Sail Away

Japan’s ‘Vagina Kayak’ Artist Fights Back Against Obscenity Charges—And Misogyny

Megumi Igarashi is facing prosecution after sailing a kayak shaped like a vagina, and making vagina-themed art. In an exclusive interview, she says her determination to express herself and confront sexism will not waver.

Megumi Igarashi is a Japanese artist who paddles her own canoe. Well, it’s more like a vagina kayak. Last July, Igarashi, 42, found herself in troubled waters when she crossed a Tokyo river in a two-meter long 3D printed kayak modeled after her own genitals.

Although Igarashi completed this virgin voyage unscathed, she was arrested under Japanese obscenity law after she distributed the model of her vagina to fans who had crowdfunded the project.

At the time, the Daily Beast’s Lizzie Crocker took Japanese authorities to task for their “draconian” and hypocritical enforcement of the law. The city of Kawasaki, for example, holds an annual “Festival of the Steel Phallus”—a fertility celebration in which parade marchers carry large penis-shaped shrines through the streets—without police interference.

Igarashi was released from her first arrest within days after an online petition drew several thousand signatures but she hasn’t stopped making vagina art.

As the Japan Times reports, she was arrested in December along with a sex shop owner who had displayed Igarashi’s work in a store window.

Now, Igarashi has been indicted on obscenity charges and is currently out on bail. In a country with a staggering 99 percent conviction rate, that means she will almost certainly face a fine of up to ¥2.5 million (or about $20,000 USD). Her lawyers have indicated that she will plead “not guilty.”

Igarashi, who goes by an artist name which translates to “reprobate child,” seems willing to pay a heavy price in the name of the vagina.

On her website, she explains that “pussy has been such a taboo in the Japanese society” and that she “wanted to make [it] more casual and pop” by creating accessories like vagina-shaped lampshades and smartphone cases.

I reached out to Igarashi for an interview to find out how she became the veritable Norman Rockwell of digital-age Japanese vagina art.

Even though she is currently awaiting trial, she seems as playful and irreverent as one might expect a woman who pilots a vagina kayak to be.

Our instant message chat is regularly interrupted by her enthusiastic use of emoji. Interviewing her is difficult, not just because of the time difference between her, my translator Samantha Jensen, and myself, but also because because she doesn’t have access to a computer for reasons which quickly become clear.

You’re typing your interview responses for Samantha to translate from a phone rather than a computer. Why is that?

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My computer was confiscated by the police on July 12th of last year at the time of my initial arrest and has not been returned. My recent arrest was my second.

Why did the police confiscate your computer?

They wanted to harass me. Although this time, they confiscated my phone as well, so I had to go out and buy a new one.

So you feel like they’re trying to intimidate you? To cut you off?

Yes, absolutely.

Why have you been arrested and indicted? What’s at stake for Japan and why have you become a target?

For one, I think they wanted to arrest me on account of the 3D printing affair. I’m something of a free-spirit and, being a woman, I’m in a position of weakness in this society. I think they expected that, when they arrested and detained me, I would just bow my head, apologize, pay a fine, and that would be the end of it. They underestimated me because I’m a woman.

After being arrested in July, I was released when the court questioned the police’s methods. I turned the whole ordeal into a manga satirizing the police. That hurt their pride, so they trumped up some charges and arrested me in December. They rigged it to include a co-defendant, and it’s going to trial.

Let’s talk about the original 3D printing incident. How did you arrive at the idea of modelling a kayak after your own vagina?

Up until recently, I had only been able to make small handheld vagina pieces. But it occurred to me that when you digitize something, it’s really easy to enlarge it. And honestly, I thought making a vagina into a vehicle sounded fun.

What statement were you trying to make with this project?

In Japan, women’s vaginas are treated as though they are men’s property. The trains here usually display pornographic advertisements. As a woman, I find that blatant objectification to be humiliating. I’m disgusted by it. My body belongs to me.

So, with this project I wanted to release the vagina from the standard Japanese paradigm. Japan is lenient towards expressions of male sexuality and arousal, but not so for women. When a woman uses her body in artistic expression, her work gets ignored, and people treat her as if she’s some sex-crazed idiot. It all comes back to misogyny. And the vagina is at the heart of it.

How is the vagina at the heart of misogyny?

The vagina is ridiculed. It’s lusted after. Men don’t see women as equals—to them, women are just vaginas. Then they call my vagina-themed work “obscene,” and judge me according to laws written by and for men.

Since last July, you have continued to make vagina-themed artwork while knowing that you risk arrest and worse. Why haven’t you stopped? What would it take for you to quit?

Why should I stop? [Laughs] Let them kill me. Because I will die before I stop making art.

How did you arrive at this conviction? Would you change anything looking back?

Honestly, making vagina art started out half as a joke. But I quickly saw how dismissive people were of the vagina. I was shocked by everyone’s derogatory attitude. As I continued making vagina art, I grew more and more serious and determined. And I like who I’ve become, so I wouldn’t want to go back and change anything really.

These days, do you primarily see yourself as an artist? An activist? A feminist?

I see myself as an artist who turns anger into smiles through manga and art. I’m often called a feminist, but the word doesn’t really capture me. I’m not only concerned with women’s issues, I tackle everything I consider “off” about the world. I don’t intend to fight anger through demonstrations or rallies, I’d rather express myself through art and make people smile.

You’ve definitely made a lot of fans in the United States. How do you feel about the international reach of your work?

Really? I can’t believe it. My dream was for the vagina to be in vogue, so I guess I’m happy, if a little surprised, that that’s the direction my story is going in.

I like the idea of the vagina being back in fashion. Were you aware that 2014 was supposedly the “the year of the butt” in U.S. pop culture? Why do you think the vagina remains relatively uncelebrated?

Why was 2014 the year of the butt? [Laughs] I can’t really speak to the popularity of butts but, in Japan, asses and assholes aren’t considered obscene. There’s no red tape for circulating butt pics. Look, I want to prove my innocence on this “obscenity” nonsense. These people calling the vagina “obscene” are stuck in the wrong century.

Let’s talk about your current situation. Where does your case stand?

My trial will begin soon. Most likely in late February.

Japan has a notoriously high conviction rate post-indictment and yet you’ve decided to plead “not guilty” to your charges. Are you prepared for a sentence? The BBC reports that you could go to jail for up to two years.

Thank you for your concern. But the worst that could happen with a guilty verdict is a fine. There won’t be any prison time, although I do find it ridiculous that this is something you can be fined for. That’s why I’m determined to win. Even if I’m found guilty, I’ll just create an art piece or manga about it, and continue to challenge this world we live in.

What’s next for you after the trial? Any upcoming projects?

Well, I’ve got this trial coming up, so I’m going to make a courtroom-themed manga featuring me as the defendant. I also have a manga volume coming out in February that’s about the July incident and it goes a little into my background. It’s called “What Does ‘Obscene’ Mean?” Also, I’m selling dolls called Mankochan [Note: “manko” means vagina] and I want to focus more of my efforts on that.

Megumi Igarashi's work is available for sale at an online Japanese storefront. English-speaking patrons can e-mail [email protected] for ordering assistance.