By David McNeil
An exhibition of censored artwork in Nagoya city triggers a furious debate on artistic expression.
The artistic director of the Aichi Triennale 2019 had few illusions when he planned an exhibition called “After Freedom of Expression”. By choosing items that poked painfully at some of Japan’s most tender spots – war crimes, subservience to America and the status of the imperial family – Tsuda Daisuke wanted to “provoke discussion” on the health of freedom of expression in the country. But what followed, he says, was “beyond our expectations”.
In the three days after the exhibition opened on August 1st at the Aichi Arts Center in Nagoya, the organizers were besieged with hundreds of angry phone calls and emails. Protesters shouted at staff or poured liquid on the floor, threatening to burn the exhibition to the ground. One man, later arrested, faxed in a handwritten threat to firebomb the exhibits in the same week as an arson attack on a Kyoto animation studio that killed 36 people.
“It was very frightening,” recalls Iida Shihoko, the Triennale’s chief curator. What surprised her, she says, was that so many – perhaps most – of the protesters were women. Though the center had planned for blowback by hiring extra staff, they were quickly overwhelmed. As public servants, custom dictated they had to give their names if callers requested and listen patiently to tirades that could stretch for over an hour. Many callers appeared to be reading from scripts – “the staff could hear the pages rustling,” says Tsuda.