Feb 1, 2016 | By Alec

Japan is known for its unusual traditions, but a western visitor might be most surprised to learn about their laws regarding the depiction of genitals. This is currently quite a controversial political issue in Japan, where a court case is ongoing against 3D printed vagina artist Megumi Igarashi (also known as Rokudenashiko or 'bad girl'). Despite living in a country with a multi-billion dollar porn industry that also proudly displays gigantic phallic statues at fertility festivals, the artist is on trial for publicly sharing works of art based on her own vagina, including 3D printed copies. It was just revealed that the prosecutors in the case have called on the judge to fine Megumi Igarashi ¥800,000 (or approximately $6600) for breaking the law.

If you follow Asian news at all, it will have been difficult to miss this issue. Back in July 2014, Megumi Igarashi reached headlines when she was arrested by Japanese police after they discovered she shared 3D printable files of her vagina online. She had been working on a line of art inspired by 3D scans made of her own genitals. This has already resulted in some remarkable works, including a kayak (made with 3D printing), a manga series, various household items (such as a chandelier), and even a mascot suit. Released five days later, Rokudenashiko was again arrested in December 2015 for her 3D printed vagina creations. The trial for the 43-year-old woman is now becoming something of illustrative case for the strange laws governing a woman’s sexuality. In particular, she is now on trial for possessing obscene materials with the purpose of selling them, something that could be punished with as much as a 2.5 million yen ($21,000) fine and/or two years of jail time.

This is a court case that highlights a very controversial issue in Japanese society, which is known for being very patriarchal. It’s a place where a woman’s sexual identity has absolutely no rights in the public sphere – something that even touches children. When just a child, Megumi Igarashi quickly learnt that the word ‘manko’ (vagina) could not be said out loud. “My dad had written a little song about penises and vaginas, but when I sang it in the street, people would look at me, horrified,” the artist recalls. ‘Chinko’ or penis, however, was just fine. “I realized there was a taboo surrounding these parts of our anatomy.”

This is also even reflected in that multi-billion-dollar porn industry, in which even animated depictions of female genitalia are often blurred out. “The simple mention of the word vagina on television could lead to the host’s dismissal,” she says. It also affected herself as a young woman, as she underwent plastic surgery to make her vagina “more conform to male desire.” However, this also made her realize that something was horribly wrong. “I realized how I had internalized the psyche disseminated by men and used against women as an oppression tool,” she says.

Chris McGrath/Getty Images.

But for the outsider, things get even stranger when male sexual identity is taken into account, as men are not at all subjected to such limitations. “Japan is a very patriarchal society, very generous towards male sexual desire,” Rokudenashiko says. A typical Japanese newsstand sells pornographic books and magazines aimed at men right next to the newspapers, while the annual Kanamara Matsuri festival in Kawasaki attracts thousands of visitors. Held in early April, Kanamara Matsuri surrounds a shrine that originally attracted prostitutes who prayed for good health and good business, and later women praying for fertility and healthy children. Over time, the image of the penis became more and more important at the shrine, and today the festival is absolutely packed with penises. People eating penis-shaped lollipops, penis-shaped vegetables are on sale, and three gigantic penises (one pink) are actually carried around by worshippers. Most important is a large iron penis, which is a tribute to a story in which a metal phallus was used to drive demon teeth out of a woman’s vagina. Importantly, the festival isn’t about debauchery, but is open, free and also attracts families with small children.

Images credit: timetravelturtle

So why is this possible? How can the depiction of penises and the censorship of vaginas be okay under a single law? As the Japanese-based Portuguese researcher Joaquim da Silva explains, the current laws are fully open to interpretation. “It forbids the distribution of obscene material, but doesn’t define what’s obscene, thus giving way to wide interpretations from judges,” da Silva said. “It continues to target sexual minorities and feminist militants.” Over the last few years, Rokudenashiko has been trying to raise awareness for these very contradictory laws with the help of her own genitals. Coffee mugs, an iPhone case, a manga character and more – she covered it all with her own vagina. “I want women to reclaim that part of their anatomy that men so often violate and abuse,” she says. 3D printing is a key technology in that artistic process, as it can be used to rapidly reproduce 3D scans of her vagina. Even the vulva-shaped kayak was made with the help of 3D printing.

Images credit: Broadly

To increase awareness, she also collaborated with an exhibition in Hong Kong, that involved eleven other artists from Hong Kong and Japan, organized by Hitomi Hasegawa. “I wanted to show the parallel between the freedom of speech infringement endured by this artist and that which Hong Kong protesters experienced in 2014 during the umbrella revolution,” she explains. “It was also about giving a voice to young female artists, who are ignored too often in Asia, which represents another form of censorship.”

All exhibited works of art address the gender issue and link it to attacks on free speech in Hong Kong. “What happened to Megumi Igarashi echoes the enormous pressure that China is currently applying on Hong Kong,” argues fellow artist Yuk Kin Tan. Megumi Igarashi also sees parallels between these government crackdowns on expression. “I recently met with Ai WeiWei,” she says of the renowned and controversial Chinese artist. “He’s also trying to show with his art what authorities are trying to hide. He told me that my vagina was now my passport,” Igarashi says, laughing.

Below: with Ai WeiWei. Images: Megumi Igarashi's Facebook.

Her court case is thus part of a greater issue. In the face of the ¥800,000 fine for distributing 3D printable vagina models, Megumi Igarashi called for an impartial judgment. “Having created works that defy the (existing) image associated with genitalia, I cannot agree with my arrest,” she said. Her lawyer further said that obscenity wasn’t her goal, but simply distributed the files to allow supporters to create new artistic works. The models were specifically sent to people who supported the crowdfunding campaign for her vagina kayak.

The prosecution, meanwhile, argues that Igarashi is enabling the creation of obscene objects through 3D printing. “The shape is easy to clearly understand,” said the prosecutors. “Rather than an ornament it emphasizes the original.” In a previous hearing, a professor of art history argued that Igarashi’s works “do not appear to be obscene [materials] that cause sexual arousal.” A decision is expected to be handed down on May 9.

 

 

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