Comfort woman statue removed from Japan exhibition after government pressure

Two controversial items from ‘After Freedom of Expression?’ removed three days after exhibition opening

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Statue of Peace

Statue of Peace (Wikimedia Commons photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) – Two controversial items, including a comfort woman statue, were removed from an international art exhibition in Aichi Prefecture, Japan, only three days after they were first put on display, NHK reports.

The Aichi Triennale 2019, a government-sponsored international art exhibition that opened Aug. 1, was criticized by the Japanese public and political figures for showing two controversial items in one of its programs – “After 'Freedom of Expression?'” (表現の不自由展・その後). The two items that sparked the outcry were the “Statue of Peace” (평화의 소녀상), informally known as the "comfort woman statue," and “A Paint that Should Be Burned” (焼かれるべき絵), a half-burned portrait of Hirohito, the Showa Emperor.

Comfort women were young, mostly Korean and Taiwanese women who were sexually exploited by the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second World War, and Hirohito was the emperor who initiated the war. Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura (河村たかし), who once claimed that the Nanjing Massacre was a fabrication, criticized the exhibition for “harming the feelings of Japanese citizens,” saying “Tax money should not be wasted on such things” on Aug. 2.

One of the event's artistic directors, Daisuke Tsuda (津田大介), told the press that they had received about 200 complaints by phone and 500 by email on the first day of the exhibition and even more on the second. He said they had even received a letter via fax threatening to “bring gas cans to visit the exhibition.”

During a conference held that same day, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga (菅義偉) said that the government would “prudently consider based on facts” whether to subsidize the exhibition, which the Agency for Cultural Affairs had originally promised to do. Suga claimed that the exhibition failed to provide detailed and concrete information on exhibited contents before applying for the subsidy.

The organizers decided to remove the two controversial items on Aug. 3 since continuing to display them would “bring difficulties to [the operation of] the whole exhibition.” Suga claimed on Monday (Aug. 5) that the decision was “absolutely not" a result of central government pressure and that he simply “stated” government policy when questioned by reporters.

Tsuda said the government's implied threat to remove funding constituted “censorship,” which is forbidden by the 21st article of Japan’s Constitution. However, he believed that “It is still a good thing if the rationale behind the removal could be discussed by the public.”

The governor of Aichi Prefecture, Hideaki Omura (大村秀章), condemned Mayor Kawamura’s remarks about the exhibition as being “largely against the Constitution.” Still, he said he agreed it was best to remove the two controversial items considering that the organizers lacked the capacity to deal with complaints and the staff may be worried after receiving the terroristic threat.

Japan’s Pen Club (日本ペンクラブ), an association of Japanese writers and artists, called the incident “the largest post-war censorship” that makes art “pointless” and constitutes a "withering" of the freedom of expression that pushes society forward. The artists who planned “After 'Freedom of Expression?'” protested against Omura and Tsuda for succumbing to government and public pressure and said that they are considering taking legal actions to re-include the two items in the exhibition.