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Arts

War-themed artwork row reflects free speech tensions in Japan

Statue's removal and reinstallation highlight failure of Aichi Triennale

"After 'Freedom of Expression?'" -- a work by South Korean artists Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung -- is shown after being unveiled to the media in Nagoya on Oct. 14 following the close earlier in the day of the Aichi Triennale. The exhibit was reinstalled on Oct. 8 after it was abruptly closed two months earlier.   © Kyodo

NAGOYA, Japan -- On Oct. 8, an artwork called "After 'Freedom of Expression?'" at the Aichi Triennale 2019 returned like a long-lost friend who had moved away for undisclosed reasons. The exhibit, which had been shut down three days after the festival opened, was back by popular demand for a one-week showing, but only after weeks of uproar from journalists, citizens and fellow Triennale artists who pulled out their exhibits in solidarity.

The centerpiece of the controversy was "Statue of a Girl of Peace" by South Korean artists Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung. The statue itself is purposely tame, depicting a teenage girl seated on a chair with her arms in her lap and a bird on her shoulder.

But it is this statue's origins that "trample on Japanese people's feelings," to quote Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura when the exhibit was shut down the first week in August: This girl of peace has become a popular cultural meme for South Korea's "comfort woman" activism and a thorn in Japan's side.

The original "Statue of Peace" by these same sculptors sits across the street from the entrance to the Japanese Embassy in downtown Seoul. It was installed on Dec. 14, 2011, to mark the 1,000th Wednesday demonstration, a weekly protest demanding that Japan offer an acceptable apology to Korea's comfort women, who were forced to work in wartime Japanese military brothels, and satisfactory compensation to surviving victims and their descendants.

First-time visitors to Seoul are often brought to the site as a tourist attraction. When I visited the site in Seoul in June 2016, I saw Korean schoolchildren surrounding the statue for photo ops. The atmosphere was a spirited gathering, with Korean people holding up protest signs and engaging in dialogue.

"Statue of Peace," outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.   © Getty Images

Back in Japan, between early August and early October, people protested their opposition to the exhibit's closure, which made me curious enough to go see for myself what the fuss was all about in a triennale whose theme was "Taming Y/Our Passion."

During its brief reopening, I stood in line with a special lottery bracelet for special access to the "After 'Freedom of Expression?'" section and a release form promising not to share any images on social media that included the notorious statue.

What could I share online? All other exhibit images, including a romper room of 90 clown statues that was overrun with selfie enthusiasts. But these clowns, despite their contemplative and morose expressions, weren't saying anything political. More mimes than memes.

It hardly seems sensible: You can see artistic renderings of freedom of expression in person, if you want to stand in line, but you do not have the freedom of expression to share them on social media. Now who's the real clown?

This compromise was a missed opportunity. Standing in line with me were polite Japanese citizens who were getting their last chance to see a once-every-three-year art show that temporarily lifted the veil on the reserved habits of free speech we have in Japan. In hindsight, the lesson seems to be that the only answer to protecting free speech and free expression is more of the same.

I would have encouraged sharing as much, if not more, on social media from the "After 'Freedom of Expression?'" section in the name of debate and dialogue on an issue like the comfort woman. It remains not only politically unresolved but also a perplexing controversy to many of my Japanese university students.

What can explain the public relations debacle of closing down a free-expression exhibit in the first place? And what was there really to hide? Nothing that any of us who follows the comfort women controversy had not seen before.

We can chalk this up to the exemplary ability of the Japanese to prepare for natural disasters rather than anticipate communication disasters. Japan should have known that a South Korean comfort-woman statue in the freedom of expression section of a major exhibition demanded careful preparation of an institutional justification, rather than the careless opening to entirely predictable trouble.

Immediately, comfort-women deniers and critics started complaining online, and the Triennale's response was sophomoric -- cave to the critics in the name of a far-fetched possibility of domestic terrorism instead of protecting the theme.

In what may have been seen as a victory for free-speech advocacy, the final-week reopening was a clunky and chaotic ending to something that began with a noble purpose: exhibiting themes heretofore rarely exposed in Japan.

What was overexposed was Japan's timidity in the face of political controversy. Not all art is political, but an international art show like the Aichi Triennale 2019 whose umbrella theme is taming your and our passion is not designed for the timid.

Dr. Nancy Snow is Pax Mundi ("World Peace") Professor of Public Diplomacy at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies. She is author or editor of a dozen books, including the forthcoming Japanese-language version of "Japan's Information War."

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