NAGOYA – The governor of Aichi Prefecture criticized the mayor of Nagoya on Monday for demanding the shutdown of a special exhibition featuring a statue symbolizing “comfort women,” saying his remarks are likely “unconstitutional.”
“It is highly likely that (his demand) violates Article 21 of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression,” Aichi Gov. Hideaki Omura told a news conference after the event was closed Saturday following a flurry of protests and threats.
Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura had demanded the closure of the exhibit, which was part of the Aichi Triennale 2019 — a major art festival in the prefecture. The term comfort women, or ianfu in Japanese, is a euphemism for the women, including Koreans, who provided sex — including those who did so against their will — for Japanese troops before and during World War II.
The exhibit was titled “After ‘Freedom of Expression?’,” and featured artworks that had earlier been rejected or removed by other exhibition organizers, including a work using an image of Emperor Hirohito who is known posthumously as Emperor Showa. It was halted just three days after the opening of the 75-day-long art festival.
Kawamura had argued the exhibition could give what he described as a wrong impression that Japan accepts a South Korean claim that comfort women were forcibly taken by the Japanese military, and thus should not be displayed at a publicly funded event. The issue of comfort women has been a major sticking point in Japan-South Korea relations, which have deteriorated to their worst level in recent years due to wartime history and trade issues.
Omura is head of the organizing committee of the art festival, which is subject to a government subsidy, and Kawamura is the committee’s acting chairman. Nagoya is Aichi’s prefectural capital. “It can’t be helped that (Kawamura’s protest) is taken as censorship if a person who exercises public power says that certain content is good or bad,” Omura said.
The arts festival is one of the biggest contemporary art festivals in Japan, drawing more than 90 teams of artists from around the world. Omura acknowledged that there are increasing calls for limits being placed on what an exhibitor can present if taxpayers’ money is used, but he countered them, saying that public authorities need to protect freedom of expression. “I believe it is principle of the Constitution that (public authority) should accept expression even if it does not like it,” Omura said.
In response to Omura’s criticism, Kawamura told a separate news conference Monday, “There needs to be a minimum level of regulation. (The statue) tramples on Japanese people’s feelings.”
“We will conduct an investigation as fast as we can to explain to people how the artwork came to be exhibited,” the mayor said.
Meanwhile, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a separate news conference Monday that remarks he made previously had not influenced the cancellation of the event. On Friday, while noting that the art festival was a government-subsidized project, Suga had said, “We’ll check and examine the facts and take necessary steps” regarding a decision on whether subsidies should be given to the event.
“I only answered questions asked by reporters,” Suga said Monday, stressing that his remarks had not influenced the announcement made by the organizing committee the next day.
Kim Jin-gon, spokesman of South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, said it was very regrettable that the display was halted, according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.
“Freedom of creation and expression of culture and art should be respected in any case,” Kim said. “It is hoped that the display will be normalized as soon as possible.”
The Japan Art Association, a group of artists and theorists who aim for the free and democratic development of Japanese art, has protested against the closure of the exhibition.
“Succumbing to pressure from the government and threats is a serious infringement on freedom of expression,” the association said, urging the organizer to restart the exhibition.
When announcing the decision to halt the exhibition, Omura said Saturday that there had been growing concern about safely managing the event after organizers received a number of threatening emails, phone calls and faxes.
According to Omura, one of the faxes they received read, “I will bring a gasoline container to the museum,” in what he said was an allusion to the recent deadly arson attack on a Kyoto Animation Co. studio.
The Aichi Prefectural Government said Monday it had received another email in which the writer threatened to spray gasoline at the festival venue, in another apparent reference to the Kyoto arson attack that left 35 people dead.
“Generally speaking, there must not be violence and threats,” Suga said.