being obscene. They’re just another part of the body.” Well, apparently as far as the police are concerned that’s not the case. And obviously, the penis must not be obscene because otherwise the Kanamara Festival would result in more arrests than a raid on a club where people dance illegally past midnight. What is even more surprising about here arrest is that in sex shops across Japan you can buy replicas of famous porn star vaginas that are far more graphic than a 3D printer and made of surgical silicone. The purpose of these artificial vaginas are obviously not just to display on the mantle.

Apparently this 3D "functional" model of a Japanese porn star vagina is not obscene but an artist's 3D data for her vagina is obscene. Go figure.
Apparently this 3D “functional” model of a Japanese porn star vagina is not obscene but an artist’s 3D data for her vagina is obscene. Go figure.

As has been pointed out before, Japan is a country which only banned possession of child pornography last month—with a one year grace period for possessors of the material (estimated to be 1 in 10 Japanese men by a government study) to get rid of their contraband. The portrayal of child pornography in manga was left out of the law due to protest from the publishing industry—so it seems surprising that distributing images of an adult woman’s vagina to those who request it would lead to an arrest. It’s even more ironic when you consider that most sexual services are in Japan are legal, so if a man wants to see a real vagina or play with one, he just has to pay for it. Yet, as long as he does this behind closed doors—it’s not obscene or illegal. On the other hand, under Japanese law, genitals have to be blurred out in pornography, though restrictions have loosened in recent years.

When asked why the word for vagina can’t be mentioned on television, Ms. Igarashi was stumped for an answer. So were her lawyers. Maybe that’s because like so many things in Japan, men get to decide what’s obscene and what’s not. The lawyers for Igarashi, and Ms. Igarashi herself stated they intend to fight the charges of obscenity and plead innocent. They believe that she was arrested and detained by the police primarily in the hope that she would “confess” to the charges, thus making the case a slam-dunk; she did not cooperate. They will argue that the data does not constitute obscenity as defined in the Supreme Court verdict in 1957 that found DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover to be salacious and in violation of the law. In that case, The Supreme Court concluded, “the description of the sex acts contained therein at twelve passages, as pointed out by the prosecutor, is all too bold, detailed, and realistic”.

Rokudenashiko shares a moment of levity with her lawyers after being asked why "vagina" (manko) is such a taboo word on Japanese television. The absurdity of Japanese obscenity laws is funny---unless you get put in jail for them.
Rokudenashiko shares a moment of levity with her lawyers after being asked why “vagina” (manko) is such a taboo word on Japanese television. The absurdity of Japanese obscenity laws is funny—unless you get put in jail for them.

Rokudenashiko is a slightly eccentric artist—this is certainly true. She has written an entire comic book about her obsession with her genitalia with wild surrealistic drawings. In the book, she even explains why she had cosmetic surgery on her womanhood to make it more attractive. A literary agency is currently considering putting out an English translation of it in the near future.

Ms. Igarashi, at the press conference, was generally in good spirits, laughing and chatting with the press but when asked how far she was willing to fight, she said with resolve, “I’ll take the case all the way to the Supreme Court. I refuse to accept that part of me is obscene just because certain people looking at it choose to see it that way.”

Angela Kubo contributed to this article. 

“Comfort Women” Show Makes Nikon Uncomfortable But Not Tokyo Courts

The “comfort women” aka 慰安婦 (ianfu) issue is one that divides Japan. Who were the comfort women? They were Korean, Chinese, and sometimes even Japanese women who worked as prostitutes during the Second World War, primarily offering sexual services to Japanese soldiers (There were also Dutch women in Indonesia). Many of the women were coerced into working as virtual sex slaves, while others may have worked on their own initiative, just as many women today still work in Japan’s sex industry. The issue of who ran the brothels aka “comfort houses” during the war was disputed for years but in 1992, Professor Yoshimi a well-known Japanese historian published Japanese archival documents that established the direct involvement of the Japanese military in running a network of military brothels known as “Comfort Houses.”  The Japanese government also released over a hundred documents in the same year that supported the research. However, there are still questions as to how many women were coerced into working at the brothels and their living conditions.

However, for Japan’s right wingers and historical revisionists, any suggestion that the Japanese military engaged in human trafficking is anathema.  The discussion of the subject and any films, books or exhibitions dealing with the taboo are sure to draw the attentions of these radicals. Therefore, it was not really a huge surprise when Nikon, which had agreed to host a photo exhibition about the comfort women, got cold feet at the last minute.

The photos of former "comfort women" makes Japanese right wingers and historical revisionists distinctly uncomfortable.

Korean photographer Ahn Sehong, 41, who married a Japanese woman in 2007 and lives in Nagoya for 3 years, was scheduled to have an exhibition of the portraits and photos of former comfort women at the prestigious Nikon Salon (Shinjuku) starting in June.  However, in May of this year, the exhibition was unilaterally cancelled by Nikon without explanation. The exhibition, planned from June 26 to July 9 has finally opened, but not without any problems.

