HONG KONG — 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 — 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 — six from Hong Kong and six from Japan — 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 — 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.