The Power of Symbol: art vs. sensorship

An exhibition of censored artwork in Nagoya city triggers a furious debate on artistic expression

By David McNeill

The artistic director of the Aichi Triennale 2019 had few illusions when he began to plan an exhibition called “After Freedom of Expression.” By choosing exhibits that poked painfully at some of Japan’s most tender spots war crimes, subservience to America and the status of the imperial family Daisuke Tsuda told the FCCJ on Sept. 2 that he wanted to “provoke discussion” on the health of freedom of expression in the country. Even he was taken aback, how in the three days after the exhibition opened on Aug. 1 at the Aichi Arts Center in Nagoya, the organizers were blitzed with hundreds of angry phone calls and emails. Protestors shouted at staff or symbolically poured liquid on the floor, threatening to burn the exhibition to the ground. One man, later arrested, faxed in a handwritten threat to firebomb the exhibits in the same week as an arson attack on a Kyoto animation studio that killed 36 people.

“It was very frightening,” recalls Shihoko Iida, the Triennale’s chief curator. What surprised her, she says, was that so many of the demonstrators were women. Though the center had planned for the blowback by hiring extra staff, they were quickly overwhelmed. As public servants, custom dictated they must give their names if callers requested and listen patiently to tirades that could stretch for over an hour.

Far from being a spontaneous eruption of public fury, the campaign against the arts festival appears to have been coordinated. Many callers appeared to be reading from scripts downloaded from the internet. “The staff could hear the pages rustling,” says Tsuda. Protestors had the same talking points, which echoed the rhetoric of conservative politicians, notably Takashi Kawamura, the mayor of Nagoya and a member of the ultraright lobby group, Nippon Kaigi.

KAWAMURA MADE A HIGHLY publicized visit to the exhibition, where he zeroed in on a statue of a Korean “comfort woman” by the husbandand wife sculptor team Seogyeong and Unseong Kim. Officially titled “Monument to Peace,” the statue, Kawamura intoned, “tramples on the feelings of the Japanese people.” His intervention seemed to egg the protesters on. On Aug. 3, Tsuda and the Governor of Aichi Hideaki Omura closed the exhibition, citing public safety issues.

Divorced from its context, the reaction to the statue, showing a beatific girl sitting beside an empty seat (so visitors could sit at eye level) seems misplaced, even bizarre. But the controversy has far less to do with the exhibit’s artistic merits than its ability to trigger well worn political responses. “We’re not talking about art here, in the sense of artworks and their meaning or effect,” says Ayelet Zohar, a professor of art and history at Tel Aviv University who is following the controversy. “It is about [what it signifies] and what it does to politicians who understand very little about art and its subtleties, but can recognize a specific symbol when confronted with it.”

Mayor Kawamura is part of a political movement that regards the mainstream view of Japan’s war in Asia in the 1930s and 1940s as self-debasing and masochistic. In Feb. 2012, he said the 1937 Nanjing Massacre never happened (a snub to four former Japanese prime ministers who made pilgrimages of atonement to the Chinese citymost recently Yasuo Fukuda). The movement’s activists leap into action over any suggestion that Asian women were pressed into sexual servitude by Japan’s wartime army. Many say the women were prostitutes and accuse South Korea and China of stoking anti Japanese feeling by refusing to put the issue behind them.

DESPITE A “FINAL AND irrevocable” deal between Japan and South Korea to end the dispute in 2015, the issue continues to poison bilateral ties. South Korea triggered a major row by scrapping a fund partly set up by Japan to compensate the surviving comfort women. A ruling last year in South Korea’s Supreme Court on Japan’s use of wartime conscript labor rubbed more salt on raw diplomatic wounds. The court ordered Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal Corp. to compensate four Koreans. Japan insists that all compensation claims were settled in the 1965 treaty that established diplomatic ties between the two nations. But resentment at Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910-1945 still runs deep. At least a dozen similar suits have been filed against Japanese companies.