“We are just lending the place,” Nikon officials allegedly told Ahn Sehong, “we cannot help you– if there is any problem we will have to end the exhibition immediately.”

When Ahn Sehong and his colleagues were preparing the exhibition, three lawyers hired by Nikon were systematically after Ahn.

“They were asking me to whom I had talked and what I said, ” said Ahn. The exhibition was only held after a court decision by the Tokyo District Court ordered them to do it.

At a press conference held today at the Foreign Correspondents Club (June 28th, 2012) Ahn said that he felt anxious all the time, fearing that his exhibition might end at any moment.

“I bet Nikon is trying to find any possible reason to stop the exhibition,” he told reporters.

The reasons given by the optical equipment maker Nikon to withdraw the exhibition were unclear at first, but its company representative told Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF/Reporters Without Borders) that Nikon’s measure “was taken after numerous calls and e-mails criticizing the exhibition.”

According to Ahn, inside the Nikon Salon gallery, when reporters came to ask questions to him, the Nikon lawyers and the guardians prohibited any exchange within the gallery.

 “I had to go at the first floor, then walk to the closest park outdoors in order to speak to reporters who came to visit my exhibition. In such situation, I feel that my freedom of expression are denied,” he said.

RSF or Reporters Without Borders, an international organization, which defends the freedom of information, condemned “the move to censor the photo exhibition,” it announced in a press release.

Mr. Naomi Toyoda, representing the JVJA (Japan Visual Journalists Association), who supported Ahn Sehong’s photo exhibition at Nikon with great vigor, said at the press conference that, “every photographer has a message. Each photo exhibition has a political message, but the photos and the photographer must be different. As a photographer myself, I defend freedom of expression at any price.”

Mr. Sehong does not approach his subject lightly and has done substantial research.

“My sources almost all passed away by now. Since 1996, I met 12 former comfort women in China, and about 40 in Korea. They did not know each other but they all told me the same facts”

The RSF in a statement about the problem noted, “ (the) thirty-seven photos and portraits of former Korean “comfort women,” who served at the fronts of the Japanese military camps in Asia, “besides their esthetic quality, supported by documentary research conducted by the photographer since 2001, are an important work of education, which must be shown to as many people as possible, without political consideration,”

The topic of the so-called comfort women is indeed embarrassing for Japan, however, in 1993, Yohei Kono, then Chief Cabinet secretary, issued a statement acknowledging that Japan organized during the war a brothel program for its military men, and offered an apology to Korea. But the Japanese government has always refused to pay individual compensation to these women.

Ahn Sehong told journalists in Tokyo that, his project started in 1996, when he first met a Korean old lady living in China, who used to be a comfort woman at the Japanese military front when she was younger. Most of the comfort women were taken away from their houses at very young age. “I wanted to help these old ladies to express their experience. If you look at the photographs, they speak for themselves. Their story needed to be told and remembered. And the Japanese people should also know about these facts.”

Ahn Sehong, photographer

 The RSF stated that, “it would be unacceptable that Nikon, a private company held in high regard by the world of photography, should become an accomplice to censorship.” RSF also urged the Japanese authorities to “determine if intimidation was perpetrated by individuals opposed to the work of the photographer,” and launch an investigation.

Dozens of Japanese ultra-nationalist group members, uyoku, have demonstrated in Yurakucho, in front of the Foreign press club building to remind their message, which is that these Korean comfort women never existed. The tirades run along the line of: “The comfort women were professional prostitutes not victims, and the photographer is mediocre too!”

At the Nikon Salon, in Shinjuku, a full security management is deployed: heavy metal detectors and guardians are stationing in every corner of the exhibition hall.

According to a FCCJ staff member, some leaders of the right wing groups tried to enter the Yurakucho Denki Building, where the Foreign Correspondents Club is based. They were denied entry.

Ahn Sehong’s family also had to move from their home in Nagoya, for fear of the multiple threats they have received. “I got pressured by Japanese Right Wing groups over time. After Nikon announced the withdrawal of the exhibition, my private contact details were released on the Internet. I received many phone calls and e-mails teaching me that the Korean comfort women never existed,” he said, “some messages said ‘you should die.’”

Ahn Sehong: "I like Nikon. I use Leica since 2002, but it is not because of the issue I had with Nikon that I do not like their cameras. This picture, on my left, was in fact taken by a Nikon camera."

A BRIEF EXPLANATION OF THE EUPHEMISM OF “COMFORT WOMEN”

The term “comfort women” is a euphemism describing the Asian women, mostly Koreans, who were enrolled to serve as sex workers for the Japanese military troupes during the WWII. The estimates of the number of women involved in this forced sex industry is a huge controversy even in the present days among Japanese, Korean and Chinese scholars. Some Japanese estimate the numbers to “as low as 20,000,” whereas some Chinese scholars estimate the numbers “as high as 410,000,” depending on the definition of the victims. The exact number is still being researched and debated.

A good discussion of the issue can be found at The Washington Coalition for Comfort Women.