Ever since a section of a public art exhibition in Nagoya was closed after coming under a barrage of complaints and threats, Japan has been in a state of introspection over its freedom of expression.

Amid the intense debate, two fundamental questions remain: In the age of social media, did people jump to conclusions about the two artworks at issue, and, is there a point where art becomes too political for the public to stomach?

The works in question were video footage featuring an image of Emperor Hirohito (known posthumously as Emperor Showa) being incinerated with a blowtorch, and a sculpture representing “comfort women,” who worked in wartime brothels, including those against their will, to provide sex to Japanese soldiers.

Emperor Showa was worshiped as a living god before the end of World War II. Still in Japan, more than 70 years later, defacing an image of a modern emperor in the name of art is taboo.

The statue representing comfort women is similar to those that have been installed by South Korean activists in several cities around the world.

The sculptures placed overseas are usually accompanied by a plaque claiming that as many as 200,000 women were abducted to work in brothels established by the Japanese military. The Japanese government disputes that figure and description.

Many interpreted the two works as an insult to the late emperor and Japan in general. They were in a mini exhibition intended to showcase political taboos that was part of Aichi Triennale 2019, one of Japan’s largest international art festivals. The name of the mini exhibit was “After ‘Freedom of Expression?'”

A sign Aug. 4 shows that the Aichi Triennale art festival’s mini exhibition on freedom of expression has been shut down.  | KYODO
A sign Aug. 4 shows that the Aichi Triennale art festival’s mini exhibition on freedom of expression has been shut down.  | KYODO

Festival officials threatened

As the festival’s management office started business for the day at 8:45 a.m. on Aug. 1, phone calls, emails and fax messages of protest were already flooding in, forcing all 23 workers there to deal with them until 8 p.m., when the phone service was finally switched over to an answering machine for more calls that were expected to come in overnight.

The protests included threats and harsh verbal abuse toward the officials who were fielding the calls. The festival’s organizing committee felt compelled to cancel the mini exhibition just three days after it opened, sparking the intense debate about the state of freedom of expression in Japan.

Furthermore, some art and media experts raised a fundamental question about the incident: Was the post on social media thought to have sparked the furor, which claimed a video artwork insulting the emperor was being displayed, actually correct in the first place?

Probably not, at least regarding the image of the emperor by artist Nobuyuki Oura. And even the statue of a girl symbolizing comfort women is open to multiple interpretations regarding its intent, media and art experts say.

“Oura has said his works are not intended to criticize the emperor,” said Yoshitaka Mori, an art professor at Tokyo University of the Arts and an expert on art, media and postmodern culture. “But he always lamented it was never understood.”

Mori personally knows Oura well and even organized a public talk with him after showing Oura’s movies that dealt with the imperial system.

Oura and his collage print works featuring images of the emperor are well-known among experts who study freedom of expression in Japan, but most protesters probably are not aware of him or his works.

In 1986, a series of prints by Oura titled “Holding Perspective” and featuring collage images of Emperor Showa were displayed in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Toyama.

The museum bought some of those works. But after facing harsh protests from local politicians and right-wing activists, the museum sold all of them and burned its last 470 copies of the exhibition catalog.

The burning video footage of the emperor displayed at Aichi Triennale is from the “Holding Perspective” series. Thus it presumably represents criticism of the politicians and right-wingers who “incinerated” the copies of the catalog.

“In a sense, it is the right-wingers and the (local) assembly that burned the image of the emperor,” Mori said.

Journalist Daisuke Tsuda, who serves as the Aichi Triennale's art director, has repeatedly emphasized that the primary purpose was to show why those works were withdrawn from art exhibitions in the past because of political controversy. | KYODO
Journalist Daisuke Tsuda, who serves as the Aichi Triennale’s art director, has repeatedly emphasized that the primary purpose was to show why those works were withdrawn from art exhibitions in the past because of political controversy. | KYODO

However, numerous netizens only saw a very short clip of the video that circulated on Twitter with no explanation about the background of the artwork or Oura himself.

According to Mori, Oura “is not a left-winger” who is against the imperial system.

