Convicted of obscenity this week, Japanese artist Rokudenashiko brings her art to the Reference Library.
Rokudenashiko wants to de-problematize the pussy.
Doing so has created some problems.
Her quest has garnered the Japanese artist international fame and local derision, as her pop-art sculptures of manko (“pussy”) have spurred heated discussions around obscenity, artistic expression, and the persistent stigmatization of female genitalia in Japanese culture. It’s also led to her arrest and incarceration. Twice.
Undeterred, this weekend she’s in Toronto for the Toronto Comics Art Festival, where her campaign continues.
On May 9th, a Japanese court determined that while Rokudenashiko’s physical manko sculptures were legally acceptable, she crossed the threshold from art into obscenity when she digitally scanned her vagina and shared the 3D printing plans with supporters of her crowdfunding campaign, and inspired “reckless sexual impulse” in the process. Hardly a stretch to see the parallels between a verdict like that and attitudes around women’s sexuality in general.
Rokudenashiko’s newly released graphic memoir What Is Obscenity? The Story of a Good For Nothing Artist and her Pussy , published by Toronto’s Koymaa Press, follows her remarkable yet rocky path to international attention and acclaim—depicting her youthful insecurities around her own manko, her artistic awakening, and her 2014 stint in prison where she was initially ostracized by her fellow inmates after admitting the real reason she was locked up.
But despite public pressure and mounting legal bills, Rokudenashiko is unwavering, writing in Obscenity that “though this was kind of a joke at first, now I am joking around with every ounce of my body and soul.”
Rokudenashiko was sleeping off a nasty cold when Torontoist caught up with her on the Friday evening before TCAF, she but gamely answered a few questions alongside her translator Anne Ishii.
Were you surprised by the verdict?
I wasn’t surprised. Statistically the conviction rate in Japan is 99 per cent, so we went in knowing that was the expectation. I had already planned on appealing a guilty verdict. And we knew if we got a “not guilty” verdict that the police would appeal it. So we knew this was going to be a no-win situation going in.
The argument’s been made that the reason the digital reproductions were deemed obscene was the government’s move to get ahead of a new technology. Do you think that’s the case? That they were nervous?
It’s just my interpretation, but I do think that the police don’t know what they’re dealing with in terms of new technologies. Yes, I think they may have been scared. But I have to say, I’m actually really excited that I did get one not guilty verdict. It feels like a big coup.
After your arrest in 2014, you said that you would “have to be much more cautious about my practice, and will likely be very limited in scope moving forward.” Have you had to struggle against these new boundaries?
I don’t really think that I have to be personally careful. That statement is honestly more about what the lawyers recommended, that people need to be cautious, which sucks. But on the other hand, when I think about my lawyers and the people who’ve been working around the clock to win my innocence, I don’t want that to be for naught by me being careless in my work. They’re always going to tell me when I should stop, or if something seems dangerous. I do listen to them, though I don’t necessarily always agree. And I’ve continued to make decisions that are against their recommendations.
Outside of the legal system, what has the public reaction to your work been like in Japan?
The media had a really biased interpretation of the situation. They were really just parroting what the police were saying. They took the way the case was summarized by the police, which was so unfair. And then they reported this as my loss, when we saw it as a huge win to have gotten that one not-guilty count.
In terms of the larger public, the average Japanese person doesn’t want to go into it deep enough to understand the nuances. So I think most people share the police’s perspective, if they’re not just completely confused by it. At the same time, a lot of people have come out as very vocal supporters of my art, so that’s been very exciting. I absolutely plan on appealing these charges, if not just for my own sake, but for so many people who believe in this.
You write in Obscenity about you prefer to focus more on those believers, rather than your critics, when you’re creating. Is your Manko art more concerned with empowering individuals, rather than challenging oppressive systems?
This is work that I was doing without any public support at one point. I feel like this is something I will continue to do without allies. In that sense, I’m not doing the work for other people. I’m greatly inspired by them, and I feel moved when people say that I’ve been inspirational, or that the work has helped and encouraged them. But it’s hard to think about what’s more significant, challenging the police or something else. And the police represent just one antagonism, so if that is more profound than the people, it’s hard to say.
Why do you think your art inspires these antagonisms?
I’d like to know that too! I am really not sure, but I would guess that a lot of people are opposed to my art before they’ve seen it, because they have a principled idea of the female genitalia as gross. That’s the first problem, that all female sexuality and genitalia are both seen to be shameful or unpleasant. And a lot of people associate Manko with perverts. They think it’s gross because perverts are into it.
Your Manko character design was strategic, yes? To combat these associations?
Yes, the most important aspect to my Manko work to me is that it remain idiotic, stupid, and laughable, but still friendly, clever, and cute.
Are there other feminist artists or manga writers who you admire, or who inspired you in developing your aesthetic?
I really admire Niki de Saint Phalle. She made that beautiful sculpture that was a giant walk-in vagina. I like her colour scheme, her sculptures are very bright and cheerful and positive. I find feminist art to be kind of bleak, so this was refreshing.
You began your career writing very personal manga stories, much like Obscenity. What was the experience like of returning to writing after receiving so much international fame for your visual art?
I don’t think that mangaka (manga artists) need to feel like they have to do manga 24/7, personally. Though some mangaka artists do find themselves stuck in that manga k-hole. I was doing a lot of manga, but then when I was struggling to find paid work I started to do [manko art] as an economic thing. Then that went sideways when I got arrested, and so I knew I had to write about that because it made such an amazing story!
In other words, I write when I want to write, and I make when I want to make things, and I think that’s how artists should do what they do, and not have to stick within the confines of one medium.
What are you excited to see and do here in Toronto and at TCAF?
I actually read very few comics, so I’m excited to finally see what’s going on and learn what’s popular. And some people just stopped us outside and told me they were fans, so that’s wonderful too. Reading comics and meeting fans. That’s totally exciting!
Rokudenashiko will present What Is Obscenity? The Story of a Good For Nothing Artist and her Pussy at TCAF May 14 and 15th at the Toronto Reference Library.