The Aichi Triennale arts festival closed on Oct. 14, and, along with it, a controversial exhibition titled “After ‘Freedom of Expression?'”, which had been temporarily shut down following threats of violence and complaints. The main point of contention was a statue of a Korean “comfort woman,” the inclusion of which angered those who don’t think that the women who sexually serviced Japanese soldiers before and during World War II were forced or coerced into such service, which is what the statue represents. 

The exhibit featured another work that was equally condemned but which received less media attention, probably because its actual meaning wasn’t so clear to most people. The piece, titled “Enkin o Kakaete Part II” (“Holding Perspective Part II”), is a video depicting a printed image of Emperor Showa being burned. It is based on a collage by the same artist, Nobuyuki Oura, created in the 1980s. The collage incorporated pictures of the emperor with other images of Western and Asian art, and some believe that using a picture of the emperor in an artwork is inherently disrespectful, even blasphemous. These critics protested after some pieces in the collage were purchased by a museum in Toyama, forcing the entity to sell the artworks and burn copies of the museum catalogue explaining the exhibit. The subsequent work shown at the Aichi Triennale was, in part, a comment on the burning of the catalogues and not an explicit act of violence against the imperial system, according to Oura in an interview that appeared in the Asahi Shimbun on Oct. 12. It was akin to a religious act, Oura said, just as a portable shrine (mikoshi) is burned as a form of prayer. 

Nevertheless, such subtleties were lost on the general public, said Oura in the interview, which suggests that it’s more about the media’s “emperor taboo” than about the exhibit. In fact, the reporter who talked to Oura, who was born in 1949, had a hard time grasping the purport of what he was trying to say with his work owing to the way that, as the artist himself explained, a number of Japanese people are somehow imbued with the imperial system. It is present in everything around them, and Oura’s work confronts that idea, which most Japanese people sublimate. 

This sublimation results in a tacit refusal to countenance any discussion about the meaning of the emperor and his position other than those advanced by designated authorities. Although Oura admits his work contains a sense of holding Emperor Showa responsible for the horrors of World War II, that was not his intention, but it doesn’t matter because using anything related to the emperor in an “expressive” way is automatically impious, a term that suggests the throne still possesses religious power despite Emperor Showa’s renunciation of his divinity after the war. It was, many scholars believe, a condition of the Americans to allow him to remain.

The taboo is especially evident in films, which, when addressing topics related to the history of World War II, usually have to accommodate the emperor’s involvement. A Jan. 4, 2018, article in the online magazine Cinema Today by Harumi Nakayama attempted to wrestle with the legacy of Emperor Showa in Japanese movies and, long after he told his subjects he was a mere mortal, he was still treated as a figure of awe upon whom normal people could not gaze. Documentaries could freely show footage of the emperor, but fictional films, which are by definition forms of expression, almost never depicted him. At most, they showed his back, or his silhouette or his form in the distance. 

As Nakayama stresses, this hesitation is purely a manifestation of self-restraint, because there are no laws or guidelines limiting how the emperor can be presented in the public sphere. And yet, there is an obvious fascination with the subject. In December 2017, the tiny Tokyo art house theater Eurospace held a one-week event featuring films that included the emperor in some capacity, and more than 2,000 people bought tickets.

The fascination with Emperor Heisei and newly enthroned Emperor Naruhito is a bit different owing to their status as symbols under the postwar Constitution. The media is less circumspect about their lives and what goes on in the palace, but there remains a residue of propriety that prevents the press from digging too deep. Self-restraint still applies, which is why foreign press coverage of the recent enthronement ceremony differed substantially from that of domestic news outlets. Although the former was criticized for its flip tone, foreign media were nevertheless obsessed with the “traditional” aspect of the rites and regalia. In contrast, Japanese reporters largely tended to approach the whole thing as a bland pageant, which suggests the taboo still applies to some extent. The only reason the domestic press debated whether the ceremony should be paid for by the imperial family or by the state is that Crown Prince Akishino brought it up.

So while the Constitution has transformed the emperor from a god to a man whose only real function is to perpetuate the imperial line, Oura’s idea that all Japanese people carry the emperor within them still seems true. In the interview, the artist explained that he first realized this reality when he lived in New York and suffered an identity crisis, and part of that identity was his indelible connection to the emperor. That’s why his art has been so fixated on the monarchy. “Holding Perspective Part 2,” he says, is really “a portrait of me.” 

What concerns Oura is that typically right-wing elements protested his art back in the 1980s, whereas the Aichi Triennale furor shows that a wider section of the public now objects to such work, a development he naturally blames on the internet. Like him, the Japanese citizenry always carries the emperor with them, along with at least part of the idea that any interpretation of the emperor is forbidden. At one point, the reporter asks Oura to put himself in the average person’s shoes and wonders if he could burn a photo of, say, his own grandfather.

“I can understand that feeling,” Oura says, “but it’s necessary to approach such things from a perspective far from your normal viewpoint.” That is the purpose of art, which automatically makes it the enemy of dogma.

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