A Japanese artist who was arrested in 2014 for an art project involving 3-D–printer designs of her vagina was found guilty of obscenity this week. Megumi Igarashi, who goes by the name “Rokudenashiko” (“good-for-nothing girl”), has been fined 400,000 yen, or about $3,700. Igarashi is best known for creating a full-size kayak shaped like her own vagina, which she paddled down the Tama River in 2014. But she ran afoul of Japanese law when she distributed plans for making 3-D–printer replicas of her scanned vagina to 30 people who had contributed to a crowdfunding project for the kayak.
The Tokyo district court’s decision to fine Igarashi seems more than a little prudish when you consider that there’s a centurieslong tradition of gleeful and open eroticism in Japanese art. Japan was the last major industrialized country to make possession of child pornography a crime in 2014, it and carved out exceptions for comics and animation. Oh, also the country is home to an annual “Festival of the Steel Phallus” at which people gather to parade a penis-shaped altar down the street and suck on penis lollipops. It seems that Igarashi’s mistake was not depicting genitals but depicting female genitals.
Igarashi has said she started using her vagina as a motif because female genitalia remain so mysterious within her culture. “I had never seen the vagina of others and I was too self-conscious of mine,” she writes on her website. “I did not know what a vagina should look like at the same time, so I thought mine was abnormal.” The word manko, which translates loosely as “pussy,” is taboo, while chinko, the parallel word for penis, is apparently tossed around on children’s TV.
Though headlines invariably call Igarashi the “Vagina Kayak Artist,” she has also used her genitalia as a mold to make intricate miniature scenes of an all-girls’ school, a battlefield, and the Fukushima nuclear plant (“taboo on top of taboo”). She has produced a vagina lampshade, vagina jewelry, a remote-controlled vagina car, and a vagina smartphone case, to name a few. And she has hosted workshops for women to make models of their own pudenda using dental impression materials, and then decorate them with glitter, buttons, ribbons, and beads.
Igarashi’s work is relentlessly cute, which makes it all the more disarming. Her cartoon character “Manko-chan” (“Miss Pussy”) looks like a peach teardrop with a pink ruffled collar and a perpetually surprised expression. That cuteness is not coincidental. “Pussy has been thought to be obscene because it’s been overly hidden, although it is just a part of women’s body,” she explains on her site. “I wanted to make pussy more casual and pop.”
If the Japanese court system wanted to suppress Igarashi’s work, they’ve obviously failed. Her graphic memoir What Is Obscenity?: The Story of a Good for Nothing Artist and Her Pussy was published this week in English. Her vaginal kayak is magnificent—and has been covered by media all over the world. Meanwhile, the latest round of publicity for her obscenity fine has catapulted her to a new level of international renown. Here’s hoping for a Festival of the Steel Vagina.