An artist arrested for distributing 3-D data of her art project was arrested, then quickly released earlier this month. Because her art focuses on her vagina, the case has put Japan’s inconsistent obscenity laws into the spotlight once again.
Laws restricting pornographic images that are harmful or dangerous should be enforced, but this case is a clear restriction of the freedom of artistic expression.
The artist, Megumi Igarashi, has made a career out of art based on female genitalia, usually her own. She was arrested not for sending images, but for providing the data from which fans could make a precise model of her vagina using a 3-D printer. In return, she received donations to help complete her latest artwork, based on genitalia-related themes.
After her arrest, her lawyers made an appeal to the Tokyo District Court, which then quickly released her. However, the case shows again how hypocritical and sexist Japan’s obscenity laws remain.
As Igarashi argues, the presentation of images of sexual organs should not be considered taboo, obscene or shameful. That is especially true if they are presented within the context of an artistic work, with a clear concept, background and aim. That the images were of female, not male, genitalia, and that Igarashi was making a provocative and unrestrained criticism, surely influenced the police’s decision to arrest her.
She may also have been seen as a rather easy target, since she works on her own without the financial backing of a large publishing company. Large publishing companies had a vested interest in the direction of recent laws against child pornography. The laws have been criticized as remaining too lax about profitable videos and manga that include explicit sexual images of children.
Igarashi, though, is an adult without such backing, and is creating artistic works — in fact, rather conceptual ones. She was sending data, and a description in words, not images. After her arrest, more than 20,000 people signed an online petition in her support.
The arrest should also be considered in the context of the constant bombardment of advertising with sexist images of young women and young girls, to sell everything from shampoo to bathing suits to cars. The rest of the context is something that everyone knows; images of genitalia are already readily accessible on the Internet.
For prosecutors to continue their investigation for a possible case against this vagina artist will only bring her more publicity and do nothing to protect morals or preserve public order.
The arrest of any artist is an attack on freedom of expression. In the most restrictive societies, authoritarian governments typically act to control sexual images first, then move on to control speech and thought. Japan is a society sophisticated, flexible, art-minded and democratic enough to survive the artistic presentation of genitalia.
That one woman chooses to create art based on her vagina will not harm anyone.