Arguably, the statue is among the more anodyne exhibits in a show defined by transgression. Katsuhisa Nakagaki’s “Portrait of the Period Endangered Species idiot Japonica,” a dome like installation, contemptuously lambasts the Japan US military alliance. Meiro Koizumi’s “Air#1,” a portrait of the Imperial Family with all its members erased, nods to the ghostly space they occupy in the collective Japanese unconscious. Yoshiko Shimada’s twin portrait of the Showa Emperor with his face scratched out, then burned, also unsurprisingly infuriated nationalists.

All have previously run afoul of timorous curators. Shimada’s portraits, for example, which she created to raise questions about the taboo against the use of the emperor’s image, were returned by Toyama Modern Art Museum in 1993. The point of Aichi, said Tsuda, was to drag such pieces out of dusty warehouses and back into public view the title of the exhibition implies it was a second chance to sample them.

In one sense, the reaction by the Japanese establishment bore out the worst fears of the Aichi curatorial team and seemed to confirm the old dictum that censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself. Yuka Okamoto, one of the curators, called the shutdown an act of “artistic violence” and blames not just the shifting political climate under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe but a worldwide clampdown on freedom of expression.

THE JAPANESE GOVERNMENT’S RESPONSE was mealy mouthed at best. Yoshihide Suga, the chief cabinet secretary, called the threats against the exhibit wrong “generally speaking.” A month later, the Agency for Cultural Affairs pulled ¥78 million in subsidies for the Triennale because of “inappropriate procedural matters.” Education Minister Koichi Hagiuda, who is in charge of the agency, denied he was in effect telling the mob that threats of violence work.

Yet, the shutdown also helped answer Tsuda’s call for a wider audit on the health of artistic freedom in Japan. Angry debate spilled out into public view. Hideaki Omura, the governor of Aichi Prefecture criticized Kawamura, calling his demand that the exhibition be closed “unconstitutional” and pledging to legally fight the subsidy withdrawal. (The prefecture is paying roughly half the ¥1.2 billion cost of the Triennale). Dozens of artists in Japan, South Korea and around the world boycotted the Triennale. Some spoke at a forum, organized by the prefecture to discuss the row. “Censorship thrives on fear and insecurity and silence is its accomplice,” said Mexican artist Monica Mayer. She advised the organizers to prepare “offensive strategies” against attempts at further suppression.

These strategies were in place when the show reopened for a week on Oct. 8. Phone staff rotated every two hours to avoid overexposure to toxic callers, and they were allowed to hang up after 10 minutes. Metal detectors were introduced at the entrance. The number of visitors was limited by a lottery system for a guided tour, complete with a lengthy exposition on each exhibit. Photography was restricted and posting snaps on social media was banned. Still, the protests continued, totalling 10,000 often abusive phone calls, faxes and emails by the week of October 9th. Some callers threatened to film staff and put the videos online. Nagoya’s Kawamura, mean while, announced the city was refusing to pay its share of ¥33.8 million for hosting the event.

THE TACTICAL REOPENING ANSWERED criticism that Tsuda and the organizers were in over their head from the start, when they decided to poke Kawamura and his ilk in the eye. Tsuda acknowledged that the exhibition was “extremely challenging” in a “society rife with intolerance” towards different opinions and attitudes. “It is precisely because of the value we set on freedom of expression that we worked so hard to overcome numerous difficulties and realize this exhibition,” he said.

The row comes roughly a decade after similar controversy over the documentary Yasukuni, directed by Li Ying (with the help of ¥7.5 million in funding from the Japan Arts Council). More recently, Shusenjo, a crowdfunded documentary on the comfort women issue, directed by Miki Dezaki, has also been threatened with violence. The result in both cases was that a larger audience has seen the film than would have otherwise. It’s unclear if the same will apply in this case. Once the exhibition ends, the censored art may be returned to storage, waiting for a curator brave enough to risk the consequences of another public viewing.

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