In Brief

Freedom of Speech Exhibition in Japan Closed Due to Censorship

After organizers received threats of violence, an exhibition at the 2019 Aichi Triennale was shuttered. The controversy stemmed from a statue of a Korean “comfort woman,” highlighting the history of sexual slavery during World War II.

Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung’s “Statue of Peace” (2011) outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul, South Korea (via YunHo LEE/Flickr)

This article was originally posted on 8/6/19. It was updated with a blurb of additional information on 8/7/19, and again on 8/9/19.

An exhibition probing Japan’s history of censoring art as part of the 2019 Aichi Triennale in the city of Nagoya was itself censored and shuttered on Saturday, August 3, just three days after its opening.

The exhibition, titled After ‘Freedom of Expression?’, celebrated artworks that had been censored in Japan. It was closed after the triennial’s organizers reported multiple threats of violence against the festival. The threats specifically targeted a controversial artwork in the exhibition by two South Korean artists in the show. The work, Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung’s “Statue of Peace” (2011), is a life-size sculpture of a “comfort woman,” or ianfu in Japanese — a term used to describe women who were forced into providing sexual services to Japanese troops before and during World War II.

Japanese nationalists have long disputed the history of the country’s military’s exploitation of Korean women as sex slaves. A number of right-wing politicians from the party of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were quick to condemn the statue as the exhibition opened on August 1.

But those were mild objections compared to what came later. Hideaki Omura, Aichi’s governor and head of the triennial’s organizing committee, said in a news conference that safety concerns have risen after his staff received a number of threatening emails, phone calls, and faxes.

“I will bring a gasoline container to the museum,” one threatening fax read. This message evoked the deadly arson attack on Kyoto Animation studios last month, according to Omura.

However, Omura’s decision to close the exhibition did not go uncontested. The triennial’s own artistic director, journalist Daisuke Tsuda, has publicly criticized the decision. “It is regrettable that we have made an example that undermines freedom of expression,” Tsuda said in a statement.

The work in the exhibition is one of 20 versions of the “Statue of Peace” created since 2011. Most of the statues are located in Korea, with one strategically placed outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul.

The controversy comes at an especially fraught time in the relationship between Japan and South Korea, which have historically suffered tensions over Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula between 1910 and 1945. The ties between the two further worsened after Japan decided Friday, August 2, of this year to revoke South Korea’s preferential status as a trade partner, citing security reasons. This change of status is limited to the purchase of “goods that can be diverted for military use” but it signifies ratcheting tensions between the two countries. According to the Japan Times, these recent developments mark the “lowest level lowest level [in the diplomatic relationship between Japan and South Korea] since they were normalized in 1965.”

Update 8/7/19 11:40am: In a statement posted on Facebook Tuesday, August 6, 72 of the 90 artists participating in the 2019 Aichi Triennale objected the closure of the exhibition After ‘Freedom of Expression?’ and called on the triennial to reverse its decision. The list of signatories includes the artists Tania Bruguera, Candice Breitz, Heather Dewey Hagborg, Chim↑Pom, Regina José Galindo, Minouk Lim, Park Chan-kyong, and Javier Téllez, among others.

“We strongly object to any violent intervention by politicians into exhibits, screenings, and performances at art institutions, and the kinds of menacing acts and intimidation that drove the Triennale to close After ‘Freedom of Expression’ as an emergency measure,” the statement said. The artists expressed their concerns over the violent threats directed at the triennial, and called for taking security measures “to ensure the mental and physical safety of the exhibition staff and visitors,” but maintained that the exhibition should remain on view if these precautions are taken.

“We are alarmed by the possibility of any harm coming to the people watching over our works during the exhibition period, and will do everything in our power to resist such terroristic threats and intimidation,” the artists added. In addition, the artists demanded the establishment of “a platform for free and vigorous discussion that is open to all” with their participation. “What we seek is a patient process for reaching deeper understanding — the opposite of violent interventions,” they wrote. “What we seek is a discussion that is open to all people and respects individual opinions and conditions, and a Triennale that is capable of realizing such a discussion.”

Update 8/9/19 2:21pm: Police arrested a man suspected of making an arson threat against the Aichi Triennale, the Japan Times reported. The suspect was identified as Shuji Hotta, a 59-year-old truck driver from Inazawa, Aichi Prefecture, the police said in a statement on Wednesday, August 7. Hotta was apprehended after security camera footage at a convenience store showed him using a fax machine on August 2, the same day the handwritten threat was faxed to the triennial organizers. Hotta was arrested on charges of obstruction of business by force after admitting to faxing the threat earlier in the month, the police said.

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