• Kyodo, staff report


A controversial art exhibition featuring works with purported anti-Japan messages, including a statue symbolizing "comfort women" who worked in wartime military brothels, opened Friday in Osaka under tight security amid repeated threats and protests.

"Hyogen no Fujiyu Kansai (Non-Freedom of Expression Exhibition Kansai)" to be held through Sunday at a prefectural labor center, displays more than 20 works, including a film featuring a scene in which an image of Emperor Hirohito, the grandfather of the current emperor, is burned to ashes.

“Comfort women” is a euphemism for those who suffered under Japan’s military brothel system before and during World War II. They were forced or coerced into sexual servitude under various circumstances, including abduction, deception and poverty.

As dozens of people lined up to see the exhibition before it opened, police officers were on guard following the sending of threatening letters and suspicious objects. Supporters and protesters who had assembled nearby were seen arguing.

"Freedom of expression is being exterminated by this strange atmosphere in society. I am anxious about trouble, but I felt that if I missed this chance, I would not be able to see it again," said a 39-year-old Osaka resident who was among the visitors to the exhibition.

A member of the exhibition's organizing group urged people "not to crush the exhibition for holding a different opinion" and said it hopes people will go to see the works before making a judgment.

A man belonging to a nationalist group protesting against the event said, "It is politically biased and it is wrong to use a public facility to hold an exhibition which undoubtedly stirs controversy."

Although acts of violence are unacceptable, "It should be canceled before anything happens, as there have already been safety concerns," he added.

Some of the works exhibited in Osaka overlap with those shown at the Aichi Triennale 2019's section called "After 'Freedom of Expression?'," which was halted just three days after its opening due to protests and took about two months to reopen.

Japan's relations with South Korea remain strained due to a feud over compensation for wartime laborers and former comfort women used by the Japanese military.

Last month, the Osaka prefectural labor center L-Osaka withdrew its permission for the exhibition to take place, citing the difficulty of maintaining security. But the Osaka High Court on Thursday upheld a district court ruling saying the event should go ahead.

The labor center has filed an appeal to the Supreme Court, a center official said.

On Wednesday, the venue received a package containing liquid and a letter claiming the liquid was sarin, a deadly nerve agent, along with statements of protest against the exhibition. Police said the liquid appeared to be water. The venue also received on Tuesday a letter threatening to block the exhibition by force.

A similar exhibition that was set to open in Tokyo last month was postponed indefinitely due to disruption caused by nationalist protestors in vehicles using loudspeakers.

Another in Nagoya, which opened on July 6, was canceled after a suspicious package was received.

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