When I first meet Megumi Igarashi, the artist more commonly known as Rokudenashiko, we're outside of a towering arts and crafts emporium in Tokyo. It's a clear spring day during the last real week of cherry blossoms, and trees clinging to their last pale petals dot the streets. She's smaller than I expected, smiling, and wearing a large bow and a collared pink dress, in a shade more vibrant than the blossoms and printed with drawings of cats and dogs mid-saunter.
I only mention her outfit because she looks the exact opposite of someone who's been arrested twice in the past year for distributing obscene materials. Which, I guess, is the whole point of her work: Rokudenashiko (Japanese for "bastard child") wants to normalize the vagina in Japanese society, and she's faced absurdly daunting obstacles in doing so. Last July, she was arrested for circulating designs for 3D-printing her own genitals. Her arrest was annulled and she was released five days later, but in early December she was detained once again for displaying obscene materials. The day after Christmas, she was released on bail. Having pleaded not guilty, she is now undergoing a very slow-moving trial.
Before her arrest, Rokudenashiko created vagina-centric art in many forms, most of it involving molds of her own anatomy. During their raid on her studio last year, the police confiscated most of her pieces, but photographic records abound on her website: a vagina chandelier; a vagina-shaped remote control car; various yonic accessories, including necklaces and iPhone cases; and dozens of diminutive dioramas built on top of vagina molds. Rokudenashiko calls these last pieces deco-man; "man" is short for manko, which is Japanese for "pussy." Well, sort of; it can also be translated as "cunt." The scenes displayed on each deco-man can range from cosmic (astronauts on the surface to the moon), to idyllic (a summer festival, complete with women in kimono), to more topical (the Fukushima disaster cleanup site).
The reason we've decided to meet at this arts and crafts emporium is to pick out the supplies we'll need to adorn a sculpture of our own. Rokudenashiko had suggested that I construct the deco-man myself, perhaps being judicious about her output while her trial is ongoing. Excited about the chance to exercise my creativity, I happily agree to make it in her place. At the time, I am under the impression we'll be using a stock vagina.
Rokudenashiko's work has become necessarily politicized because of the circumstances surrounding her arrest. But watching her bound through the model-building section of the arts and crafts superstore, plucking tiny surfers, shades of blue paint, and glitter from the shelves--we are contemplating crafting a seascape, with mermaids--I'm struck by how light-hearted she seems.
Having purchased our supplies, we arrive at a gallery in Shinjuku, where Rokudenashiko's friend brings out plaster strips. I slowly begin to realize that we will not be using a stock vagina for the deco-man: I am supposed to sit for the mold myself. There is a debate, in Japanese, about whether I need to shave my pubes.
Through a translator, I deliberate. I feel guilty about wasting the mermaid figurines and the glitter, but ultimately I back out, not chill enough to allow a lifelike model of my genitals--even decorated with cavorting models of humans and bits of foliage--on YouTube. Rokudenashiko is warm and understanding but seems a bit disappointed. We opt to view her remaining artwork, which is being housed at the gallery, instead.
Since all of her "realistic" vagina art has been confiscated, all that's left of Rokudenashiko's oeuvre are representations she has made of Manko-chan, an adorable ambulatory vagina character of her own creation. Manko-chan, Japanese for "Miss Pussy," has small, bold eyes, a flowing mane of labia, and a perpetually open mouth lined with a guillotine of teeth. Atop her head sits a golden clitoris. Rokudenashiko has immortalized her in manga, in figurine form, and as a stuffed animal. She's also manufactured a human-size Manko-chan costume; thoughtfully, she's placed a fan inside in case the wearer starts to feel overheated.
Rokudenashiko tells me that her interest in making vagina art started as a kind of joke, a sentiment she'd also expressed in a blog post written before her arrest. "I thought it was just funny to decorate my mold [of my] pussy and make it a diorama," she wrote, "but I was very surprised to see how people get upset to see my works or even to hear me say manko."
