Facing Public Threats Over a Sculpture, Japan’s Aichi Triennale Censors Its Own Exhibition About Censorship

Organizers received threats over a sculpture of one of the thousands of "comfort women" forced into sexual slavery during World War II.

Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung, Statue of a Girl of Peace (2011). Courtesy of the artists.

An exhibition about Japan’s history of censoring art at the 2019 Aichi Triennale has been closed after just three days—due to censorship. 

The organizers of the trienniale shut down the exhibition “After ‘Freedom of Expression’?” at the Aichi Prefecture Museum of Art in the city of Nagoya after organizers said they received numerous threats objecting to a controversial work in the show. The work, a life-sized figurative sculpture by Korean artists Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung, Statue of Peace (2011), depicts a “comfort woman,” or ianfu—one of the thousands of Asian women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II. 

The curators of the exhibition called the move a “historic outrage” in a statement“This will be the worst censorship incident in Japan’s postwar period.”

Hideaki Omura, the governor of Aichi who also heads the triennale’s organizing committee, told the Japan Times that his team had received threatening emails, phone calls, and faxes about the sculpture. One person said they would bring a gasoline can and light the museum on fire, an image that likely evoked the tragic arson attack on the Kyoto Animation studio in Japan last month, which resulted in the death of 35 people.

“It is regrettable that we have made an example that undermines freedom of expression,” the artistic director of the Triennale, Daisuke Tsuda, told reporters of the decision. Organizers of the triennale did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The news site Mainichi Japan reported that more than 700 people filed complaints on the first day of the show. One of the more prominent objectors was Nagoya mayor Takashi Kawamura, who, after seeing the exhibition on last week, sent a letter to Omura demanding that the sculpture be removed, claiming it “tramples on the feelings of Japanese citizens.”

“It’s unrelated to a lack of freedom of expression,” Kawamura said in his letter. “It doesn’t have to be displayed at a venue funded with a massive amount of taxpayers’ money.”

“The government and public officials should be the ones protecting freedom of expression,” Omura said in response, according to the New York Times. “Even if the expression is not to their taste, they should accept an expression as expression.” 

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