Japanese Society, Women, and Igarashi Megumi

Artist Igarashi Megumi in her vagina-kayak. Japan Times

I recently shared an article from the Japan Times with a friend of mine who is a Sociology and Gender Studies professor. The article was about the recent indictment of feminist artist Igarashi Megumi. Igarashi, who gained notoriety for creating a kayak shaped like her vagina, was arrested and indicted on charges of obscenity for creating and distributing a 3D image of her vagina online for use with 3D printers. I figured my friend, who is also a vociferous feminist, would find this story interesting.

My friend did indeed find it interesting but, not knowing much about Japanese culture and wanting gain an understanding of the context in which this story is unfolding, she had a few questions for me. Her question to me was as follows: “So I know that historically in Asian cultures, in general, honor and family are top priority, so this makes me think that Japanese culture leans toward a more traditional, conventional ideology. Is this correct? And, how are women viewed in Japanese culture? Do they have a voice in politics and business? I guess I’m asking how repressed are women in this culture? How are sex and sexuality viewed? Because while historically tradition has been important, I see contemporary Japanese culture (through mainstream narratives) as more cheeky and playful with women’s bodies and sexuality. For instance, that video you posted a bit ago with the teen girl band that mixed pop and metal (baby metal??). I guess I’m trying to understand the dichotomy between the old and the new and where this artist story falls.”

In response to her very good question I took a few days to think about it and then wrote out an explanation of Japanese social organization as I understand it and where women fit into it based on what I have seen, read, learned in school, etc. It turned into a rather long essay which touches on just about everything I have ever learned about Japanese society. I want to point out that I do not claim to be an expert and that, while I have put down here what to the best of my knowledge I believe to be true, and that I pass no judgment on the rightness or wrongness of anything put forth here, some of what I have written may be incorrect, or perhaps may not be what others believe to be true. Nevertheless, here is my response to my friend. I hope that you all will find it informative or at least interesting.


On the place of women in Japanese society and how sex and sexuality are viewed and/or controlled discussed in the context of the arrest of the artist Igarashi Megumi

by David Taylor

Japanese culture is generally based upon four main things. Shinto, in which place is important; Confucianism, in which social behavior and ethics are important; Buddhism, in which morality is important; and most importantly, a communal and conformist social organization which is believed by anthropologists to be the result of intensive rice cultivation which required the cooperation of the entire village in order to ensure a successful harvest. Modern Japanese may not be practitioners of any of the aforementioned philosophies, but their influence over Japanese social structure over the centuries really cannot be overstated.

Confucianism dictates a high degree of familial loyalty, “filial piety” is what it’s called. This creates a strong familial bond as well as a well-defined hierarchy within families, which the patriarch tops, and which then extends beyond the family to the clan, and outward still to lords and masters, etc, all the way up to the Emperor, and even including ancestors. This hierarchy gives rise to the many different forms of speech in the Japanese language which denote levels of politeness used depending on whether one is speaking to a superior (a boss or older relative, etc.) or a subordinate (a younger classmate or an employee).

In this system if one were to commit some public act that is considered embarrassing, say, getting arrested or failing the university entrance exam, then it is taken as an embarrassment to the entire family, and the person at fault generally goes to great pains to apologize, and may even commit suicide. The trick is that this “family” can also be any other group to which the person belongs, for example the company that they work for, their soccer team, or the National Diet (i.e., the legislature). These social units are referred to as someone’s “in-group.” If someone gets arrested for public intoxication and trying to steal a car, the police will not only call that person’s family, but will call his company as well, and he could lose his job over the embarrassment caused.

That is a basic crash-course in Japanese social organization, so now I’ll try to speak to how women fit into the whole thing. Traditionally, women’s place in the structure has been as subordinate to men both within the family and within other “in-groups.” The traditional role of the woman has been to find a husband, marry, and stay at home raising the children while the man goes out to work. This is still true even today, though Japanese ideas about marriage are changing. In the workplace women have tended to only work for a few years until they find a husband and then they leave the workforce; and, much like the America of the 1950s, the woman’s role has more often been that of secretary or “girl who pours tea while the men take care of business,” or they simply exist in the service industry.