With so many people incapable of taking the joke, she felt she had no choice but to get serious. Not overly serious, of course--her goal isn't to be shocking or controversial or aggressively anti-establishment. It's to make the manko into something "casual and pop." "Vagina is treated like it's something underground and hidden," she tells me through a translator, "so I want to industrialize and mass-produce it." The most subversive aspect of her art is how cute and playful it is. In a culture where vaginas are shrouded in shame and stigma, an amicable and snuggly stuffed pussy toy is far more radical than it is frivolous.
However, Rokudenashiko felt her grand vision was constrained by the comparatively small size of each vagina mold. In 2014, she decided to create something substantially larger, debating between a "pussy door" and "pussy car" before eventually deciding on a "pussy boat," which is a classically Rokudenashiko-esque way of describing a kayak outfitted with a 3D-printed vulva over the cockpit. (She felt especially compelled by the parallel between the sea and female sexuality, she explains.) Pussy boats, naturally, are expensive, so she raised money by crowdfunding online. Enthusiastic supporters chipped in, and last spring she took her maiden voyage.
One of the rewards she offered to her donors was 3D data that would enable anyone to print out a mold of Rokudenashiko's vagina at home. "I didn't think I was doing anything wrong, let alone I'd get arrested," she recalls. To the police, however, the act of sending the data constituted an illegal distribution of obscene materials. Within three months of the pussy boat's completion, ten officers arrived at her apartment and led her away in handcuffs.
The image of Japan as overly censorious may seem incongruous, since it currently enjoys a reputation as a country of vibrant sexual extremes (tentacle porn and bukkake immediately come to mind). Japan also has a substantial and significant tradition of erotic art, most notably the elegant and extremely graphic shunga prints of the Edo period (1603-1868). A number of traditional festivals from that era that depict sexual activities and symbols survive in some form today; the Festival of the Steel Phallus, in Kawasaki, which involves a large and rowdy procession centered on three massive penis statues, is perhaps the best known.
But the Penal Code of Japan--written in 1907, during the Meiji era, when Japan was trying to connect with the Western world by encouraging trade and adopting aspects of Western culture--reversed much of the country's permissiveness. The restrictive laws about obscenity in the code were introduced in part to make Japan seem in line with the Western world and the mores of its post-Victorian prudes. The obscenity law is at once extremely strict and utterly nebulous: While it harshly punishes the "distribution of obscene materials" with up to two years in prison, the law lacks a definition of what actually constitutes obscenity. That's left up to the courts to interpret, and for the past 50 years or so, they have ruled that depicting genitals in any medium is illegal.
The first major work to be charged with obscenity was a translation of an internationally controversial British book--predictably enough, Lady Chatterley's Lover. In a 1959 ruling banning the distribution and sale of the novel, the Japanese Supreme Court defined "obscene writing" as anything that "[is] harmful to the normal feeling of shame, excites and stimulates sexual desire, and runs counter to good moral concepts regarding sex." The Court further stated that shame around sexuality is natural and inherent to mankind. In a series of subsequent rulings, films and photos depicting genitals were deemed obscene as well. It wasn't until the 1990s, with the controversial publication of the photography book Water Fruit, that media containing pubic hair were found acceptable. To this day, all genitals in Japanese porn must be blurred out, obscured behind heavy pixilation known as mozaiku. Though, as with everything, there's a work-around: Mozaiku-removing machines are available online, retailing for the equivalent of several hundred dollars.
Rokudenashiko is far from the first artist to be arrested under Japan's draconian laws. Even her surprise at being arrested isn't unique: As scholar Amanda Dobbins wrote in 2008, "Several directors, authors, and artists have unintentionally come before the Japanese courts for [violating Article 175] and come away with no clear idea of what they did wrong."
But Rokudenashiko does believe her experience is singular in a notable way. "I'm probably the first woman to ever be arrested in Japan for using her own vagina as an expression," she says. "I think I'm also the first person to question why this is wrong."
According to Rokudenashiko's lawyer, it's likely that her trial will drag on for another year or so. Despite her prolonged legal battle and the police intimidation she's encountered, though, she's refusing to back down. "I'm a [socially] vulnerable single woman. I think the police assumed that by arresting me and putting me in jail, I would easily apologize," she says softly, holding a Manko-chan stuffed animal in her lap. "But I'll definitely fight for my innocence."
A version of this article appeared in the August issue of VICE magazine.