Her Vision

The Japanese Artist Persecuted for Her ‘Pussy Boat’ Vows to Keep Fighting

Government censorship of her work—most famously a vagina-shaped kayak—has made Megumi Igarashi (‘Rokudenashiko’) an activist, even if her views don’t align with Japanese feminism.

Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi has been battling obscenity charges since July 2014, when she was arrested and charged for distributing files to make 3-D printed models of her vagina.

Japanese authorities intercepted the 3-D data that she emailed to donors who ultimately helped crowdfund her Pussy Boat, an oceangoing, vagina-shaped kayak and art project.

Igarashi, who is 45 and goes by the nom d’art Rokudenashiko (“Good-For-Nothing-Girl”), was arrested and charged again in July 2014 for exhibiting other vagina-related works in a Tokyo adult-entertainment shop.

The project was titled Deco-man—“man” being an abbreviation of manko, Japanese for “pussy”–and featured small pussy boats, a pussy lampshade, a remote-controlled pussy car, a pussy smartphone case, and so on. Authorities confiscated her cellphone, laptop, and other belongings, and Igarashi would spend, in all, 30 days behind bars.

In May 2016, a Japanese court found Igarashi guilty of obscenity and fined her ¥400,000 (at the time, around $3,600). The 3-D data she’d distributed was deemed “obscene,” according to a draconian 1907 law, because it could have been used by recipients to create an arousing sex-toy replica of her vagina, the court said in its ruling.

Her Deco-man works, however, qualified as art under Japanese law because—unlike the 3-D data of her vagina—the pussy boats and other sculptures could not be used to turn people on.

Igarashi has appealed the court’s obscenity ruling on the basis that distributing 3-D data was crucial to her Pussy Boat art project.

Now, Igarashi is teaming up with PEN America for their new Artists at Risk (ARC) initiative, which launches today and is dedicated to protecting artists from censorship and government punishment.

The initiative provides resources for threatened artists, including housing opportunities, emergency funding, fellowships and grants, and residencies through an interactive online catalogue available in over 100 languages. PEN also hopes to unite organizations that can provide even more resources to threatened artists around the world.

“I think by raising awareness about artistic freedom and how art is under threat around the world, hosting speaking engagements with artists and amplifying their voices, we will ultimately have less censorship,” Julie Trébault, director of ARC for PEN, told The Daily Beast.

‘It made for a good gimmick, so I went through with it’

Originally a comic book writer, Igarashi made her first foray into manko art, or “pussy” art, with an illustrated accompaniment to her account of having cosmetic surgery on her lady bits.

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In Japan, these kinds of stories are called “experience manga,” with manga referring to cartoons and comics. (Igarashi writes extensively about experience manga in her graphic memoir, What Is Obscenity? The book was published last May, the same month that Igarashi was found guilty of obscenity charges.)

Getting the surgery provided blockbuster writing material, though she admits in her book that she also wanted a “nicer looking vag.”

“I was curious about the procedure and no one had written a manga about it,” Igarashi wrote in an email interview with The Daily Beast. “It made for a good gimmick, so I went through with it.”

The manga was a “big hit,” she said, and it precipitated opportunities to do other manko-related stories, but she soon struggled to find fresh angles for her manko series and eventually abandoned it.

“After the gimmick lost its weight, I decided to commemorate my new pussy with a cast,” Igarashi said. “What the cast revealed, though, was obviously a pussy without the labial flaps—frankly a really boring flat mold. So I took a cue from the bedazzled cellphones that were all the rage with teenage girls, and bedazzled and painted my Deco-man.”

When Igarashi first showed the colorful cast to her friends, she was surprised that no one guessed it was a vagina until she told them. The cast quickly became a subject of fascination among her peers, one of whom interviewed Igarashi about her Deco-man for an online publication.

The reception was not what she expected.

“The second that article went live, I received all kinds of hateful, insulting comments about how gross and smelly my pussy must be,” Igarashi said. “That’s when I first started to really question people’s hateful and phobic attitudes about pussy, and when ‘Manko Art’ officially came to be. Spurred by the online slander, I decided to make Deco-man my life’s mission.”

