Artist says her vagina creations confront a Japanese taboo

Megumi Igarashi's 'vagina art' appears playful, but Japan's prosecutors and fuming feminists aren't laughing. It's because only men are allowed to express sexual desire, academic says

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 July, 2015, 9:35pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 July, 2015, 9:35pm

Megumi Igarashi introduces herself with a pink business card in the shape of her vagina. It gets better: before the interview begins, the artist, who goes by the name "Rokudenashiko", roughly meaning "bad girl", places plastic figurines of her genitalia on the table in her lawyer's office. "It's my pussy art," she says, smiling sweetly.

In a country where first meetings are often deeply formal, the opener suggests a playful, subversive sense of humour - but Japan's prosecutors seem to have missed the joke. Igarashi is fighting obscenity charges in a trial playing like a digital rerun of the 1960 controversy over D.H. Lawrence's novel Lady Chatterley's Lover. Igarashi sculpts and illustrates her genitals to mock what she says are outdated social and legal taboos. The authorities proved her point by arresting her last year after she emailed 3D data of a kayak in the shape of her vagina to financial supporters. Ten police officers confiscated her belongings and marched her away in handcuffs. She was later interrogated for 23 days.

"I had no idea what was wrong when the police came," she recalls. "They told me I was a criminal. They searched my room and confiscated a lot of stuff. I was very angry."

Igarashi says police were sent across the country to interview her supporters. "They didn't seem to understand what crowdfunding was." (The police have declined to comment for this article.)

The arrest raised eyebrows and has triggered a lively debate about censorship and women's rights. Japan's media is crowded with sexual imagery: mass-market magazines contain images of incest, underage sex and gang rapes; a popular annual fertility festival near Tokyo features giant wooden phalluses and penis-shaped candy; and possession of child pornography was only made illegal this year.

"Japan is inconsistent," says Igarashi. "If you ride the train you're confronted with adverts with sexual images and you cannot avoid looking at them. All these notions are based on the men's viewpoint and there is a lack of empowerment of women." She wants to make the vagina look "ridiculous", she says - one of her art pieces shows a vulva on legs, she points out.

Igarashi's allegation that the vagina is taboo in Japan seems counterintuitive: public nudity is common - millions of Japanese visit public baths and spring resorts every year. But even there, private parts are covered up with a towel, she says. Most people use euphemisms to describe the female genitalia, she adds, unless it's depicted in porn. "I'm convinced there is something wrong with how the vagina is depicted in society," she says. "But my main purpose is art, not education and empowerment. That's why I treat the pussy in this sort of sarcastic way."

They paraded them in front of the witness stand with a little cloth covering them … like a magic show

Igarashi's work upsets not because it's sexual, but because it disrupts the norm, says Mari Miura, a political scientist at Sophia University. It is acceptable for men to express sexual desire, but not women. Prosecutors could not care less about the cultural context, or whether it is comical or erotic, she says. "All they see is a woman showing her vagina."

Japan's obscenity laws have speared far bigger victims.

Shunga erotica from the Edo period (1603-1868), long considered masterpieces elsewhere, have been banned from exhibition in their country of origin for decades. A Tokyo museum has plucked up the courage to show 120 woodprints and paintings of men and women having sex later this year.

If convicted, Igarashi faces up to two years in prison, or 2.5 million yen (HK$158,026) in fines. Prosecutors opened her trial in the Tokyo District Court in April by showing plaster-cast imprints of vagina in a box, covered by a cloth. Lawyers stumbled over the word "manko", roughly meaning "c***". The artist admits making and distributing the imprints but disagrees that they are obscene.

"When the prosecutors brought out the evidence to show to me, it was quite funny," she recalls. "Usually when they show the evidence, it's a knife used to kill someone, or something like that. In my case, they showed imprints of vaginas made in my workshops. They paraded them in front of the witness stand with a little cloth covering them. It was like a little magic show."

Her lawyer, Takashi Yamaguchi, doubts his client will be sent to prison, but says the trial is a waste of public money. Prosecutors will argue her art violates Japan's obscenity laws, which punish material that maliciously stimulates sexual desire or violates "the sense of shame in an average person". Igarashi counters the charge violates her right to freedom of expression.

Many people are surprised at her decision to fight, says Yamaguchi. She gets hate mail for not admitting guilt and causing "trouble". Most people would admit the charges just because it takes so much time to prove the authorities wrong.

Even feminists dislike her art because they miss the humour and think she is making fun of the female body, laments Igarashi. "That's a sign, I think, that the image of the vagina as something dirty has seeped deep into society," she says.

Her legal hounding shows the disconnect between Japan's renewed emphasis on making full use of women's abilities in the boardroom and workplace under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and the reality among the country's crusty authorities, says Peter O'Connor, a media specialist at Waseda University. Igarashi is just the sort of bright, funny, energetic woman Japan needs, he says. "There are forces behind her treatment that make you wonder just how far the elites have come in Japan, if at all."

[email protected]