Exhibition of Censored Art in Japan Featuring "Comfort Woman" Statue Closes Due to Controversy

The 2019 Aichi Triennale in Nagoya Japan was meant to be a celebrated art event. Yet, an exhibition titled “After ‘Freedom of Expression’?” featured in the festival has ignited much controversy amongst the public and was put to an end just three days after its opening.

The show intended to reveal artworks that are censored in Japan and around the world. But after receiving violent threats such as "I'll bring a gasoline container to the museum" and condemnation from right-wing politicians, the organiser was left with no choice but to close the show. 

“After ‘Freedom of Expression’?” was an exhibition that showcased censored art

Katsuhisa Nakagaki's "Portrait of the Period – Endangered Species Idiot JAPONICA – Round Burial Mound”

Yoshiko Shimada's A Picture to be Burnt 

The special exhibition, curated by the organising committee Aichi Triennale, celebrates censored art pieces by providing a space to showcase these exhibits. One of the works is Katsuhisa Nakagaki's "Portrait of the Period – Endangered Species Idiot JAPONICA – Round Burial Mound”. Written on the work is Article 9 of the constitution which is known in Japan as the clause in the Peace Constitution outlawing war as a means of settling international conflicts. The Japanese and American flags can be seen as a criticism of the relationship between the countries. The artwork was once shown at the 7th Exhibition of Contemporary Japanese Sculptors held at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum in February in 2014 but was eliminated by the organiser. 

Another piece featured in the shuttered exhibition was Yoshiko Shimada's A Picture to be Burnt. The image in the painting is Hirohito, the 124th Emperor of Japan who historians believe was responsible for the atrocities committed by the imperial forces in the Second Sino-Japanese War and in World War II. Many demanded that he should be tried for war crimes. The absence of his face in the painting symbolises the artist's view- Japanese people are responsible for the crimes, not the Emperor. 


"Statue of Peace" by Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung

A "comfort woman" statue outside the Japanese consulate in Korea by the Korean artist couple Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung

Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung

A photograph of a "comfort woman" by photographer Ahn Sehong showcased at the exhibition

The most controversial piece of the show is a life-size sculpture of a "comfort woman" created in 2011 titled "Statue of Peace" by the Korean artist couple Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung. It depicts a Korean woman who was forced into providing sexual services to Japanese soldiers in China during World War II. In 2012, a smaller version of the statue was exhibited at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum at the JAALA International Art Exhibition but was removed on the fourth day without the consent of the artists as the museum deemed that the work violated certain rules of the exhibition. 

“After ‘Freedom of Expression’?” allows these censored works to be viewed by the public. Although photography was prohibited in the exhibition, controversy still surfaced. Thousands of complaint phone calls, emails and fax started pouring in on the first two days of the show, including threats like "bringing a gasoline container" to the venue which raised safety concerns. Takashi Kawamura, the mayor of Nagoya, also paid a visit to the exhibition and said before the reporters that he wanted it closed because it “tramples on the feelings of Japanese citizens.”

Takashi Kawamura, the mayor of Nagoya (in yellow) photographed before the "comfort woman" statue

Mr. Kawamura has also previously disputed that the Japanese Army committed mass killings in Nanjing, China, during the war. On Monday, he said that freedom of expression “is not freedom where people can do whatever they want to.” Hirofumi Yoshimura, governor of Osaka, further supported Kawamura by saying that public funds should not be used in supporting the festival when it depicts their ancestors as monsters. Chief Cabinet Secretary of Japan, Yoshihide Suga, stated in a press conference that the government will reconsider whether the amount of funds allocated to the Aichi Triennale is appropriate. 

Last visitors of the exhibition

After merely three days, “After ‘Freedom of Expression’?” was shuttered. Despite the objections against this decision, only the website of the show has remained.