Breaking taboo in Japan



First of all: what is a taboo? A taboo refers to a social norm from a certain community, culture or sub-culture, that is strongly ingrained within the members of the community, culture or sub-culture. It is so strong, that just the mere thought of breaking the taboo revolts the person who is having such thoughts.

Not all cultures have the same taboos, they can be different from culture to culture. What for some culture might be totally acceptable, for another culture it might be an obscenity. Taboos also change through time, so what was a taboo in Ancient Greece, it is not now, to give an example. Taboos do not need to be sexually equal. In fact, taboos are quite unfair and breaking them could have severe consequences: like prison, banishment or even death.

In Japan is a taboo to show feminine genitals in any form in the public sphere. However, it is not so with male genitals. In fact, there is a religious festival called Kanamara Matsuri, or “Festival of the Steel Phallus,” where people pray for fertility while there is a street phallic procession. This is a religious festivity in which attendants, while enjoying a good time, pray for fertility. While this is acceptable, what Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi (nickname Rokudenashiko) was arrested over her vagina art (デコマん、dekoman). She was breaking not only the law, but also “taboo.”



Igarashi built all types of objects with data of her scanned vagina, including a kayak boat shaped like her vagina. She used crowd-funding to aid her project. She was arrested for “distributing indecent material,” and though she has been released, she is still in trouble. According to the law, the definition of “obscenity” is vague in Japan. The point in her case is to decide if the “vagina,” per se, can be considered obscene. While there are festivities regarding the male genitals, there are none regarding women’s genitals. In fact, showing the vagina is a taboo in Japan. While it can be seen in sex-shops around Akihabara, public displays like the ones made by Igarashi are still a taboo within Japanese society.

Igarashi has broken the taboo and is asking to review it. The case has become international, and commented by other cultures with different views (see Comedy Central). What might seem funny in one place of the world, has devastating consequences in another part, because of the taboo.

The different gender expectations within society might be one of the reasons why there are so different taboos regarding male and female sexual organs in Japan. What it’s expected from women and men is different, how both genders are socialized is also different. This different expecting attitudes towards genders create their own taboos. While having religious festivities for one gender, it can become also “normal” that the other one enters the realm of the taboo.

Women are expected to marry, bear children and rule the household according to the traditional Japanese society patterns. The problem is that in nowadays society these patterns are crawling down. While more and more women are entering the workforce with sheer strength, many traditional patterns, stereotypes and taboos are being broken down into pieces. It is no wonder then, that the tensions that Japanese are living internally jump to the international arena thanks to modern technology.

Shame is something to be avoided in Japanese culture, at all costs. When something crosses Japanese boundaries and reaches the international community and international speech, Japan as a whole is subject to public shame. It might be that aspect of the Japanese culture one of the changing forces that might help break some obsolete taboos and stereotypes.


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A Geek Girl interested in Geek Anthropology, comic books, books, Superheroes and discovering all about pop culture.

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