SEP 01 2015
BY DENISE TSUI
Megumi Igarashi, also known as Rokudenashiko, holding a plastic rendition of her manga character, Manko-chan. Photo by Denise Tsui for ArtAsiaPacific.
Megumi Igarashi, who works under the pseudonym “Rokudenashiko,” which loosely translates to “good for nothing child,” specializes in vagina-inspired artworks. Also a manga artist, Igarashi has immortalized her own vagina through a charming little character named “Manko-chan,” or “Miss Pussy” in English. Manko-chan sports a flowing pink mane of hair, which is in fact, the labia, round eyes, an open mouth displaying a full set of teeth, and a golden clitoris on her forehead. Wanting to make the vagina “more casual and pop,” Igarashi’s artworks and manga have a subversive sense of humor, which Japanese authorities have apparently missed.
For the past 14 months, Igarashi has been at the center of global media attention following her first arrest in July 2014 for creating a two-meter-long kayak modeled after her own genitals. Her functional “pussy boat,” as Igarashi refers to it, was prodすuced using a 3D printer and was paid for through support sought from an online crowd funding website. In October 2013, Igarashi took her kayak for its virgin voyage in the Tama River in Tokyo. Months later, police officers arrested the artist at her home. In addition, her studio was raided and artworks were confiscated. Igarashi’s computer and cell phone were also seized. She was released five days later following a legal appeal and a petition signed by thousands of people worldwide. Igarashi was accused of breaking Japan’s draconian obscenity laws, written in 1907, by distributing the data for the 3D vagina boat to her supporters. Igarashi was arrested again in December under obscenity charges and this time placed under custody for 23 days, the maximum time for this type of case. She was released on bail the day after Christmas. If convicted, Igarashi faces up to two years in jail or a fine of ¥2.5 million (USD 20,700).
Although Igarashi admits to producing and distributing the data, she denies implications that her artworks are obscene and she is prepared to fight her charges. In a society with a thriving sex industry and popular culture teeming with sexualized imagery, Japan’s values of gender equality can seem rather outdated and misogynistic. While the city of Kawasaki holds a famous annual family-orientated “Festival of the Steel Phallus”—a celebration of fertility featuring an exemplary parade of penis-shaped sculptures—the word “vagina” can hardly be spoken out loud without arousing social furor. Igarashi’s artistic intention is to empower women and liberate then from the social taboos of the vagina, to encourage more open and honest acceptance that a woman’s nether regions are just another natural part of the body.
Last week in Hong Kong, a tribute exhibition raising support for Igarashi opened at non-profit art space Woofer Ten. “Gender, Genitor, Genitalia” is crowd funded and is the hard work of curator Hitomi Hasegawa, director of Hong Kong’s Moving Image Archive of Contemporary art. Featuring the works of 11 artists, alongside Igarashi, the exhibition focuses on issues relating to feminist art, gender in the digital world, and the representation of genitalia in art. ArtAsiaPacific met with Igarashi during her short few days in Hong Kong, to discuss her vagina art, its implications in Japan and her delightful meeting with Ai Weiwei.
As an artist you work under the pseudonym Rokudenashiko, which has been loosely translated as “good for nothing child.” How did this name come about and what statement are you trying to make with it?
Initially, I thought of the name just to use as a manga artist so it wasn’t a very conscious decision. Usually manga artists make their name kind of fun. Eventually when I first showed my vagina art in Japan a few years ago I also used the name “Rokudenashiko” but people were dismissive of the name, which I thought was a really unusual response. Through this process [as I used this pseudonym to present my art], I also found that people held a derogatory attitude to vagina art, which made me want to figure out what was going on with this society, why they responded this way. As a result, I stuck with the name.
In the past you underwent vaginal rejuvenation surgery and now through your art your intention is to empower women and encourage them to connect with their own bodies. Can you share a little about your journey of self-discovery? What advice would you give to other women?
I did the operation without seriously thinking I needed to change my body. It was an experience in agreement with my publishing company for making manga, for the content. When I was getting the operation I was wondering what is considered normal and what is considered a beautiful vagina. The vagina is always hidden; we cannot see other people’s vagina. Talking to the doctors, I changed my vagina with the operation to what they perhaps thought was the taste of the normal male, a neater, simple, almost minimal kind of shape. It was at this time I realized that in myself; I had internalized this kind of male gaze. Afterwards I participated in workshops with other women to make cast molds of vaginas and I enjoyed creating these shapes. Now I keep on doing these activities to liberate the taboo behind the vagina, and point out how [Japanese] society is a really patriarchal and male-oriented world. The sex industry is all focused on men, nothing for women. Women are always objectified and act as the passive player in sex. I think that’s totally wrong. I want to fight against that system.
I remember during my childhood if a man said “dick” or “penis” it was not a problem but it was strictly prohibited for women to say “vagina” or “pussy,” as the vagina is thought of as something dirty, something you cannot touch, something you cannot talk about even though it’s just a natural part of the body. Why is it so? In Japanese there are several words used to express vagina, and as a manga artist I write text in speech bubbles. Every time I see words for vagina it’s always censored. For example manko is Japanese for pussy, but when I see manko it would be “ma-x-ko” or “ma-xx” or something like this. I wonder why.
