In her semiautobiographical feature film “Who’s Afraid of Vagina Wolf?,” Anna Margarita Albelo plays a struggling film director who makes ends meet by screening her movies in art galleries where she shows up dressed as a vagina. Though the story is mainly about relationships, the prominence of the female sexual organ in the title has given Albelo a certain measure of notoriety, and when the Japanese artist Rokudenashiko was recently arrested for distributing data that could produce a replica of her vagina with a 3-D printer, Albelo’s Facebook wall was bombarded with notices about the incident.

“Anytime there is anything to do with vaginas, people send me stuff,” says Albelo, an American who was recently in Japan to screen her movie at the Tokyo International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. She identifies with Rokudenashiko. “I used to live in Paris, and when I was bored I’d put on the (vagina) costume and walk down the street. The reactions, both positive and negative, were really strong. It provoked a lot of discussion, like Rokudenashiko’s work.”

Granted, Albello didn’t spend five days in jail, but her point is that the word “vagina” “still has a negative connotation.” At the heart of the legal argument surrounding Rokudenashiko’s arrest is the term waisetsu, which means “obscenity” or “indecency” in a sexual context. She was cited by the Metropolitan Police for giving the 3-D data to someone who had donated money to her project of building a kayak in the shape of a vagina, and is using the media fallout from the episode to protest outmoded legal and social taboos against the depiction of female genitalia. The materials she was charged with distributing are streams of code. They only have the potential to be “obscene,” a word the law doesn’t define.

The parameters for judging something indecent in Japan were set in a ruling by the Supreme Court against the publication of D.H. Lawrence’s novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” in 1967. The court stated that obscene materials provoke lust in individuals that leads to shame and self-loathing, which is as subjective a call as you can get. Can code provoke lust? DVDs and video or photo files distributed as pornography are made up of code, but even if Rokudenashiko’s was utilized to make a finished form, can a plastic representation of a vagina — isolated from not only the expectation of intimacy, but also the rest of the human body — incite sexual dissipation? Some think it can and some don’t, but the authorities have already decided the matter for you.

And the police are men; or, at least, they represent that portion of society with penises, which, according to sex goods retailer and writer Minori Kitahara, are given a pass. The depiction of actual male genitalia in the mass media is also forbidden, but Kitahara’s store, Love Piece Club, sells dildos that are faithful replicas of erect penises and she has never been arrested. Why was Rokudenashiko detained for only giving out digital information that could be made into a replica? Because it’s a replica of her vagina and not something created from imagination?

Here’s where the media enter the discussion. When police announced the arrest they described Rokudenashiko as a “self-proclaimed artist” and identified her only by her real name, Megumi Igarashi, implying she’s not the real thing. Most media went along with the description, and in doing so reinforced the police force’s notion that she was a pornographer. When Japanese people think of depictions of female genitalia for sale they mainly think of nude pictorials in weekly magazines, which used to be busted for printing such photos but now get away with it as long as the genitalia isn’t obvious. Even if the vulva isn’t visible, the purpose of such pictures is to stimulate, but one man’s self-loathing is apparently another’s aesthetic fulfillment. Once in a while, you hear of a publisher being prosecuted for obscenity but, as with Rokudenashiko, it’s arbitrary: You can’t control all sexual material, but you can keep it in check by publicizing the occasional arrest, which the media invariably reports because of its salacious nature. It doesn’t matter if the suspect admits pornography or insists on art.

Last year, police arrested the owner of a strip theater in Shinjuku and six of his dancers for exposing their genitalia to customers, which has always been the purpose of strip theaters in Japan. No matter how sexually provocative their routines are, if the dancers don’t reveal their vaginas at the end the patrons don’t think they’re getting their money’s worth. The police only raid these establishments once in a while. They do the same thing with mahjong parlors, where illegal gambling is the norm (but not pachinko, in which the police have a vested interest).

But in this case the suspect has rallied sympathetic people to her cause, including overseas news outlets, which, as Albelo points out, tend to find the incident more amusing than sinister. Rokudenashiko’s lawyer says that the arrest shows how the police are worried that depictions of women’s genitalia are becoming acceptable as art, thus undermining their authority, which is more about control than public morals. After all, they still allow non-photographic representations of child pornography, which the rest of the world considers immoral by consensus.

Rokudenashiko insists that the vagina is a part of the body, no different from arms or legs, and that penalizing its depiction discriminates against women. In a recent blog post, Kitahara explained that Japanese feminists made the same point back in the 1970s, and when she mentioned this to Rokudenashiko in 2011 the artist was offended, as if Kitahara were accusing her of being late to the party.

Albelo despairs that “feminist” is another word with “a bad rap” today, “even among young women.” The idea that Rokudenashiko didn’t know her cause had been taken up by an earlier generation of women suggests those ’70s feminists failed. Maybe Rokudenashiko won’t. It wouldn’t be the first time art made a stronger impression than polemics.

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