Is Japan a nation of free speech? How much freedom of expression do people enjoy in this country?

These questions have gained great public attention recently as opinion leaders worldwide debate the limits of freedom of expression after the terrorist attack on the satirical cartoon magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The weekly’s caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad had inflamed the Muslim world, inciting deadly violence. The Jan. 7 massacre at its office is believed to be a direct result of such outrage.

A bizarre — and potentially extremely controversial — art exhibition underway at a small gallery in Nerima Ward, Tokyo, possibly offers insights into that critical question with regards to Japanese society.

All of the works on display until Feb. 1 in Gallery Furuto had earlier been rejected or removed by other exhibition organizers in Japan amid controversy, including a high-profile photo collage by artist Nobuyuki Oura that includes an image of Emperor Hirohito, known posthumously as Emperor Showa.

The rare exhibition, titled “Hyogen no Fujiyu Ten” (“Exhibition of Unfreedom of Expression”) is designed to showcase what have been considered taboos in Japan despite the freedom of expression guaranteed by the postwar Constitution.

The highlight of the exhibition is a sculpture of a Korean girl with an emotionless face, dressed in traditional clothes and sitting in a chair.


This sculpture, jointly created by artists Kim Seo Kyung and Kim Eun Sung, was the prototype for a bronze statue of a young “comfort woman” that was installed in 2011 in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. That statue has rocked South Korea-Japan relations since it was erected.

The artists created the bronze statue for Korean activists calling for an official apology and compensation from Tokyo for the misery of females forced to work in wartime Japanese military brothels.

The placing of the bronze statue has drawn a huge emotional response from many Japanese. In 2012, after drawing complaints from an unknown party, the organizer of an art exhibit at Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum removed a miniature version of the bronze statue without informing the artists.

“No newspapers reported about (the statue’s) removal at that time,” said Kozo Nagata, one of two representatives of the exhibition and a professor of media studies at Musashi University in Tokyo.

“In Japan, there are taboos, in particular those over Emperor Showa, Japan’s war responsibilities and colonial rule, nuclear power plants and sexual expressions,” he said during a recent interview with The Japan Times at Gallery Furuto.

“Now I think it’s the comfort women issue that draws the strongest reactions,” he said.

Nagata, a former NHK producer, is probably one of the best people in Japan to talk about the limits of freedom of expression in the country.

In 2001 he produced a TV documentary on a mock war crimes tribunal over the ordeal of the comfort women that caused huge public debate after it was reported that two key members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party — including current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — met an NHK executive to discuss the program, an action branded in some quarters as blatant intervention in NHK’s editorial policy.

According to Nagata, in Japan there have been few cases in which politicians or the government used their power in an obvious manner to force artists and media outlets to change how they express themselves.

The most typical — and probably the most problematic — form of censorship is self-censorship by Japanese media outlets and art event organizers excessively worried about reactions from outside parties, Nagata said.

“What is happening right on the front line is self-censorship,” he said, adding this is also true of the controversy in which he was embroiled.

Photographs taken by Ahn Sehong of former 'comfort women' and a statue of a young girl who was forced to work in a wartime Japanese military brothel are displayed in Gallery Furuto in Nerima Ward, Tokyo, on Monday. | REIJI YOSHIDA
Photographs taken by Ahn Sehong of former ‘comfort women’ and a statue of a young girl who was forced to work in a wartime Japanese military brothel are displayed in Gallery Furuto in Nerima Ward, Tokyo, on Monday. | REIJI YOSHIDA

Right before the NHK documentary on the mock war crimes tribunal was aired on Jan. 30, 2001, Abe, who was deputy chief Cabinet secretary at the time, met NHK executives and demanded that the public broadcaster maintain a “fair and neutral” stance over the comfort women issue in editing the program.

After the meeting, NHK executives ordered staff to cut key parts of the documentary to water it down, including a discussion of whether Emperor Showa bore responsibility for the war.

Later, the citizens’ group that organized the mock tribunal sued NHK.

According to the 2007 ruling by the Tokyo High Court, Abe did not directly demand changes of specific parts of the documentary, although he expressed strong dissatisfaction over the planned program.

NHK executives at the time “took the words (of Abe) more (seriously) than necessary” and “surmised (his) intention and thought of making the program as harmless as possible,” the court ruled.

“If Mr. Abe had told (NHK staff) to change some specific part (of the documentary), that would have been censorship,” Nagata said.

“But I don’t think there have been many cases where politicians actually told NHK to make specific changes (to planned programs.) Rather, some senior people (at NHK) have often worried that (politicians) might complain, forcing staff to change” their own programs voluntarily, he said.

Likewise, in many cases involving the art on display in Gallery Furuto, organizers decided to voluntarily remove potentially provocative works after facing protests or complaints from right-wing elements, Nagata said.

It appears many of the organizers simply wanted to avoid trouble with outside parties and worried too much about public reaction, he said.

Nagata argues that Japanese media outlets and art exhibit organizers should not be afraid of showing “controversial” views or expressions to which some people might take exception.

“Some works might be uncomfortable and rattle the nerves of some people. But how those works should be viewed should be left to the audience,” Nagata said, noting that to enrich society, organizers should not be deprived of the opportunity to make such presentations, however controversial.

“That would instead create a monotonous, boring society,” he said.

Yasuhiko Oishi, a professor at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo and an expert on journalism and human rights who is also familiar with French journalism, pointed out a difference between France and Japan in this regard.

French people think of social order as a means to protect the human rights of individuals. This is why numerous French people stood up to defend freedom of expression, including that of Charlie Hebdo, which has carried many religiously provocative cartoons, he said.

In contrast, Japanese attach great importance to maintaining the social order, and many consider the rights of individuals to be subordinate to that order, Oishi said.

“The concept of ‘human rights’ was introduced to Japan from Western countries only about 70 years ago (after the end of World War II). So people still believe social order should come first,” he said.

Thus when facing protests from right-wingers or a religious group, Japanese try to take an “unprovocative” stance and thereby avoid causing controversy, he said.

This attitude “creates more taboos and limits freedom of expression,” Oishi said.

Among other artworks on display at Gallery Furuto are portrait photos of former comfort women taken by South Korean photographer Ahn Sehong, who has been taking pictures of the former sex slaves for more than 19 years.

In 2012, camera giant Nikon Corp. planned to host a exhibition of his works on comfort women in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo.

But after facing complaints and protests, Nikon suddenly canceled the exhibition.

“Freedom of expression is the most important thing in a democratic society,” Ahn said through a translator during a recent interview with The Japan Times.

“I was very happy when (Nikon) decided to hold the photo exhibition about (Japan’s) colonial rule and history. But it was later canceled. I have felt that freedom of expression has not been fully upheld in Japan,” he said. “Rather, Japan still has some serious problems (with the concept).”

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