For a decade now, Yoshiko Shimada has been a lonely but tireless torchbearer of feminist consciousness in Japanese contemporary art. After spending time in Germany and America, the 44-year-old returned to Japan in the mid-1990s to tackle taboos — subjects such as the Emperor’s complicity in World War II sex slavery, the re-emergence of nationalism and militarism, and the second-class status of women in contemporary Japanese society.

Now Shimada is joined by four artists — Mako Idemitsu (from Japan); Park Young Sook and Yun Suk Nam (South Korea); and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (the United States) — in an exhibition themed around feminism and gender politics. “Borderline Cases” is organized by F.A.A.B. (the Feminist Art Action Brigade) and curated by Kim Sunhat of the Mori Art Museum. It is now running at A.R.T. Gallery in Ebisu, a mid-size art space run by art impresario Johnnie Walker.

Shimada’s contribution to the exhibition is an installation that collects and reveals shameful and suppressed family secrets. “Bones in a Tansu — Family Secrets” is a work-in-progress: Gallery visitors can enter a booth resembling a confessional and draw a privacy curtain, write down their secrets and slip them into a locked wooden box. Through the run of the show, Shimada will treat then display selected submissions in the adjacent, waist-high tansu (traditional Japanese chest of drawers).

This piece is especially poignant. When I visited last weekend, one drawer contained a blurry picture of a male head in silhouette, overlaid with a wooden frame stretched with translucent rice paper on which was printed the words: “My brother, who is 46, is unmarried and unemployed, and hides in his room all day.” Another drawer contained a sepia-tinted archive print of three Imperial Army soldiers, titled: “My grandfather is said to have killed a lot of people.”

“I think, individually, this process may be therapeutic,” said Shimada, “but taken as an accumulation it reveals aspects of Japanese society as a whole.”

Shimada says she has recorded about 50 testimonials so far, and because she has recently been collaborating with many ethnic Korean residents and citizens of Japan, many secrets tend to involve ethnicity issues.

“Although they may be first or second generation, for ethnic Koreans the utmost secret is to keep their ethnicity hidden from the Japanese in general. Today, 80-90 percent of Koreans here use Japanese names. Their real names are Korean, but they don’t use them because they are afraid.”

Shimada says the situation may be getting better for ethnic Koreans. But one thing that isn’t getting better, she says, is the state of activism in Japan.

“For feminism and anti-war activism, the situation is definitely worse than it was 10 years ago,” she says. “There is much apathy among young people, plus activists themselves have stagnated, they are repeating the same old slogans, like ‘Peace and Love.’ I think the reason for the apathy is in the Japanese educational system, which now is also getting worse with the nationalist agenda, no mention of ‘comfort women’ [wartime sex slaves] in the textbooks and things like that.”

Shimada says she still has hope for positive change in Japanese society: “But something new has to happen, and not from mass movements — it has to come from an awareness growing inside the individual.”

Korean artist Park Yong Sook has brought five big C-type prints from her ongoing “Mad Women” series. “The subjects in ‘Mad Women’ are artists, medical professionals, and so on, they have jobs but they are also interested in feminism,” explained Park. “So this is a story about what some men might call ‘bad girls,’ as opposed to ‘good girls,’ who conform to the male expectation of femininity. Because they are strong enough to fight for their own identity, there is an idea that they must be mad. This is a universal women’s story, it’s not only about feminists, because every woman should have and develop her own consciousness.”

There is a touching installation by Yun Suk Nam, featuring a series of drawings and a wooden sculpture of her 90-year-old mother, who lives just outside Seoul.

“It was the year 1955, just after the war, when my father died and left my mother with no money and six children, aged 2-19,” explained Yun. “I was 16, one of the oldest, and my sister and I worked to help my mother support our family. This piece is a personal history of my mother’s life from age 19-90. She had a warm heart and never complained, she worked all day and somehow always bought cookies home for us, and played with us. I love my mother so much, this work is a homage to her.”

Downstairs at A.R.T., there are two strong video works. “Passages” is a three-channel installation on video monitors by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha that features fleeting images and haunting (English-language) poetic narration; while Mako Idemitsu’s “The Past Ahead” is a single channel video projection that juxtaposes World War II footage of duty-bound kamikaze pilots taking their last sip of sake, Japanese military personnel instructing Korean children and snapshots of her own (concurrent) childhood in Tochigi Prefecture.

“I was a happy child; the fact that the Imperial Army was invading other Asian countries had nothing to do with me,” says Idemitsu. “Currently, Japan is enjoying a similarly calm period while Japanese troops are stationed in Iraq. Isn’t there a similarity between now and then?”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.