What Is Obscenity? is a Portrait of an Artist and Her Vagina

by Mia Nakaji Monnier

On June 12, 2014, artist Rokudenashiko, or “good-for-nothing girl,” awoke to the police knocking on her door. Ten officers, nine of them men, walked into her apartment. In her graphic memoir, What Is Obscenity?: The Story of a Good for Nothing Artist and Her Pussy, they have shadows across their stern faces and tromp across her floor with a menacing sound:

“Doka doka doka.”

They had come to arrest her on obscenity charges. Among her obscene creations: a crowd-funded, vagina-shaped kayak, and plaster vulva molds decorated with paint, artificial flowers, plastic figurines. Most offensive, according to police, was the 3D scan of her anatomy, which she used to make the kayak and later distributed as a downloadable file to those who helped to fund it. The week her book debuted in English, she was found guilty of one charge of obscenity and fined 400,000 yen, about $3,600.

Rokudenashiko (pseudonym for Megumi Igarashi) calls her work “manko art,” or “pussy art.” In Japan, not unlike in the United States, the vagina is often referred to euphemistically. Some call it “asoko,” which, in context, means “down there.” (Jisho.org gives this helpful example sentence: “Sensei, asoko ga kayuin desu,” or “Doctor, I’ve got an itch in my crotch.”) My mom, when I was still of supervised-bathing age, called it the simultaneously mild and colorful “oshikko no tokoro” or “pee place.”

“Even the utterance of ‘manko’ was a taboo, and absolutely forbidden since I was a child,” writes Rokudenashiko, “and I’ve found myself respecting the archaic convention against saying it, even despite myself.” During her trial, she took pleasure in making prosecutors read the word over and over in her testimony. On that page of her book, she smiles in what can only be described as a “trollish” way, while a sweating, wrinkle-browed officer reads, cartoon vulvas radiating from his body.

The cartoon vulva in question is glimpsed on the cover of What Is Obscenity? and she has a name: Manko-chan, translated throughout the book as Ms. Manko. She is as cute and minimalistic as Japanese characters before her, from Hello Kitty to Capybara-san, with two black dots for eyes, a gold clitoris of a crown, and a ruffled labial mane that resembles the shampoo-shields Japanese kids wear for baths. Throughout the book, her mouth is always open, shouting, singing, and crying, except once, when it’s stuffed with a tampon.

Ms. Manko is a kind of mascot to vulvas, part of a phenomenon in Japan, where almost everything has its own cute mascot. Each prefecture has one, the best-known of them being Kumamoto’s Kumamon, a perpetually-surprised bear I always confuse with Pedobear. Even the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department has Pipo-kun, a blushing alien “with oversized ears to hear the voice of the citizens, big eyes with which to observe every corner of society, and an antenna to receive the movements of society as a whole.”

What Is Obscenity? includes this creepy explanation of Pipo-kun in one of the interstitial spreads between chapters. These sections give closer explanation of everything from the Japanese criminal justice system to Shinto penis festivals, and they became some of my favorite parts of the book, turning it into a cheerful “rewarder” of curiosity, like a DK children’s encyclopedia.

The main narrative tracks Rokudenashiko’s story through the genesis of her manko art, her arrest, and the public reaction that followed. Originally serialized in the Japanese magazine Weekly Friday, its chapters are episodic, each one picking up a few beats before the last one left off.

The artist’s bright, simple style keeps her work lighthearted and accessible. Her cute drawings separate the vagina from sex, highlighting the absurdity of all the cultural judgments we place on a simple body part. “I’m part of your body,” says Ms. Manko to a young Rokudenashiko. “No different from your hands or feet or nose or mouth. But everyone ignores me.”

“That’s weird,” replies Rokudenashiko. “If you’re my body then you’re important. That should be normal.”

In English, her book is further softened by the use of the original Japanese word “manko,” rather than “pussy.” All the comic onomatopoeias remain written in Japanese too (with English translations beside them), there for those of us who can read it to hear the “gachan” of clamped handcuffs, the “haa” of an anxious sigh, the “bu — ” of a prison bus heading to the courthouse. Japanese skills aren’t necessary to understand this book, but they give an extra layer of access that I love. Reading from left to right, Japanese style, with English text, feels like my multilingual life in object form.

In my favorite section of What Is Obscenity?, at the very end of the book, the point of view shifts from the artist to Ms. Manko herself. The illustrations, until this point black-and-white, go full-color, filled in endearingly with colored pencil.

This section is a fictional summary of Rokudenashiko’s journey, telling the story of Ms. Manko’s ideological evolution: she begins with innocent enthusiasm, becomes depressed by society’s reaction at her mere presence, and turns into an angry revolutionary. When she realizes that even women are less interested in her than they are in hyper-cute popstar Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, she sees what she needs to do. “No matter how I studied,” she says, “it was useless if I didn’t reach people.”

We need Rokudenashiko as much in the U.S. as in Japan. Here, prudishness about sex and the human organs associated with it mean that we often don’t seek help when we need it because we’re embarrassed or ashamed. If we can’t compare stories freely with others, we can’t even know what’s normal, when pain is just part of a healthy period, for example, or when it is a signal of something wrong. Vice recently published a piece by journalist Mona Gable about how reproductive conservatism means that pregnant people face hurdles even when seeking something as undeniably necessary as a Zika screening.

When facing an injustice, we speak in a wide range of ways: furiously, gently, haltingly, obliquely. Sometimes we stay silent in fear or frustration or a struggle to find just the right words, weighing them until, unspoken, they burn holes in our bellies. Rokudenashiko fights back in a uniquely Japanese way, through the power of cute, through a tiny pink mascot yelling for as long as it takes.

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