A child poses next to “Statue of a Girl of Peace” at the Aichi Triennale 2019 on Aug. 1. (Cho Ki-weon, Tokyo correspondent)


In the end, the comfort woman statue was taken down. Just three days after going on display on Aug. 1, “Statue of a Girl of Peace” was removed from the sight of gallery-goers following a unilateral decision by Japan’s Aichi Prefecture, which organized the exhibition. The statue is now concealed behind a panel that says, “exhibit suspended.”

Yuka Okamoto, who had planned the exhibition with the fervent hope that the statue would remain visible until the exhibition’s scheduled conclusion on Oct. 14, voiced his disappointment in a phone call with the Hankyoreh on Aug. 4. “A venue for historical discussion [between South Korea and Japan] has vanished,” Okamoto said.

On the afternoon of Aug. 3, Aichi Governor Hideaki Omura announced the decision to shut down an exhibition titled “After ‘Freedom of Expression?’” because of repeated terrorism threats and intimidating phone calls. The exhibition, which hosted the comfort woman statue, was part of a prefecture art festival called “Aichi Triennale 2019.”

Members of the Triennale’s executive committee, including Okamoto, released a statement on Aug. 3 slamming the decision to close the exhibition, which they described as the “worst case of censorship in Japan since World War II.” Okamoto had helped plan a similar exhibition held at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum in 2015, where the comfort woman statue also made an appearance. But this was the first time the comfort woman statue has been displayed in its complete form at a Japanese public museum.

“Governor Omura’s decision to shut down the exhibition was arbitrary. Aichi Prefecture didn’t provide most of the artists with any explanation about the shutdown. The announcement was only made verbally, and no documents were provided,” Okamoto said during the interview on Sunday. He added that he’s “looking into taking legal action.”

“Aichi Prefecture’s failure to provide the artists with a direct explanation about the shutdown of the exhibition blackens the overall reputation of the Aichi Triennale 2019, which is an international artistic festival. Artists have been treated disrespectfully,” he said.

Kim Eun-sung (left) and Kim Seo-kyung (right), the artists behind “Statue of a Girl of Peace,” and curator Yuka Okamoto (center) in front of a gallery in Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, which took down a comfort woman statue in its Aichi Triennale 2019. (Cho Ki-weon, Tokyo correspondent)
In addition, Okamoto wasn’t convinced by the rationale provided by Omura and Artistic Director Daisuke Tsuda, who said they’d been forced to close the exhibition because staff had been exhausted by dealing with calls made to protest the exhibition.
“We’d expected this sort of thing could happen and been worried about it, in fact. I’m not sure whether the prefecture took all the necessary precautions,” Okamoto said. “Back in May [three months before the exhibition], we said that precautionary measures should be taken. It’s doubtful that the prefecture actually implemented those precautions on site.”
Although the exhibition was only open for three days, Okamoto asserts that it “provided Japanese citizens with a forum for historical debate.” On Aug. 3, he said, more than a hundred people lined up to attend “After ‘Freedom of Expression?’” Though some visitors on Aug. 3 tried to deface the comfort woman statue by placing a paper bag over its head, Okamoto said, “What’s more important is that other visitors came forward to stop them.”
“I’m told that other visitors said, ‘Let’s take a good look at history.’ That made an impression on me,” he said.
Nagoya mayor calls on exhibition organizers to apologizeNagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura, who had previously strongly expressed his disagreement with the comfort woman statue, told reporters on Aug. 3 that “shutting down [the exhibition] isn’t enough” and called on the exhibition organizers to make an apology, the Sankei Shimbun reported. The newspaper quoted Kawamura as saying that the exhibition “accepts the South Korean claim that hundreds of thousands of people were forcibly detained, which is starkly at odds with Japan’s position.”
The shutdown of the exhibition has triggered intense pushback from artists in South Korea and Japan.
“Eliminating the space for communication between creator and viewer robs art of its meaning and quashes the spirit of freedom, which is the driving force of society,” said the Japanese Centre of PEN International, a writers’ organization, in a statement released on Aug. 3.
“Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga made remarks [on Aug. 2] implying that the Triennale would stop receiving financial grants [from the government]. Such remarks constitute political pressure, and it goes without saying that they represent the censorship banned by Article 21, Clause 2, of our Constitution,” the statement also said.
Korean artists pull work from exhibition in protest
Park Chan-kyong and Lim Min-ouk are two South Korean filmmakers in the Triennale who have asked for their work to be removed to protest the decision. Park and Lim told the Hankyoreh on the phone on Aug. 4 that, after hearing about the shutdown on the afternoon of Aug. 3, they’d both sent emails to that effect to Shihoko Ida, the Triennale’s curator.
“Since Japan’s decision to shut down the exhibition defies common sense, I think there will be more artists like us,” Park added.
Lim had submitted a video called “Adieu, News” to the Triennale, which investigates the bounds of information and community. Park’s submission to the art festival was an installation called “Child Soldier,” which depicts a boy enjoying the beauty of the forest, despite serving as a soldier in the North Korean military during the Korean War.
Kim Eun-sung and Kim Seo-kyung, the artists behind the comfort woman statue, have announced that they will join artists from Korea and other countries who stand in solidarity against censorship, while Ahn Se-hong, who submitted photos of comfort women to the previous exhibition in Tokyo, created an online petition calling on the governor to reverse his decision (http://hoy.kr/kMcnq). Ahn, who is based in Japan, wrote on his Facebook page on Aug. 4 that he and artists and activists from around Japan had tried to enter the closed exhibition hall with the goal of preventing the unauthorized removal of his work.
By Cho Ki-weon, Tokyo correspondent, and Noh Hyung-seok, staff reporter, Hankyoreh