Why do you think the penis is embraced but the vagina is not tolerated?
I think it symbolizes a patriarchal society. For example, sumo wrestling, which has existed for like some 500 years, has a circular ring that is bordered by ropes. Females are not normally allowed to go in, even to this day, because females are considered dirty. So this patriarchal thinking goes way back to Japanese tradition. Another example in traditional Japanese sports is archery. It’s a very old tradition, and is not only a sport but also a kind of performance. Nowadays it still takes place at shrines and temples but females still cannot participate in these performances at the shrines even if she is very skillful. This way of thinking has a long history.
What makes your work different than pornography?
It is different because I think my artwork is for women, to think about how this part of the body is nothing dirty, nothing to be hidden; it’s just a normal part of the body. That’s why I make vagina art. Also the impression of the work is fun, playful, pop, cute and colorful. I feel a lot of existing feminist art has a strong impact but it’s very heavy and serious, for example using blood. I want to change that.
What do you think needs to change about how society, Japan or globally, approaches the vagina?
When I was interviewed by Swedish media some time ago in Japan, I learned that Sweden is one of the most progressive countries when it came to gender equality, so I asked the journalist how Swedish society changed their outlook. They said men are the same all over the world, but when women change, society changes.
That is why I keep making vagina art and doing the kind of activities such as the workshops. In the beginning there would always be guys that expected to see pornography but recently, slowly, the number of female fans have increased and they also say to me that from my works, including manga, they find out why they cannot say the word “vagina” in public.
You recently started a project called “Rokudenashiko Rental,” whereby you rent yourself out to anybody who signs up to the service for a fee. Could you tell me a little more about the project? Why did you decide to do it and what kind of “service” do customers expect from you?
It’s a very current project! Many people feel it’s interesting and these days since I’m waiting for my court trial, I don’t have much to do. My lawyers do all the work. I used to write articles and draw cartoons but since getting arrested and with publishing companies afraid of getting in trouble with the government, I don’t have many jobs at the moment. Rokudenashiko also means “useless” or “nothing for use” and since I have time, I thought I would like to do something useless. I feel that nowadays in society it’s more and more conservative, like this is right and wrong, black and white. So to be able to do something really kind of pointless and just have fun, I think it is good for society. That’s why I decided on the rental project. People book in to spend time with someone whose name is Rokudenashiko. The services are a conversation, a social time together, nothing about sex, sometimes we eat and we drink together. Oh and if the policemen would like to use this service they get ten minutes for free!
A billboard for raising HIV awareness was censored in late 2013 because it featured a topless muscular man in bulging underwear. His body and underwear were eventually covered against the wish of the artist. But everyday we see advertisements of models, men and women, sporting swimwear and underwear going uncensored. What are your views on this? Has censorship become a form of discrimination?
It’s totally discrimination. I think it’s mainly based on classical values of men and women, and family. It’s all conservative values; that men should work, while women should be at home caring for children. [These values imply that] there is only one model of happy. I wonder why gay, transgender and transsexual people are discriminated against a lot as a minority group. You may know what happened to Ryudai Takano at the Aichi Prefectural Museum last year. He openly supports gay people and artists. He is a photographer and [for this exhibition he displayed images] of naked men, including himself, posing together or next to each other in bed. Police came and they removed some of the photographs. Finally, the artist and the museum made a compromise where they used white sheets to cover the parts of the photographs [deemed offensive]. I think the government targets people who are socially weak.
In June earlier this year you met with Ai Weiwei in Beijing. What was your meeting like?
It was so cool! I happened to be looking for someone who has written some commentary about artists on trial, and it had to be an authorized professor or with similar credentials. I found out through some common friends about the work of Professor Yoichi Maki from Saitama University, a specialist in Chinese contemporary art, and also that he was a supporter of my case. So I met Professor Maki and we became friends. Then Professor Maki told me he was going to Beijing to meet Ai Weiwei and invited me along so I said yes!
At the time Ai Weiwei still had no passport, but I did, he couldn’t travel but I could. When we met I thought he was not only a really powerful artist but he was so nice, so I asked him why he can still have such a positive attitude under the conditions his government has put him in. Ai said that his passport is his vagina and he was trying to get his vagina back. He then said that maybe he will take my vagina boat and row out of China!
What do you hope to achieve through this exhibition in Hong Kong?
Japan is aware of how international communities perceive my case and think about things, so if, in Hong Kong, I can spread word about what’s happening to me then the voices of media and supportive people here may help my trial a lot. At the same time, in Japan, exhibitions such as this one are impossible, because they would violate the country’s obscenity law. Maybe the police would arrest me, Hitomi, the curator of the show would be arrested and the space [Woofer Ten] would also be arrested. So it’s very significant that we can realize this exhibition here.
What are you currently working on?
Next year I will have a solo exhibition in Tokyo, in July upon the two-year anniversary of my first arrest. It will have links to religion and old Japanese traditions. The exhibition space has a large room and two smaller spaces. One of the smaller rooms will be utilized and transformed into a prison cell. I was in prison for almost a month, and when I was let out, the police gave me several personal things I used in the prison cell such as my toothbrush and clothes, so those items will be displayed in my makeshift cell. Then I’m going to plan some talks and events in Tokyo for the exhibition and if you are a policeman you will get a discount!