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Aichi Triennale tests the limits of freedom of expression in Japan

freedom of expression

When shown at Gallery Furuto in Tokyo in 2015, the Freedom of Expression?, exhibition assembling works that had earlier been rejected or removed by other exhibition organizers in Japan amid controversy, went almost unnoticed. When the updated version of the show opened as part of the 2019 Aichi Triennale, earlier this year, it ignited extreme reactions and re-opened debate over the increasing prevalence of censorship in Japan. Vincent Pruden talks to the Aichi Triennale’s Chief Curator, IIDA Shihoko about the aftermath of the controversy which represents a serious threat to the future existence of one of the most important biennials in Asia.

Vincent Pruden: Can you talk about the works in After ‘Freedom of Expression?’ that caused the controversy?

Iida Shihoko: Roughly, 50% of the controversy was about the Statue of Peace, (2011), by KIM Seo kyung and KIM Eun sung. It is a memorial to the Comfort Women, meant to restore their dignity. The other 50% was about the representation of the emperor in a film by OURA Nobuyuki called Holding Perspective Part II (2019). Unfortunately, internationally, the controversy has been reduced to the work about the Statue of Peace. It seemed to me that domestically, after we reopened the show, people commented more on the representation of the emperor.

VP: Why did Holding Perspective Part II caused such a controversy?

IS: Though images of the emperor play a role in the artist’s portrait of his internal life, OURA has said that the work is not a protest against the Emperor system. But when we opened the exhibition in the beginning of August the film was shown on a small screen, in a small corridor that was always crowded. The film is 20 minutes long. There was not enough space for viewers to watch the whole film. And they often only really focused on particular scenes in it, in which photographic images of Emperor Showa were burned with a hand torch. But they were just a couple of scenes in OURA’s film. To make matters worse images from these scenes were cut from its context, photographed and posted on Social Media. This made a sensational impression not only on rightwing nationalists but also on the general public. These images were posted in spite of the fact that we had asked viewers not to post images. In fact, most of the threatening phone calls, emails, and faxes, came from people who had not seen the show. They were these anonymous citizens who saw instructions on social media, and called. The people who took actions tended to be motivated by decontextualized information. They only saw key words such as ‘emperor,’ ‘Comfort Women,’ the Statue of Peace or whatever. These key words motivated their actions without them thinking about the effects their actions would have.

VP: Can you talk about the threats that the Triennale received?

IS: As has already been reported by the international media there were an overwhelming number of threatening phone calls, emails, and faxes sent by terrorists, nationalists, and anonymous members of the general public. By the 17th of September we had received 10,379 threats. Terrorists also sent threatening messages to public schools and kindergartens in Aichi prefecture. They threatened these places with arson attacks. Some people physically came to the Aichi Arts Center and behaved inappropriately. Our staff was threatened, and threats were made about their families. These events led the Governor of Aichi Prefecture, Hideaki Omura, who is also the chairperson of the Aichi Triennale Organizing Committee, to suggest to the artistic director, that they close After ‘Freedom of Expression?’ over safety concerns. They mutually agreed to close it. That happened in the late afternoon on the 3rd of August. The governor has consistently said that the closure was about risk management.

VP: Were the Triennale’s artists who called the closure of After ‘Freedom of Expression?’ an act of censorship wrong?

IS: This is a difficult question to answer because there are different understandings of what constitutes censorship. That’s why we organized an international forum on the 5th and 6th of October to discuss this issue from different angles, different perspectives. We invited different professionals, including constitutional scholars, art professionals, curators, and artists from the Triennale. We wanted to get their different perspectives on censorship. We learned from the forum that it was impossible to find a clear borderline for what constitutes censorship, that its definition can vary, depending on your country, or your constitution. In Japan’s constitution acts of censorship are illegal. It is clearly written in Article 21 of the constitution. But for other regions, in other countries, we learned that it has a more ambiguous status. Censorship is not automatically illegal. Sometimes it is not even written in the constitution. In the Japanese context, the term ‘censorship’ has a very narrow meaning. In other countries, it’s meaning is broader. Even the way each artist used the term ‘censorship’ was different. The artists signed a joint statement together, but because we have intensively discussed these issues with them we knew that they each had a different understanding of censorship. This created a lot of confusion.
In Japan, conducting censorship is a criminal action. That is why those of us working for the Trienniale were shocked about the term being applied to the show. The foreign media and foreign artists might have used the term in a less formal way. They did not necessarily mean an illegal act. I am not saying they used the term lightly. They used it with a certain gravity. Still, when they spoke about censorship they were not saying that we were criminals. But that is what we heard, so it was shocking.