There is change taking place, however, and more and more women are entering the workforce. Japan’s economy has been struggling for about two decades now, and because of fertility rates that are well below the replacement level, Japan’s working population is shrinking faster than almost any nation on earth. Many believe that bringing more women into the workforce offers a solution to the labor shortage. However, this puts the nation in danger of lowering the fertility rate even farther as more women put off having children for longer in order to work. Today, women in Japan are reaching higher and higher levels of achievement in the workplace. There are women members of legislature and Prime Minister Abe Shinzo even appointed five women to his cabinet in a deliberate effort to demonstrate the inclusion of women as important to Japan’s future. Unfortunately, women who reach high places are still often subjected to higher levels of scrutiny than their male colleagues and often face harassment. Recently, a female member of the legislature was heckled by male colleagues in a public institution with shouts to the effect of, “you should have stuck to being a housewife and should leave the governing to the men,” or some such thing like that. The good news is that these comments were generally unappreciated and public apologies were given.

In this patriarchal society, as you can imagine, women’s sexuality has always been the closely guarded property of the men in it. It is not a chaste society, however, and sex and sexuality generally do not have the same guilt and shameful stigma attached to them as they do in more conservative cultures, like for example Islam or Protestant Christianity. So, sex is displayed everywhere and sought after, but like I said it is closely guarded by the men and, in general, feminine sexuality, with women as subordinate, is an exploited resource. Women in Japan have limited economic opportunity, and because of this they can be easily funneled into a system of hostess bars, strip clubs, massage parlors, brothels, and pornography, where their sex is treated as a commodity, and as a guarded commodity it is exploited much to the exclusion of outsiders. This especially means foreigners, but includes many other “out-groups,” like those without money, or who simply don’t know the right people.

In a certain part of Tokyo, and elsewhere, one can find ten-storey buildings packed to bursting with pornography of all kinds, as well as sex toys and all that fun stuff. But, there’s a catch. Japan has strict and very specific obscenity laws—though, given this abundance of sexual imagery it almost seems pointless—which make illegal the visual depiction of genitalia in any medium. So, mountains and mountains of porn, including child pornography (that’s right, child porn! 13+ is the rule, I think.), are produced in which genitalia of all kinds are blurred out. Therefore, it does seem that the vagina kayak artist, Igarashi Megumi, has indeed broken some laws by creating an image of her vagina and making it available to the general public. Whether it seems right to lump her artistic expression in with materials that are produced for sexual consumption and pleasure is the central question around which this issue revolves, and this will prove to be an interesting court case to follow.

You know, I watched an animated Japanese film very recently which, while also about the dangers of cyber-terrorism, was at its core a celebration of traditional Japanese family life. It’s called “Summer Wars,” directed by Mamoru Hosoda. In it a large family comes together at their ancestral family home to celebrate the 90th birthday of the family’s matriarch. All the men in the family had traditionally respected jobs/identities; fireman, fisherman, policeman, military, and baseball champion; while all the women, though some more feisty than others and depicted as the being the real leaders in the family, were homebodies, housewives, mothers, or children. This, I think, is a clear representation of what is expected of people who are to be considered “respectable” in Japanese society, and depicts the accepted norms for women within it.

The dichotomy, the disconnect, between the dominant undercurrent of traditional Japanese society and the post-modern, whacko, hyper-color, super-sexy, and utterly surreal Japan, bursting with individuality, and with sexuality, may be, I will argue, a result of a need to break free and rebel from the constraints of a stiflingly conformist culture, coupled with the relatively recent freedom of expression which was granted to the Japanese people under the post-war constitution which was essentially written by the Americans. I think this recipe has created an explosion of creativity in Japan, and it’s happening again in South Korea (another American-made, post-war constitution). This dichotomy is precisely why Igarashi’s art is in direct conflict with traditional ideologies in Japan. There’s a fascinating book, called The Hollow Doll, by William Bohnaker (1990) which explores the tension (literally using the analogy of a string pulled so tight it snaps) between conformity and modernism in Japan. It really explains so much of what we are talking about here. I liked it so much I read it twice! I think you’d enjoy it, too.

I hope I have shed some light on this issue for you. I have had tremendous fun replying to these questions, and I feel that it has given me a great opportunity to put down in writing so much of what I have learned over the last few years. Let me know if you have any more questions as I could go on and on for days about this.