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Why Japan's Vagina Artist Was Convicted of Obscenity

This morning, Tokyo's controversial "vagina artist," Megumi Igarashi, was convicted on obscenity charges after a high-profile trial and fined 400,000 yen (roughly $3,600).

Igarashi, who works under the name Rokudenashiko—often translated as "good-for-nothing girl" or "bastard child"—first rose to international notoriety two years ago after 3D printing a kayak in the shape of her own vulva and paddling it down a river. (She dubbed it, for obvious reasons, a "pussy boat.")

Rokudenashiko had crowd-funded online in order to raise money for the vessel's construction; as a reward, she sent some financial contributors data that would allow them to 3D print her vulva at home. It's this specific act that Tokyo law enforcement took issue with, arresting her in July of 2014. It's also this act that court found obscene: In her ruling, judge Mihoko Tanabe stated that, although the data was "flat and inorganic," it had the potential to "sexually arouse viewers."

"Every single [obscenity trial I've studied] is as much about penises as it is about vaginas."

Conversely, the court cleared Rokudenashiko of another charge, "displaying obscene images publicly," which stemmed from her decision to exhibit a decorated vulva-shaped mold in a sex shop in July 2014. According to the Japan Times, this is because "the item was made with colored materials and did not resemble a real vagina."

After the ruling, Rokudenashiko noted in a press conference that she was only acquitted on the second charge because the judge decided that her vagina molds "didn't look like real female genitals," meaning that, according to the ruling, genitalia are still considered "obscene objects" in Japan.

Though that sentiment may seem outlandish, it's actually a fairly accurate characterization. Japan's obscenity law is both severe and nebulous, harshly restricting the distribution, display, and sale of "obscene materials" but failing to define what, exactly, constitutes obscenity. A precedent-setting 1957 Japanese Supreme Court ruling defines obscenity, vaguely, as "that which wantonly stimulates or arouses sexual desire or offends the normal sense of sexual modesty of ordinary persons, and is contrary to proper ideas of sexual morality."

According to Kirsten Cather, a professor of Asian studies at the University of Texas at Austin who has written extensively on the history of obscenity law in Japan, this simply means that anything "too arousing, too offensive, or too amoral" is seen as obscene. However, she notes, "the court determines what constitutes this for an 'ordinary person,'" which is where the concept becomes highly subjective.

So, what, exactly, wantonly stimulates or arouses desire in an ordinary person, according to the Japanese courts? As of now, the prevailing legal interpretation is that any realistic depiction of genitalia, in any medium—including art or pornography—is obscene. As a result, in all porn produced in Japan, all sex organs are obscured past recognition. In pornographic manga, for example, genitals appear as blank spaces; in porn featuring real humans, they're obscured behind heavy pixilation known asmozaiku.

"There is very much a male-oriented view of what is considered obscene in terms of the female genitalia, and my work is to overturn those notions."

According to Cather, penises and vaginas are censored in equal measure under Japanese law. In reporting on this case, many media outlets have intimated that art depicting vaginas is subject to heavier scrutiny—a claim Cather strongly disagrees with. "Every single [obscenity trial I've studied] is as much about penises as it is about vaginas," she says. In her opinion, 3D-printing data that would allow the user to create a penis would be prosecuted just as harshly as vulva data.

While Cather agrees that there is a far heavier stigma surrounding the vagina, she emphasizes that Japanese courts have traditionally targeted phallic depictions as well. "I think it's accurate to say that, historically all around the world, there has been more anxiety surrounding vaginas than there has been around cocks," she adds. "But if you're going to be historically accurate, you can't say they've been persecuted more than penises [under Japanese obscenity law]."

Rokudenashiko, however, sees her verdict as the result of deeply entrenched sexism. "There is very much a male-oriented view of what is considered obscene in terms of the female genitalia, and my work is to overturn those notions," she told reporters after the trial. She will appeal the case, according to her legal team. And thus her continued battle to make the vagina into something "casual and pop" continues.