A recap of “After Freedom of Expression” at the Aichi Triennale

The show lasted two days. Frieze, “The Threat to Freedom of Expression in Japan“:

There are so many backstories to the story of Aichi Triennale 2019’s disastrous opening weekend that it’s hard to know where to start. On 3 August, two days after the show opened, an exhibit bringing together more than 20 works that had been censored in recent years at public institutions in Japan, entitled ‘After “Freedom of Expression?”’, was itself effectively censored.

The Triennale had received hundreds of angry phone calls, emails, and bomb threats about the exhibition. The campaign was especially chilling after the Kyoto Animation arson attack a few weeks earlier. David McNeill, “Freedom Fighting: Nagoya’s censored art exhibition and the “comfort women” controversy“:

Far from being a spontaneous eruption of public fury, this campaign appears to have been coordinated, says Iida. Callers had the same talking points, which echoed the rhetoric of conservative politicians, notably Kawamura Takashi, the mayor of Nagoya and a member of the ultra-right lobby group, Nippon Kaigi.

One of the exhibits in the show that had drawn so much ire from the public was Statute of Peace by Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung. Nagoya’s mayor was furious that public funds were being spent on reminding the public about Japan’s unforgivable past of sexual slavery. According to Sawada Tomohiro in Newsweek Japan:


Kawamura Takashi, mayor of Nagoya, asked for the show to be cancelled, saying that the show “trampled on the hearts of the Japanese”. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga suggested the possibility that the government would not pay the subsidy due to the Triennale. The Agency for Cultural Affairs so announced afterwards. It was an unusual and opaque decision, as there were apparently no meeting records of how the decision came to be made.

Many other artists at the Aichi Triennale decided to then withhold their work after the show was forced to close. They released a statement, which read in part:

We practice art not to suppress or divide people, but to find different ways of creating solidarity among them, and to pursue the possibilities for free thinking beyond political beliefs. We strive to be creative in the face of uncertainty. Through the production of sculptures, through texts, paintings, performances, music, reenactments, psychomagic, films and videos, and by means of new media technology, by collaborating, and by seeking out new routes and detours, we artists have tried to create a place in the Triennale where, if only temporarily, people’s love and compassion, anger and sadness, and even their murderous feelings can be imaginatively inverted and overturned.

Koreeda Hirokazu, director of the critically acclaimed Shoplifters, had this to say about the tension between getting government funding and doing whatever you want:


In the West, the norm is that the state pays; no questions asked. Wanting a culture that fits with the values of a political regime is ridiculous. People don’t do academics or art for the national interest to begin with. It’s crazy that creators have to say that having diverse academics and works in conversation with one another ultimately benefits the national interest.

In early October, the show reopened, but only to a few hundred people who were lucky enough to get tickets through a lottery. No one was allowed to take photos of the show, or upload them to social media.

I only wish I was in Nagoya to see the show for myself. These works speak truth to power. Any hurt that a static statute could hope to cause a national consciousness, if it can be hurt at all, is nothing compared to the suffering these female survivors of war have endured. All we can do is to remember the moral depravity of the men and their toxic masculinity who placed these women in such a position.

The Abe administration’s snowflake mentality has continued in Austria last week. According to Artnet:

The Japanese Embassy in Austria has objected to an exhibition in Vienna that includes works about the Fukushima nuclear accident and Japan’s wartime history. It has withdrawn its official support for the group show “Japan Unlimited” after a Japanese politician alerted embassy staff that some of the artists also participated in a controversial and ultimately censored exhibition at the Aichi Triennale.

In an interview with Tokyo Shimbun, Ushiro Ryuta of Chim↑Pom says that the government just doesn’t understand the Streisand effect:


Ushiro Ryuta criticized [the government], saying that it had misread the essence of the show by concluding that the complex works were simply ‘anti-Japanese’. On the embassy’s withdrawal of support, Ushiro said that the Japanese government had demonstrated to the world that it had reacted badly to citizens criticizing their own country, which is something that happens all the time in democratic countries.