An exhibition probing Japan’s history of censoring art as part of the 2019 Aichi Triennale in the city of Nagoya was itself censored and shuttered on Saturday, August 3, just three days after its opening.
The exhibition, titled After ‘Freedom of Expression?’, celebrated artworks that had been censored in Japan. It was closed after the triennial’s organizers reported multiple threats of violence against the festival. The threats specifically targeted a controversial artwork in the exhibition by two South Korean artists in the show. The work, Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung’s “Statue of Peace” (2011), is a life-size sculpture of a “comfort woman,” or ianfu in Japanese — a term used to describe women who were forced into providing sexual services to Japanese troops before and during World War II.
Japanese nationalists have long disputed the history of the country’s military’s exploitation of Korean women as sex slaves. A number of right-wing politicians from the party of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were quick to condemn the statue as the exhibition opened on August 1.
But those were mild objections compared to what came later. Hideaki Omura, Aichi’s governor and head of the triennial’s organizing committee, said in a news conference that safety concerns have risen after his staff received a number of threatening emails, phone calls, and faxes.
“I will bring a gasoline container to the museum,” one threatening fax read. This message evoked the deadly arson attack on Kyoto Animation studios last month, according to Omura.
However, Omura’s decision to close the exhibition did not go uncontested. The triennial’s own artistic director, journalist Daisuke Tsuda, has publicly criticized the decision. “It is regrettable that we have made an example that undermines freedom of expression,” Tsuda said in a statement.
The work in the exhibition is one of 20 versions of the “Statue of Peace” created since 2011. Most of the statues are located in Korea, with one strategically placed outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul.
The controversy comes at an especially fraught time in the relationship between Japan and South Korea, which have historically suffered tensions over Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula between 1910 and 1945. The ties between the two further worsened after Japan decided Friday, August 2, of this year to revoke South Korea’s preferential status as a trade partner, citing security reasons. This change of status is limited to the purchase of “goods that can be diverted for military use” but it signifies ratcheting tensions between the two countries. According to the Japan Times, these recent developments mark the “lowest level lowest level [in the diplomatic relationship between Japan and South Korea] since they were normalized in 1965.”