In the three years since she started making manko casts, Igarahshi now sees manko “every day,” she said, noting that her work—including Deco-man workshops—has made it easier for other women to talk more freely about sex and genitalia.

“People came bewildered and were embarrassed at first, but then after we all got to putting our casts on a table and decorating them together, their inhibitions around pussy gradually faded,” she said.

Seeing so many different “shapes and color of pussy” also changed her attitudes about women’s genitalia, she said. “I realized that my opinions had been poisoned by prejudice.”

Looking back now, she’s realized her cosmetic surgery was “unnecessary.” But she doesn’t regret it; if she hadn’t gone through with the procedure, she wouldn’t be making manko art today.

‘Most women don’t know what an “average” pussy looks like’

With the porn industry’s tendency to fetishize Asian (particularly Japanese) women, it’s easy to forget that Japan is a deeply puritanical culture.

Hardcore porn is freely available to anyone in the world with an internet connection, but adult films produced in Japan are still required to pixelate genitals and penetrative (including oral) sex.

“Most women don’t know what an ‘average’ pussy looks like, and they’ve been told all their lives that it’s gross and dirty to talk about it,” Igarashi said, adding that Japan’s prudish culture has perpetuated body dysmorphia among women.

“We don’t know what to look for, so we convince ourselves that to meet men’s desires we have to have pink fleshy pussies like young girls, and then needlessly get corrective surgery like the procedure I had done,” she said.

Igarashi is now determined to help change moralistic Japanese culture (simply uttering the word “pussy” is taboo, she says) with her manko art. She also hopes that court cases like hers will make Japanese authorities less inclined to censor artists.

Government censorship of her work has made Igarashi an activist, even though her views don’t align with Japanese feminism.

“When I started making Deco-man, I made a conscious effort to attend more feminist art shows, but I frequently found them to be too heavy and painful” when the subject is the plight of women’s plight, she said. “I believe it’s important to express pain, but I personally didn’t feel better afterward.

“I think Japanese feminism has stopped penetrating because it comes with the image of a dour old lady who’s angry all the time,” she continued. “To be frank I think it has failed as a movement.”

She approaches her manko art with a certain levity, she said, both for her own mental and emotional health and to avoid turning women off.

“People prefer to do things that are fun, interesting, and easy to relate to,” she said. “They don’t want to feel tortured, angry and sad all the time.”

The “light-hearted” nature of her work has provoked criticism from more hardline feminist artists, she said, who insist she’s not an artist.

But Igarashi isn’t discouraged. “These slanderous critiques only give me a springboard for work,” she said, adding that she enjoys thinking of new ways to piss off her critics.

Manko art is Igarashi’s way of trying to wear down “the male hegemony,” as she put it, particualrly with regards to Japanese authorities.

“I have effectively created an arts practice by angering the police, so they are part of my art, too,” she said.

Igarashi is nonetheless outraged over the obscenity charge and Japan’s refusal to adopt a more progressive attitude about sexuality.

“It is 2017 and I’ve been convicted of obscenity by the Tokyo High Court for sending a downloadable 3-D file to crowdfunders,” she said.

Asked about the calls for censorship of Dana Schutz’s controversial painting at this year’s Whitney Biennial in New York City, Igarashi said she understood and appreciated the activists’ perspectives in this case, but those perspectives shouldn’t mitigate a fundamental right to freedom of expression.

“I find it somewhat terrifying that it was artists who called for the destruction of art,” she added.

As for the pseudonym, Igarashi said created it when she started writing manga about sex. Now, after the jail time and three years spent fighting obscenity charges and agitating for free expression, she views the pseudonym as a way of poking fun of herself.

“People sometimes try so hard to find meaning in everything until things become so serious to the point of not seeing what’s right in front of them,” she said, noting that this seriousness often makes people more stuck in their ways.

“My [nick]name was a way of taking that load off our backs,” she said, “and now I think it’s a means of keeping myself objective.”