From Japan To Hong Kong, Female Sexuality Is A Free Speech Battle

Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi has been arrested for her provocative work. With a new exhibition in Hong Kong, Asia's battle for free speech and open sexuality comes together.

Megumi Igarashi in Beijing, with her trademark vagina-shaped manga figurine
Julie Zaugg

HONG KONG â€" Megumi Igarashi was just a child when she discovered that certain words were charged with a strange power. “My dad had written a little song about penises and vaginas, but when I sang it in the street, people would look at me, horrified,” says the Japanese artist. “I realized there was a taboo surrounding these parts of our anatomy.”

Igarashi also soon realized that the real shock was not so much chinko (penis in Japanese), but manko (vagina).

The 43-year-old plastic artist, looking 20 years younger with a blue ribbon in her hair and a giraffe-ornamented yellow dress, spoke to Le Temps in Hong Kong’s Woofer Ten gallery where she's just launched her latest exhibition.

“Japan is a very patriarchal society, very generous towards male sexual desire,” she says. Igarashi notes that your local Japanese newsstand is likely to sell dozens of pornographic books and magazines, and every year thousands of visitors travel to the city of Kawasaki to parade with giant phallic sculptures during a festival called Kanamara Matsuri.

Women, on the other hand, are not supposed to express any sexual desire. “The simple mention of the word vagina on television could lead to the host’s dismissal,” she says.

A manga author under the pseudonym Rokudenashiko ("good-for-nothing girl"), she used to make the best of these contradictions. But after undergoing plastic surgery to make her vagina “more conform to male desire,” she started to question herself. “I realized how I had internalized the psyche disseminated by men and used against women as an oppression tool,” she says, speaking with an unwavering smile not matter what the topic.

3D printer for that?

The artist thus decided to play with these codes by making a series of plaster casts of her private parts which she then painted and decorated with little characters to put together scenes. Soldiers armed with riffles taking refuge in the trenches formed by her vulva. Little figures in anti-radiation suits fighting against a flood of contaminated water coming out of her vagina. It was also a reference to Fukushima, “another taboo topic in Japan,” she says with a mischievous look.

Photo: Facebook page

After a while, she started to use that one oh-so-scandalous shape to make a multitude of objects: a coffee mug cover, an iPhone case, and even a chandelier made of a vulva garland. “I want women to reclaim that part of their anatomy that men so often violate and abuse,” she says.

Still, humor is always a part of her work. “I noticed that when you ask (Apple's voice-activated service) Siri what a manko is, she says she doesn’t know,” Igarashi says. “I found that strange because she has a woman's voice, so I launched an app that provides a proper answer from her.” She also created a vagina-shaped manga figurine, pink with eyes and a mouth.

In 2013, she started distributing a digital model of her private parts for her fans. Her vagina can now be reproduced ad infinitum with a 3D printer. She even used it herself to make a vulva-shaped kayak. “Feminist artists often create dark and serious pieces,” she says.

Still the intended levity would not suffice in Japan's male-dominated society. In July 2014, a police squad arrived at Igarashi's home, without warning, and took her into custody. She was detained for several days, over accusations that she’d violated some obscure anti-obscenity law when she distributed the 3D modelling of her vagina on a crowdfunding platform. But she refused to plead guilty. “My art isn’t obscene,” she insists.

A few months later, in December 2014, she was arrested again. This time, she spent 23 days behind bars, and is now waiting to appear in court. She faces two years of imprisonment and and a 2.5-million yen ($20,000) fine.

Joaquim da Silva, a Japan-based Portuguese researcher studying obscenity laws said Japan's legislation dates back a century. “It forbids the distribution of obscene material, but doesn’t define what’s obscene, thus giving way to wide interpretations from judges,” da Silva said. In the 1930s, the legislation was used as a tool of political suppression against dissidents of the empire. In 1951, it was used to demand the removal of British writer D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Parental advisory â€" Photo: Facebook page

But over the past few years, the law has been more widely interpreted. “It continues to target sexual minorities and feminist militants,” da Silva says. He mentions the case of two gay photographers, Leslie Kee and Ryudai Takano. Both faced trouble over male nude pictures shown in an exhibition. The former was charged, while the second had to cover his photographs with a white sheet.

Weiwei's passport

This crackdown is what convinced Hitomi Hasegawa, the curator of the Hong Kong exhibition dedicated to Igarashi, to organize this event. “I wanted to show the parallel between the freedom of speech infringement endured by this artist and that which Hong Kong protesters experienced in 2014 during the umbrella revolution,” she explains. “It was also about giving a voice to young female artists, who are ignored too often in Asia, which represents another form of censorship.”

Twelve artists â€" six from Hong Kong and six from Japan â€" are also taking part in the exhibition. All address the gender issue with a touch of irony or self-mockery. “What happened to Megumi Igarashi echoes the enormous pressure that China is currently applying on Hong Kong,” notes Yuk Kin Tan, a Hong Kong artist taking part in the exhibition with a white space rocket covered with a text from Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek. “Freedom of speech is in danger.”

The gallery where the exhibition is held is also a symbol of this censorship. Founded by a group of militant artists who organize each spring a bike demonstration to commemorate the Tiananmen massacre, its governmental subsidy was removed after having taken part in the 2014 protests. Since then, it’s been occupying a tiny space stuck between a health care center against asthma and an NGO that tries to reinstate former prisoners.

(The issue of free speech in Hong Kong has been reignited in recent weeks by the detention of the owners of a political bookshop. Read more here)

Megumi Igarashi with Ai Weiwei â€" Photo: Facebook page

Megumi Igarashi is aware of the parallels between crackdowns on her work and similar actions by authorities in China. “I recently met with Ai WeiWei,” she says of the renowned and oft-censored Chinese artist. “He’s also trying to show with his art what authorities are trying to hide."

What else did the two artists talk about? “He told me that my vagina was now my passport,” Igarashi says, before bursting into laughter.

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!