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As the taboo-busting comic Joan Rivers used to say after pressing her audience’s buttons, “Can we talk?”

On the evidence of this year’s Aichi Triennale, one of the largest art festivals in Japan, if it’s about World War II atrocities (other than the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) or Emperor Showa in any way that may be less than respectful — the answer seems to be “no.”

To recap: A section of the festival, called “After ‘Freedom of Expression?'” was closed for more than two months of the scheduled 75-day long triennale run, after the organizers received threats, particularly about two works. One was a video piece by Nobuyuki Oura, which features the burning of photographic images of Emperor Showa. The other was “Statue of a Girl of Peace” by Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung, which commemorates Korean “comfort women,” a version of which caused Japan to withdraw its ambassador to South Korea for three months in 2017, after it was installed in Busan.

The Aichi Triennale had received 10,379 threats by mid-September, according to Shihoko Iida, the chief curator, as reported in a November interview with the online magazine Biennial Foundation. The temporary closure of “After ‘Freedom of Expression?'” was couched by the organizers as being a safety measure rather than censorship — only a few months beforehand an arson attack on the Kyoto Animation studios had killed more than 30 people. But to the artists exhibiting in the triennale and the Japanese curators of “After ‘Freedom of Expression?'” — it was censorship.

The Museum Watch Committee of the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art also took this view, stating in an open letter to the triennale: “The cancellation is an infringement of the artists’ freedom of expression, at the behest of politicians and Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura, who made a direct request for the exhibition to be closed.” Mayor Kawamura has been widely reported as saying that the “Statue of a Girl of Peace”, “tramples on the feelings of Japanese people.”

In almost all the English-language media coverage of the Aichi Triennale censorship controversy, it is images of this statue that keep coming up. However, Iida notes in the interview mentioned, that the focus of ire was in fact divided equally between the statue and Oura’s video, and that “domestically, after we reopened the show, people commented more on the representation of the emperor.”

What can be made of the fact that another exhibit on comfort women, a black-and-white photo documentary series by Korean photographer Ahn Sehong, has hardly received any media attention or been singled out as an affront to Japanese sensibilities? Feedback from the Aichi Triennale organizers on audience reaction was that “viewers saw the work peacefully and read the caption seriously without any complaints. Also, regarding the attacking calls, emails or faxes, we received no comments related to Ahn Sehong’s work.”

Ahn’s images show survivors of wartime sexual abuse, and are far more direct in communicating the trauma and wretchedness of serial rape than the restrained stoicism of the “Statue of a Girl of Peace.” Ahn has exhibited work on comfort women in Japan several times. His photos, along with Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung’s statue and several other provocative works, were in the Tokyo exhibition “Un-freedom of Expression — What Has Been Lost” at Gallery Furuto, which was the precursor of the Aichi Triennale show, hence the “After” in “After ‘Freedom of Expression?'” The Furuto show completed its run without provoking serious incident.

When Ahn exhibited his work at the Shinjuku Nikon Salon in 2012, however, he was not as fortunate. Though there has been a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth in the international art community and mass media about the events of the Aichi Triennale being a moment of crisis and a dangerous precedent, it’s all a rerun of what happened to Ahn seven years ago. The South Korean photographer’s exhibition went up at the Nikon Salon in Ginza thanks to a selection committee that thought it had something of value to communicate. It became the target of angry threats and intimidation and, on the basis of “safety concerns,” it was shut down by a larger umbrella body — in Ahn’s case it was Mitsubishi, which owns the building in which Nikon Salon is located. The exhibition did re-open later but with a draconian entry procedure that greatly limited the number of people who could get in.

The strange absence of discussion around Ahn’s work in the “After ‘Freedom of Expression?'” debacle, is, semiotically speaking, another grotesque silencing of actual survivor’s testimony in a decades-old history of denial. In a more prosaic sense, shock at the Aichi Triennale closure of “After ‘Freedom of Expression?'” as if it were an exceptional and singular event, presumes that freedom of speech is a norm that is generally desired, and considered desirable, in Japan. For this ahistorical optimism, I blame the Americans.

Based on Prussian and British models, the Meiji Constitution (1889-1947) guaranteed “liberty of speech, writing, publication, public meetings and associations,” with the crucial provision that this should be “within the limits of the law.” This is a definition that Mayor Kawamura probably envisages. An Aug. 5 New York Times article reports him as saying that freedom of expression “is not freedom where people can do whatever they want to.”

The revised 1946 Constitution, drawn up by the office of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP) after it rejected the relatively conservative “Matsumoto draft” created by a member of the Japanese cabinet, categorically guarantees “freedom of speech” and “no censorship.” However, at the time that the constitution was drafted, SCAP was, of course, enforcing censorship on Japanese and foreign media through its Civil Intelligence Section, in order to maintain a positive image of Occupation forces, repress any resurgence of militarism and revive Japan as a free-market liberal democracy.

In other words, freedom of speech, or expression, has too short and patchy a history, and has been too contestable as a reality in Japan to take for granted as a commonly agreed-upon social value. The fact that artists and art professionals, rather than the people who harass them, are considered disruptive to the status quo, is evident from the Agency for Cultural Affairs rescinding ¥78 million worth of financial support for Aichi Prefecture just after its Governor Hideaki Omura announced that the exhibit would be reopened.

It should also be clear from this negative example that major art institutions and art events in Japan must logically, and in actuality, be complicit in this bad faith prioritization of inoffensiveness over art as active social commentary especially if they have or wish to receive state funding.

Challenging orthodoxy, whether it’s social or aesthetic, is a fundamental aspect of what make modern and contemporary art different enterprises from art before modernism. Although festivals like the “Reborn-Art Festival” in Tohoku this summer and the earlier “Catastrophe and the Power of Art” exhibition at the Mori Art Museum nominally aimed to use art as a tool of social transformation, art’s real potential was blunted by the overall message of trying to be positive in spite of the uncertainty of the future.

NGOs, social support groups, innovative architecture and design, and education, are good for this. If the ideological clash over “After ‘Freedom of Expression'” tells us anything, it’s that art is at its most potent when it exposes anxieties and stirs public debate.

The girl of the Kims’ sculpture has rosy red cheeks, a bird perched on her shoulder and an empty chair next to her. She obviously isn’t trampling anything. The artists are proposing that we feel empathy. Their 2017 work “Vietnam Pieta,” commemorating the deaths of Vietnamese at the hands of South Korean soldiers who fought with the U.S. in the 1960s and ’70s, shows that the artists practice what they preach. Neither project is innovative or challenging from a visual art point of view but I respect the intellectual and emotional rigor they express by following their own logic and moving from the national to the transnational.

What sticks in Mayor Kawamura’s craw is likely that the “Statue of a Girl of Peace” challenges him to sympathize with people who are not part of his perceived in-group. Compared to this obstacle, concerns about top-down censorship in a quantifiable legal sense are relatively superficial in comparison. There is already no question that the right to freedom of speech, expression and opinion in Japan exists on paper. The issue is, to reword sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s central query of society, why do the censored participate in their own self-censorship?

The subtitle of a 2009 article “Taboos in Japanese Postwar Art,” in Art Asia Pacific magazine, pithily sums up what seems to drive this desire to avoid controversy: “Mutually Assured Decorum.” The threats of arson, punitive withdrawal of funding, accusations of offense to national identity, verbal abuse and other issues embattling “After ‘Freedom of Expression?'” weren’t mutual or decorous. It was more “Lord of the Flies.”

Having said that, the question remains: Can we talk?

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