VP: Some of the Mayor’s statements sound like censorship.

IS: It was considered censorship when on the 2nd of August he demanded the removal of the sculpture of a comfort woman, The Statue of Peace. The fact that the mayor and the governor are both part of the Aichi Triennale Organizing Committee has led foreign artists and foreign art communities to think that the Aichi Triennale conducted censorship. This is only partially true, simply because the city mayor is part of this organization. These two senior figures, the mayor and the governor have very different political views, their idea of what it means to protect the freedom of expression are completely opposite. Sadly, both of them are part of the Aichi Triennale Organizing Committee.

VP: Then who decided how the Triennale would act?

IS: The governor is the chairperson. And the city mayor is a deputy chairperson, in case the chairperson is away. The mayor is not a final decision maker. It is always the governor and the prefecture’s government which makes a final decision about the Triennale, because it’s organized at the prefecture level, not at the city level.

VP: And the governor has not acted to censor the show?

IS: Unlike the mayor, the governor has never said anything about the content of the exhibition or the artworks to be exhibited. He has always maintained that the closure was risk management.

VP: Reading the media one sometimes gets the impression that the Triennale was forced to reopen the show by a lawsuit that the After ‘Freedom of Expression?’ curators filed against the Triennale.

IS: No, the Triennale was not forced to reopen. It is true that they had a contract with the Aichi Triennale Organizing Committee over participation. And that after the show’s closure, they filed an application to the Nagoya District Court requesting that the court order the triennial to reopen the show. But before that could happen, the two organizing committees mutually agreed to reopen. Their suit was withdrawn, and had no direct effect on the show’s reopening.

VP: After ‘Freedom of Expression?’ was closed on the 3rd of August and reopened on the 8th of October. Now it will only be open for 6 days. This may have added to the impression that the show was censored. Could the show have been reopened faster?

IS: No, I don’t think so. For the staff of the Triennale, the first three weeks in August was just chaos, seriously, chaos. The situation was constantly changing. We had no idea what would happen next. It was dramatic. When some of the artists decided to temporarily withdraw their works, one after another, it became like organizing the show all over again after it was already open. There was a lot of confusion around the ground staff, and the PR team. And our officers were traumatized by the threatening phone calls they were receiving. It was very serious, like a battlefield. We developed a way to deal with the threatening phone calls, and waited for some of the terrorists to be arrested. That was the first three weeks. Then the Aichi prefecture government, established a third party called the Aichi Triennale Investigation Committee in late August. It consisted of six art professionals, and constitutional scholars. We had to wait for their interim report. They recommended that as soon as the governor could clarify the security issues After ‘Freedom of Expression?’ should be reopened. The interim report was received in the end of September. The governor and artistic director agreed to reopen. The court case between After ‘Freedom of Expression?’ curators and the Aichi Triennale was resolved. Then our curatorial team worked together with the curators of After ‘Freedom of Expression?’ on a detailed practical plan to reopen the show. And so it reopened on the 8th of October. It really was not possible to reopen the show any earlier.

VP: Can you talk about the national government’s cancelation of the Triennale’s subsidy?

IS: The Agency for Cultural Affairs canceled a subsidy that goes to the Aichi prefecture. Most of it goes to the Triennale. The timing of the cancelation is very suspicious. The day after the governor announced that we would reopen After ‘Freedom of Expression?’ the Agency for Cultural Affairs officially withdrew the subsidy. They have not directly said that it is about After ‘Freedom of Expression?’, but it is highly likely they are linked. The governor of Aichi prefecture is clearly against simply accepting the withdrawal of the subsidy, he is considering bringing an official act of dispute against them. The subsidy is quite a large amount of money, a large percentage of our funding, and is needed for this year’s triennale. It is a huge issue for us. The Agency for Cultural Affairs claims that there was a problem in the application procedure and a question about the sustainability of the activity. They seem to mean the Triennale’s sustainability. But we have organized the Aichi Triennale for the past 10 years, the fourth edition has remained open throughout its scheduled run, and additionally After ‘Freedom of Expression?’ was just reopened. There is something that The Agency for Cultural Affairs has not articulated well enough. This has led much of the Japanese art community to protest their action. Japan used to be a country of self-censorship rather than obvious political censorship, but now we are entering a different stage, a different era perhaps, as if we are going backwards to before the war. The cancelation of the subsidy could be a clear political intervention. It may be a clear example of censorship.

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