After just three days, an art exhibition in Japan titled “After ‘Freedom of Expression’?” and intended to show works that have been censored in Japan and around the world has itself been censored. The show’s closure comes amid controversy about an included work depicting a “comfort woman,” a euphemism for women who were forced into sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers during World War II. As of Wednesday, 72 artists in the show, including the artists behind the statue, Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sang, have signed a statement online demanding it reopen, according to a report by Korean newspaper Hankyoreh.
The exhibition was a part of the Aichi Triennale in Nagoya, a city about 160 miles southwest of Tokyo and the fourth largest in the country. The triennale is among Japan’s major internationally-known art events. Upon the exhibition’s closure, governor of Aichi Prefecture, Hideaki Omura cited safety concerns and said faxes sent to festival organizers warned of attacks similar to the fire in a Kyoto animation studio that killed 33 people last month.
When the Aichi Triennale exhibition opened, lawmakers from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government, which has emphatically denied Japan’s role in the abduction and sexual enslavement of Korean women, objected to the statue’s inclusion. The mayor of Nagoya, Takashi Kawamura, echoed the sentiment, arguing the statue, “tramples on the feelings of Japanese citizens,” and added that “freedom of expression has a certain limit.”
The 2011 work, entitled Statue of Peace, is one of dozens created by husband and wife duo Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung. It depicts a short haired woman in traditional Korean dress, hands clenched in fists in her lap. In 2016, the couple told the Korea Herald that they began making the statues when “a sense of rage came over us” after they came upon a group of protestors near the Japanese Embassy in Seoul demanding an apology for the abduction of Korean women.
This is the latest in a series of controversies surrounding the symbolic image. Similar statues have appeared in front of Japanese embassies and consulates. In 2017, Japan retaliated by removing its envoy to South Korea for three months after a statue of a young woman appeared in front of a Japanese consulate. A year later, the mayor of Osaka terminated its sister-city relationship with San Francisco after the California city put up a statue commemorating the “comfort women.”
As for the closure of the Nagoya show, critics fear it could set a harrowing precedent for Japan’s freedom of expression more broadly. Omura told the New York Times:
The government and public officials should be the ones protecting freedom of expression. [. . .] Even if the expression is not to their taste, they should accept an expression as expression.
According to The Art Newspaper, Song-Ming Ang, a Singaporean artist whose work is in the show, wrote on Facebook: “Censorship is a lazy, unethical quick-fix that does the public a double disservice, depriving people of the art on display and the related historical issues that need to be confronted.”