(CNN) — In a country with a flourishing porn industry and an annual penis festival, it may come as a surprise that an artist with a mission to make female genitalia “more casual and pop” has run afoul of authorities.
But in Japan, a conceptual artist known for creating works inspired by her genitals is being held by Tokyo police on charges of sharing obscene material electronically.
Megumi Igarashi, who goes by the pseudonym Rokudenashiko (which means “good-for-nothing kid”), launched a crowd-funding campaign to raise money to build a kayak in the shape of her vagina using a 3-D printer.
In exchange for donations, supporters of the project were given data that would allow them to make their own 3-D prints of her genitals.
Police arrested Igarashi Saturday, charging her with “distributing data that could create an obscene shape through a 3-D printer.”
The 42-year-old denies the charges, saying that she doesn’t acknowledge that the work is “an obscenity.” For her, it’s a piece of fine art.
In fact, Igarashi came up with the the idea for the project based on her own self doubt. Female genitalia is such a taboo in Japanese society, she explained on her fundraising page, that it has become “overly hidden.”
She did not know what a vagina “should look like,” she said, and worried that her own was “abnormal.”
Images of penises, on the other hand, were an acceptable part of pop culture, she said. (And anyone who’s witnessed crowds licking phallic lollipops and sporting penis-shaped glasses at Japan’s “Festival of the Steel Phallus” will find it difficult to argue with her.)
The artist has embarked on a whole series of cutesy works inspired by the female anatomy, from smartphone cases to a giant kawaii mascot. She created miniature dioramas, including one of workers toiling away in a vagina-shaped crevice at Fukushima’s damaged nuclear plant.
Many critics of her arrest have pointed out that Japan only banned the possession of child pornography a month ago, and even then, the ban excludes explicit anime and manga cartoons.
Distributing uncensored images of real genitalia is a crime under the country’s obscenity laws.
More than 17,000 people had signed an online petition calling for Igarashi’s release as of Wednesday.
One of her lawyers, Kazuyuki Minami, acknowledges that not everyone will appreciate Igarashi’s work, but says that her case is about more than artistic expression.
“Whether you experience empathy with her works that challenge a taboo will depend on the individual’s sensitivity. However, all people who believe in freedom and equality of human beings should understand that her arrest and detention was not right thing.”
Police are still questioning Igarashi, a spokesperson for the Tokyo Metropolitan Police told CNN Wednesday.
The earliest the artist can be released is August 8, although police can hold her for up to 20 days in order to gather evidence because she denies the charges, the spokesperson said.
If convicted, she could face up to two years jail time or a fine of as much as 2.5 million yen (around US$24,500), her lawyers say.