In 2011, he directed a film titled “Tenno Gokko” (“Playing Emperor”), which featured a young man fascinated by the imperial system. Since the film didn’t particularly criticize the emperor system, it drew criticism from some left-wingers, according to Mori.

But most netizens probably saw only fragmented information about the works on social media, jumping to conclusions without learning about any of the context of those works, Mori said.

“If you look at the context, those artworks in the exhibition would be seen in totally different ways,” he said. “But some people labeled them as ‘anti-Japan’ and rushed to judgment. You can find plenty of such opinions on the internet.”

The same may be said of the comfort woman statue, although it is true South Korean activists have used similar statues to spread their message.

Formally titled “Monument of Peace,” artists Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung say they created the work not only to criticize Japan but also to send a message to male-dominated South Korean society, which has long discriminated against former comfort women.

According to the official explanatory note about the statue, the girl’s feet not touching the ground was meant to symbolize the fact that comfort women could not return to their hometowns.

And even if they did have the courage to return, their lives were insecure and unstable because their communities would not accept them, according to the note.

“Let’s look at art first and let’s think about them after that,” said Kozo Nagata, a professor of media studies at Musashi University and one of five key curators who organized the mini exhibition about freedom of expression.

“Some believe this statue of a girl delivers an excessively political message, but others think it carries a universal, human message about peace — the intention of the artists was the latter,” Nagata said. “But no (substantial) discussion will start unless you actually see the work. So it’s very important to have a venue where you can see it.”

But in these politically charged times — especially as Tokyo and Seoul grow increasingly at odds with each other — some have failed to view this as art and instead as a politically motivated exhibition.

Among them are Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura and Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura.

Kawamura said that allowing such pieces to be shown in a public art exhibition funded by taxpayer money would be tantamount to local governments accepting the South Korean activists’ claim that Japanese authorities “forcibly recruited hundreds of thousands” of Korean women to work in wartime brothels. Aichi Triennale is co-organized by the city of Nagoya and Aichi Prefecture, and funded with public money.

“This is like trampling on the hearts of the Japanese people,” Kawamura said, adding that he believes the vast majority of Japanese people agree with him.

Yoshimura, meanwhile, said the exhibition was “anti-Japan propaganda,” and any public art show should not be allowed to feature video footage of a person burning an image of the emperor.

But journalist Daisuke Tsuda, who serves as the Aichi Triennale’s art director, has repeatedly emphasized that the primary purpose was to show why those works were withdrawn from art exhibitions in the past because of political controversy.

Freedom of expression

Takashi Kawamura | KYODO
Takashi Kawamura | KYODO

Masahiro Sogabe, a professor of constitutional studies at Kyoto University, said the general consensus among academic experts is that freedom of expression should be guaranteed as much as possible and elected officials should not intervene in the selection of art for a public event. Politicians should instead respect the decisions of art experts when they select works for a public exhibition, he said.

If they do, then logically public entities that organize and fund such an event will not be held responsible for controversy stemming from the selections, Sogabe explained.

“Under freedom of expression, being ‘unpleasant’ or ‘anti-Japan’ must not be the reason to regulate any artwork,” he said. “So this incident has brought into focus how limited freedom of expression in Japan is. In that sense, the cancellation of the mini exhibition itself met” some of its organizers’ goals, he said.

Sogabe also emphasized that the freedom of expression should be given equally to anyone regardless of their political creed — either left or right — citing a 1995 landmark Supreme Court ruling.

In that lawsuit, an extreme left-wing group sought damages from the municipal government of Izumisano, Osaka Prefecture, for rejecting its request to use a community hall in the city. The ruling turned down the group’s demand, saying the city’s rejection was justified because the group had a record of violence against other activists.

But at the same time, the Supreme Court concluded that any party, even what is widely regarded as a hate-speech extremist group, must be allowed to use a community hall unless “imminent danger to lives or property” is a realistic possibility, Sogabe explained.

“In the case of an exhibition at a museum, someone must choose artworks to be exhibited,” he said. “But it should be curators or other art experts — not politicians — who are tasked with deciding which works are of value.”

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