By David McNeill

Neo-nationalists and artists are again preparing to fight it out over freedom of expression in Hiroshima

Last November, the sleepy, unimposing island of Momoshima in the Seto Island Sea was the site of an unlikely row. Yukinori Yanagi, one of Japan’s best known contemporary artists, hosted fellow artists Nobuyuki Ooura and Meiro Koizumi to discuss their work ahead of the Hiroshima Triennale, a major international art event that opens in September. A group of angry neo nationalists got wind of the meeting and came to protest. The police were called.


Ooura has been a triggering figure for the right for decades since creating a series of portraits that included found images of Hirohito, the Showa Emperor. Koizumi has also broached the imperial taboo with pictures that ponder the ghostly presence of the emperor in the Japanese imagination. The mere hint of their association with the triennale, a publicly funded event, was enough to bring out the neo nationalist mob.

In fact, neither artist had been invited to the triennale. “There is absolutely no way that would happen,” says Ooura. “I’m considered far too dangerous.”

Still, protestors lobbied local politicians in Hiroshima, who noted in the prefectural assembly that similar art had caused a major row in Nagoya last year. They were referencing the “After Freedom of Expression” exhibition at the Aichi Triennale, which was forced to close in August after the organizers were bombarded with over 10,000 calls, emails and faxes, some containing very specific threats of violence. In September, the Cultural Affairs Agency pulled a ¥78 million grant to the Triennale, leaving Nagoya holding much of the bill for the event.

Apparently spooked by the possibility of a repeat, Hiroshima decided in February to set up a committee with the power to review and reject “unsuitable” art. The artistic community has reacted with alarm. A statement from the International Association of Art Critics Japan (IAACJ) said that the seven member external committee had in effect been given the power to censor anything it doesn’t like.

“Artists will be required to submit works for this exhibition under the premise of this censorship, and all expressive possibilities will be stunted by being forced into the limitations of the censorship criteria,” the statement read. Michio Hayashi, the association’s president, called the city’s preemptive measure “unprecedented.”

Meiro Koizumi agrees. “There has always been this kind of censorship under the table but never officially like this,” he says, “Curators know our work may cause problems but they some how squeeze it in.” Now they will lose that ability, he warns.

The emperor is the deepest taboo, Koizumi notes, but officials spending public money are also wary of any art that touches on colonial history, nuclear power or even erossexual content. “If we allow this sort of committee to exist undoubtedly other art festivals will copy it.”

The battle lines are again hardening. Standing by any artist considered controversial would invite further protests from the right, who have been emboldened by their success in Nagoya. Yet, Michio Hayashi, president of the IIACJ, says allowing the committee to overrule curators means the exhibition will lose all artistic credibility. “The committee will have to review all artworks and they will have to make a unanimous decision before they can agree on artit is censorship by another name.”

If the cities of Mihara, Onomichi and Fukuyama, hosts of the 2020 Hiroshima Triennale, stick to their guns, a boycott is likely, says Ooura. “There is only six months to go until opening day so they will struggle to organize alternative artists in time.”

As with Nagoya, the row seems more about well-hewn political positions than artistic merit. Controversy over perceived slights to the emperor is hardly new. But the rhetoric of conservative politicians such as Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura, who condemned some exhibits in the Aichi Triennale last year, is fueled and distorted online, inciting the cybermob who rally supporters to their cause.

“It feels that, as in the US and other countries, there is a climate that is encouraging extremist positions and expressions,” laments Andrew Maerkle, a bilingual art critic and writer. He cites years of political dog whistling in Japan by politicians such as Shinzo Abe, the prime minister. “I think this has emboldened people, and social media has been a conduit for organizing responses, for good and bad.”

The problem in Aichi and now Hiroshima, he continues, is history, not art. “There is a lack of critical consciousness about history. “If people are not held to standards of critical thinking about history then it opens the floodgates to more prejudicial statements.”

Aichi proved, at least, that the organizers would not be easily bamboozled. Artists around the world boycotted the event. Hideaki Omura, the governor of Aichi Prefecture, perhaps wary of the potential damage to Nagoya’s reputation, openly criticized Kawamura and his fellow travelers. The curators stubbornly fought in public and reopened the exhibition in October last year, albeit under heavily restricted conditions, including metal detectors at the door.

“With Aichi, we pushed back the boundary and showed to the public and government that we can show these works if we take care of the security problem,” says Koizumi. “Now Hiroshima is pushing back the boundaries again.”

Aichi veterans have been quietly advising Hiroshima on strategies to deal with harassment. The tactics by the right focused on intimidating and tying up city officials with protests, so the officials were rotated every two hours to avoid over exposure to toxic callers, and were allowed to hang up after 10 minutes. Once the decision to host exhibitions is made, the content has to be defended at all costs. “Never give pressure groups results,” says Yanagi.

Shihoko Iida, former chief curator of the Aichi Triennale 2019, speaking in a personal capacity, also praises the fight back in Aichi, which included protests from artists, academics, international art organizations, and the Aichi prefectural government (led by Governor Omura), and the collection of 100,000 signatures demanding the reinstatement of the Cultural Agency grant (which was partially restored).

Iida says governments have “a mission and social responsibility” to protect diverse expressions through public money. “Because it is public money, it is possible to protect various expressions that are not commercialized. These diverse expressions,” she says, “exist for the past, present, and future of mankind, which would not be influenced by political ideologies of authorities.”

For Ooura, it all feels like déjà vu. He fought a seven year legal battle against censorship of his work in the 1980s. Few understood at the time, he says, that he didn’t create his portraits to criticize the emperor. “The emperor came up because it is part of who I am as a Japanese,” he told Vice Media. “To deny the work as if it never existed would be to deny myself.” Yet, shying away from discussing the emperor means so much else risks becoming taboo too.

“Nothing seems to have changed.”

David McNeill writes for the Irish Times and The Economist, and teaches media literacy at Hosei and Sophia universities.