Megumi Igarashi, a Japanese artist who works under the pseudonym Rokudenashiko, meaning “good-for-nothing-girl”, has built an artistic career using models of her vagina. Igarashi began using the theme of her vagina in order to challenge the social taboo against even using the word “vagina”. “They never show the vagina in the media, so I didn’t know what a normal vagina looked like. I was wondering if mine was weird. So that’s why I made a mold.”
Her work took off from there—first she started decorating the mold with paints and stickers, then she started building dioramas on them (golf course, anyone?). But still she dreamed bigger.
Her more recent projects include making figures of Lady Gaga modeled on her vagina. She also used crowdfunding to raise $10,000 to build a bright yellow kayak based on the same mold.
Igarashi was “outraged” when her art, designed to challenge the culture of “discrimination” against discussion of the vagina in Japanese society, brought her up against charges of obscenity. She was arrested on Saturday and now faces up to two years in prison and a fine of up to $25,000. She has vowed to take the issue to court to fight the charges.
The charge is particularly ironic given the fact that Japan is host to the annual Kanamara Matsuri, which translates as the “Festival of the Steel Phallus.” At Kanamara Matsuri, large model penises are carried down the street, celebrants eat all manner of phallic foodstuffs, and penis-shaped paraphernalia abound.
Yet, for some reason, a vagina is obscene.
Igarashi initially thought that the 10 police officers who arrived at her house were there only to confiscate her artwork. “I couldn’t stop myself from laughing a little as I explained to the grim-looking officers, ‘This is the Lady Gaga ‘manko’ [pussy] figure’,” she said from jail. “I did not expect to get arrested at all. Even as they were confiscating my works, I thought to myself, ‘This will be a good story’. Then they handcuffed and arrested me. Now, I just feel outraged.”
Igarashi’s fans are outraged as well: more than 17,000 people have now signed a petition on change.org to have her immediately released. She can only be detained until the end of July before charges are filed.
Part of the problem with Igarashi’s arrest is the ambiguity of the charge: how do you define what is obscene or too offensive to be stated in public? The legal definition of “obscenity” is very vague in Japan—a 1951 Supreme Court case defined it as something that stimulates desire and violates an ordinary person’s sense of morality or sexual shame—and is sure to prove essential in the debate.
Igarashi’s case brings up both women’s rights and the freedom of artistic expression. Her artistic purpose is to make people rethink how “obscene” the vagina really is and to think about the double standard that Japan applies to female and male genitalia. The vagina “has been such a taboo in Japanese society… It’s been overly hidden although it’s just a part of a woman’s body.”
So can a physical body part be considered inherently obscene? Or is it labeled as such by the beholder? And should people who label certain things as obscene to them be protected at the expense of others’ freedom?
Obviously at some point the law does have to make a decision, draw a line. But that decision should not be based on double standards or subject to changes in the political climate.
Images courtesy of rt.com, youtube.com user vpro metropolis, and torontosun.com.