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I thought a lot about adjectives before starting this preview of an upcoming exhibition at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, first and foremost because the show’s English title — “Ayashii: Decadent and Grotesque Images of Beauty in Modern Japanese Art” — begins with an untranslated Japanese descriptor. “Ayashii” is a common enough word in Japan, used in conversation to mean “suspicious” or “dodgy,” but by no stretch of the imagination has it made it into international usage. Why, then, I asked curator Reiko Nakamura, did the museum opt to use it in the English title?

“Even in Japanese, ‘ayashii’ is hard to pin down,” she allows. “This one word carries so many nuances, depending on context or how you write it. If you use one character, it can mean ‘alluring.’ With another, it is more like ‘mystical.’ In the end, we decided it was impossible to sum it up with a single English word, and instead invite visitors to form their own conclusions as they view the works.”

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