Pussy Riot: One Woman’s Vagina Takes on Japan’s Obscenity Laws


In July 2014, Japanese police arrived at the apartment of manga artist Rokudenashiko and began searching her home. At first, the visit didn’t seem particularly serious to Rokudenashiko (a pseudonym that translates to “good-for-nothing girl”). Her roommate watched the proceedings and then went to work when it got dull; Rokundenashiko even helped the police pack up her art, which they were collecting as evidence. She imagined the whole thing was due to a misunderstanding, and thought what a great comic it would make.

Things started to feel more serious when Rokudenashiko was arrested on charges of obscenity. The charges stemmed from her art, which involved making things from casts of her manko (vagina). She had turned her manko into buttons, dioramas, and cell phone covers. Her most recent project had been to 3D scan her manko so that she could blow it up and make larger items. She had crowdfunded the project, and used the money to make a kayak in the likeness of her manko. It was the rewards for the crowdfunders that attracted police attention. Anyone who contributed to the project got, among other things, a link to a downloadable file containing the scan of Rokudenashiko’s manko. This was enough to be considered distributing obscene materials under Japanese law.

What Is Obscenity? The Story of a Good for Nothing Artist and Her Pussy is Rokudenashiko’s graphic memoir of her initial arrest and time in jail. It is collected here from its original serial publication in Weekly Friday, a left-wing Japanese magazine. Between each chapter are short sections expounding on some aspect of Japanese culture for a non-Japanese audience; these range from details on obscenity laws and the state of feminism in Japan to brands of milk referenced and the mascot of the Japanese police force. There are also interviews with Rokudenashiko about her arrest and a final section on her early years as an artist, which provides a fascinating, if brief, look at the challenges of establishing oneself as a mangaka in Japan.

In the confusion of her arrest, Rokudenashiko did not consult a lawyer, and was discouraged from doing so by the police. They told her the costs would be too great — this was a blatant lie; a lawyer is provided to those who cannot afford one in Japan. Nor did the police inform her of her right to remain silent, though they later claimed to have done so, and they tried to coerce her into admitting her crime by misrepresenting the evidence they had collected. In the press, they denigrated her by referring to her as a “so-called” or “self-proclaimed” artist.

Eventually it became clear to Rokudenashiko, during her post-arrest interrogations, that she was arrested because someone had seen her art and decided that representation of the vagina is obscene. The legal rationale followed that initial decision, and it seemed as though the police and prosecutors didn’t have a firm grasp on what it was they were using to excuse the arrest. The formal charge the police leveled at her was based on the reward for anyone who had donated to her crowdfunding campaign — the file of a 3D scan of her manko. The police claimed she had sent this “obscene material” to an “unspecified large number” of people. In fact, as she explained to them, it had gone to a small number of people who had pledged to her crowdfunding campaign. Her explanation only led to further confusion, since no one in the police department seemed to be aware of what crowdfunding was.

In Japanese law, the statute covering obscenity says that it is anything that violates a “reasonable person’s sense of propriety.” This is as troublingly vague as it is ostensibly democratic. According to the male-dominated police and legal framework of Japan, Rokudenashiko has broken this law: the men who represented the law considered themselves reasonable, and their sense of propriety had been violated. However, society at large saw Rokudenashiko’s art as harmless, and so a different group of people who thought of themselves as reasonable saw the legal community’s actions as unreasonable. While Rukodenshiko learned to navigate life in prison, unbeknownst to her, supporters outside began to mobilize.

In attempting to use silliness and fun to demystify a part of the body of half of the world’s population, a crowdfunding campaign by a moderately well-known mangaka blew up into a case challenging Japanese obscenity laws that had not been updated since 1957 and brought international attention to a legal system more concerned with confessions and punishment than with seeking justice. When Rokudenashiko was made aware of the support her case was gaining outside of jail, it galvanized her sense of defiance, as well as her seemingly unflappable sense of fun. As she says, “I am using anger as a springboard, laughter is my weapon of choice in this battle.”

That attitude shines through in this memoir. The endless interviews and examinations by humorless bureaucrats are told with equal parts exasperation and humor; she takes great joy in making the old men who have decided that her art is obscene say the very word they consider obscene. Though her time in jail is short, her uncertainly about how to navigate the arbitrary rules of the guards — which cover everything from the way chopsticks are returned in a bento box to the manner in which a package is torn — make for a fascinating addition to prison literature.

The presumption of guilt is strong in Japan, and it is expected that someone accused of a crime will confess for a lighter sentence. The police came up against a stronger personality than they expected in Rokudenashiko, who has fought the charges with the support of her fellow artists and advocates. Since publication of this book, Rokudenashiko has been found not guilty of obscenity regarding her art, but guilty of distributing digital data of obscene material, for which she has been ordered to pay a fine. In a news conference, she displayed her typical defiance, saying she was “20 percent happy” that the court acknowledged her figurines as art, but stressed that she was “completely innocent,” and added, “I am of course indignant. I will appeal and continue to fight in court.” A fight she will hopefully win, or, at the very least, turn into another charming, keenly observed book.