The art of not provoking with art: About censorship in Japan

Dhe image that Germany likes to draw from Japan is often characterized by silent admiration – this society seems so efficient and forward-looking, so friendly and ingenious. What is mostly excluded is the vehement nationalism with which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe leads the country. Most newspapers are heavily controlled, especially when it comes to Japan’s role in World War II, the emperor, or the Fukushima nuclear disaster. But a new generation of Japanese artists, designers and architects are dealing with precisely these issues. And reaches the limits of a democracy in which not everything can be said.

At the 2019 Aichi Triennale, there was an exhibition in the exhibition entitled “After Freedom of Expression”. Works were shown there that had already been censored or at least came into contact with the subject of censorship. After anonymous threats and massive protests, the exhibition was initially closed and only opened again after a week. Then, however, not freely accessible, but only after prior registration and regulated with a lottery system. Visitors had to make a written commitment not to share pictures on social media. Important funds from the Ministry of Culture have been withheld. They were particularly angry about a sculpture by South Korean artists Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung entitled “Statue of a Girl of Peace”, which deals with the role of the euphemistically called “Comfort Women” Koreans, who during the World War II were forced into prostitution.

Later backed off

Aichi’s outrage should also affect an exhibition in Vienna last November. There the curator Marcello Farabegoli had compiled works under the title “Japan Unlimited”, on the basis of which one wanted to describe Japan’s handling of censorship and self-censorship. It was located between the two social poles “Tatemae” and “Honne”. Tatemae is the masquerade of feelings, which is adapted to the expectations of the public, while Honne can be understood as the true, but hidden feeling. It is about not hurting others and maintaining public peace.

At the beginning, he had no idea that Farabegoli’s exhibition would not only show how artists deal with critical issues, but would also illustrate how the Japanese authorities dealt with them. The exhibition was conceived as part of the celebration of 150 years of diplomatic relations between Japan and Austria, and the Japanese embassy had included the exhibition in its official program. However, after the situation at the Aichi Triennale escalated, the Japanese authorities, who became aware of it on Twitter, took another close look at Vienna and found: “When we checked again, we had to conclude that the exhibition, Japan Unlimited ‘ does not meet the purpose of anniversary events to promote the friendly relationship between Austria and Japan. For this reason, we have decided to withdraw our recognition as an official event for the exhibition ”- and this five weeks after the opening.


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