Just yesterday it was reported that a Japanese court had found artist Rokudenashiko’s vagina figurines to be considered art and not obscenity, but less stressed in the headlines was that the court also found her guilty of “distributing digital data of indecent material” and hit her with a fine.
It’s that last case that is largely the focus of her book from Koyama Press, What Is Obscenity, which has Rokudenashiko covering just about every aspect of her story leading up to the moment in the news yesterday. It’s a passionate memoir and meditation on art, censorship, and societal attitudes towards women, but just as important, it’s a charming and amusing rundown of Rokudenashiko’s experiences that wraps in many aspects of Japanese culture, most fascinatingly, Japanese prison conditions.
This is a story with several beginnings — the point at which Rokudenashiko began focusing on what the Japanese call “manko” in order to not only examine the physical form of a woman’s genitalia, but also the issues confronting women in Japan; the point where she began to create the artwork that would lead to her legal troubles; and the point where the police actually entered her life and she was thrust into the international spotlight.
That first beginning is well-covered in the latter half of the book, an admirable explanation of the process by which art is arrived at — that is, both conceptually and through personal experience, then finally to physical form. It’s a vividly personal account, and contains some of the darkest moments of the book.
The second has already happened by the time the book begins. Rokudenashiko’s project had her make a 3D scan of her vagina, with the intent of creating a kayak in its shape. She crowd-funded the project and one of the backer rewards was a downloadable file of the scan. It was this that actually set the case in motion — providing the file to her backers was represented by police as “distributing digital data of indecent material,” following a period of keeping track of her activities, which took the form of gallery visits to check out her manko art.
The third point is where Rokudenashiko’s book begins proper, an abrupt raid on her apartment by a number of uniformed police, and an unexpected escort to jail, where she learns about the labyrinthine legal system of her country and the politely oppressive world of incarceration, as well.
On the surface, it seems absurd that any police force should devote so many resources to arresting and prosecuting someone doing something that to the wider world is probably inconsequential. There are some who will see Rokudenashiko ’s work and be inspired by it, some who will just find it amusing, and then of course some who will find it disgusting — and Rokudenashiko well-documents that reaction — but it’s hard to see how any of these reactions justify the effort they went to. Even if you don’t think that it is valid as art, incarcerating its creator is certainly an extreme reaction and, especially within a culture like Japan’s that seems to have great leniency in it sexual portrayal of young women in its pop culture, an appalling one that seems more like harassment than law enforcement.
But therein lies the real beauty of Rokudenashiko’s book. Despite the understandable outrage, despite the big issues that her experience tackles, despite corruption and misogyny and incompetence she faced, despite the gloominess of prison and her own emotional traumas, she still puts it together in a form that is extremely personable even as it informs. She is the best possible messenger.
That’s a real feat, but it also tells you something about the artist they were gunning for, about her intent and outlook and why the persecution was such a major misfire. It also tells you why people like her work so much. She made a kayak modeled after her own vagina. How is that not great? How is she not a hero?
Assuming nothing has changed since the verdict, Rokudenashiko was scheduled to make an appearance at TCAF this weekend. If she is still able to come, I can’t see how she isn’t the must-see creator making an appearance there. You will read tons of autobiographical comics where nothing of much consequence happens to the author and they just gripe anyhow. Rokudenashiko is a different animal indeed, inspiring on a number of levels and well-worth applauding in person.
As for the question “What is obscenity?” Rokudenashiko does thoroughly illustrate what the answer is, and let’s just say it doesn’t have a lot to do with vaginas.
John Seven is a journalist and children’s book writer living in North Adams, Massachusetts. His books include ‘A Rule Is To Break: A Child’s Guide To Anarchy,’ ‘Happy Punks 1-2-3,’ ‘Frankie Liked To Sing,’ and others. Find out about all his things at johnseven.me.