Artist Megumi Igarashi had never imagined battling investigative authorities over freedom of expression until they claimed she had committed crimes with her works of art.
Igarashi, known by her pseudonym Rokudenashiko, which literally means “good-for-nothing girl,” is noted for vagina-themed art, including “Vagina Boat,” a fully functional kayak. She used enhanced 3-D scan data of her own vagina to design it.
On July 12, 2014, the artist was spending a typical day at home until police suddenly showed up to arrest her over an art project that they claimed was “obscene.” It was just two months after she had held her first solo exhibition.
Igarashi, now 45, was arrested for allegedly distributing online 3-D scanned data of her vagina to the crowdfunding donors who had helped her complete the “Vagina Boat” project.
She was arrested again the same year for exhibiting three of her “Deco-man” works, a series of sculptures of her vagina in various eccentric designs, including a remote-controlled vagina car and a vagina smartphone case, in an adult entertainment shop in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo in July 2014.
Since then, Igarashi has been fighting the obscenity charges in court while stressing that “artists should be more serious” about art censorship.
Last Thursday, the Tokyo High Court upheld a lower court decision that found her guilty of obscenity for distributing the 3-D data and ordered her to pay a ¥400,000 fine. The high court also agreed with the lower court that the “Deco-man” sculptures were not obscene because they did not sexually stimulate viewers.
The artist immediately filed an appeal, saying she was “completely dissatisfied” with the high court ruling.
“It’s wrong for the government to judge what is art and what is not,” Igarashi said in a recent interview with The Japan Times, stressing that distribution of the 3-D data was part of her art project.
Knowing they face the potential of arrest, artists are inclined to censor their own work, she said.
While the court ruled that Igarashi distributed the data to raise funds, her lawyer, Takashi Yamaguchi, told the press last week that the court should acknowledge that the distribution was “part of the ‘Vagina Boat’ project” and therefore it was art.
“When illustrating the human body, including my own body, it’s very unnatural to blur or leave out that part (the genitals), or to consider that it doesn’t exist,” Igarashi said.
Originally a comic book writer, Igarashi’s first vagina art was for a manga in which she wrote about her own experience with cosmetic surgery on her genitalia.
Dreaming of becoming a pioneering author specializing on the vagina, believing there were no precursors, she also started working on the “Deco-man” sculptures, which brought her notice as an artist.
After seeing people surprised or angered by her work, she said she took the vagina concept more seriously, intending to change the common perception of the organ as something sexual and obscene.
For example, she claimed that a TV program had restricted her from saying out loud the title “Deco-man” because man is an abbreviated form of manko, Japanese slang for vagina. The word is often considered taboo by broadcasters and other media platforms.
“Manko and vagina have been such a taboo in Japanese society. Penis, on the other hand, has been used in illustrations and has become a part of pop culture,” Igarashi wrote on her website in English.
She stresses that her artworks are not obscene. Rather, describing herself as a feminist, she wants her art to be fun and entertaining so more people will understand that female genitalia are nothing to get worked up about.
“Humor has the power to overcome entrenched concepts. I’d like to keep on expressing in a fun and happy way, while using my body” to design artworks, she said.
It is not rare for investigative authorities in Japan to crack down on art exhibitions or to attack certain art as obscene.
In 2014, police asked the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art to remove works by photographer Ryudai Takano from a group exhibit titled “State of the Medium.”
The photographs were of him posing naked with male and female models.
The police judged that 12 of the 50 works in the show, which featured works by multiple photographers, were obscene due to their unaltered display of male genitals. Museum staff were threatened with arrest if they refused to act, museum official Fumiko Nakamura previously told The Japan Times.
“In any case, one thing is clear: The government is asserting its presence forcefully through the exercise of such power,” Takano wrote on his blog soon after the incident. “If the government deviates from its stated purpose, i.e. to temporarily borrow authority from its citizens, and instead makes a display of this power, that act is far more grotesque than something like the display of genitalia.”
The photographer and the museum decided to keep the works displayed — with a cloth veil draped over the parts of the photos considered by the police as obscene.
More famously, Takashi Asai, the president of Uplink Co., a company that distributes films, runs theaters and publishes art books, was embroiled in a legal saga that stretched from 1999 to 2008 over “Mapplethorpe,” a collection of 260 black-and-white photographs by the U.S. photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
Asai’s company had published the Japanese edition of the book in 1994, which is included in the collection at the National Diet Library.
However, in 1999, when Asai returned from a business trip to the United States and Canada with a copy of the Japanese edition of “Mapplethorpe,” customs officials at Narita International Airport deemed parts of it obscene and prevented him from bringing the book into the country — even though it had already been on sale in Japan for years.
Asai filed complaints with the customs authorities twice. These were not accepted and Asai eventually filed a lawsuit with the Tokyo District Court. In 2008, the Supreme Court found Asai not guilty.
Asked about Igarashi’s trial and the high court ruling, Asai said he thinks she’s innocent and that she and her lawyers are correct in saying that the distribution of the 3-D data should be considered part of the “Vagina Boat” project.
Asai referred to the works of Bulgaria-born environmental artist Christo, known for his works of draping architecture, including the Reichstag in Berlin, with giant cloth.
He argues that the blueprints illustrated by the artist are considered part of his work, and thus Igarashi’s 3-D data should likewise be considered part of the “Vagina Boat” project.
“If the police are saying that it’s 3-D data of female genitalia, the lawyers should argue that the data were necessary to create a part of an artwork called ‘Vagina Boat,’ ” Asai said.
“Rather than arguing if (the 3-D data) is art or something obscene, they should rather debate if it’s art or not,” he said.
“Vagina Boat” is currently being exhibited in the German Hygiene Museum, alongside cultural-historical exhibits and works of other contemporary artists, including Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki.
With her book “What Is Obscenity: The Story of a Good for Nothing Artist and Her Pussy” listed as one of the finalists for this year’s L. A. Times Book Prize, Igarashi says she is recognized as an artist overseas but in Japan she is often disliked even by other artists.
However, although now living in Ireland with her child and her husband, Mike Scott, the frontman for the rock band Waterboys, Igarashi said she would like to continue exhibiting her works in Japan and hopes to win an acquittal by the Supreme Court.
“The more this trial is talked about, the more chances it brings about for people to realize that common sense and stereotypes are not always correct,” she said.
“Little by little … I’m starting to gain support from people” in Japan.