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Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung, Statue of a Girl of Peace, 2011. Photo: Kyodo News.
Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung, Statue of a Girl of Peace, 2011. Photo: Kyodo News.

Aichi Triennale Exhibition Closes Following Threats over “Comfort Woman” Statue

Three days after the 2019 Aichi Triennale kicked off in Japan, an exhibition at a museum in Nagoya was shut down after organizers received dozens of threats by phone, email, and fax over the inclusion of a statue of a “comfort woman,” a Korean woman who was forced to serve as a prostitute, or ianfu, in Japanese brothels during World War II. The subject remains highly controversial in Japan and has been a source of tension between the country and South Korea, which claims that Japan needs to do more to compensate the descendants of the victims of sexual slavery.

According to the South China Morning Post, the artwork, titled Statue of a Girl of Peace, was part of the exhibition “After Freedom of Expression,” which showcased works that have previously been censored. Artists Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung made the piece in 2011 as a tribute to the one-thousandth protest held in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul—the demonstrations have taken place every week for the last twenty years. Signs posted at the entrance to the exhibition warned visitors that it addressed sensitive topics and asked people to refrain from sharing photos on social media.

Hideaki Omura, the governor of Aichi, said that following the outcry the work was blocked from view and that the decision to close the exhibition was made because of safety concerns. One of the threatening faxes sent to the museum said: “I will visit the museum carrying a gasoline container,” a statement that echoed the tragic arson attack on an animation studio in Kyoto last month, which killed thirty-five people. Omura was also facing pressure from politicians, including the mayor of Nagoya, Takashi Kawamura, who declared that government funding should not support the display of the statue, which “tramples on the feelings of Japanese citizens.”

The Japan Art Association, a group of artists and theorists who fight for the free and democratic development of Japanese art, has been urging organizers to reopen the exhibition: “Succumbing to pressure from the government and threatening is a serious infringement on freedom of expression.” However, a triennial official already confirmed that the exhibition will be replaced, prompting two South Korean artists to pull their works from the triennial in protest of the act of censorship. The triennial’s artistic director, Daisuke Tsuda, also did not agree with the move. He said, “it is regrettable that we have made an example that undermines freedom of expression.”

The controversy erupted at a moment when relations between Japan and South Korea are at an all-time low. Over the years, dozens of comfort women statues have been installed by activists in Seoul and various other cities. In 2015, Japan transferred roughly $8.8 million to a foundation established to make reparations to the families of comfort women, but many said that the sum was not large enough and criticized former South Korean president Park Geun-hye for accepting the funding. Moon Jae-in, Park’s successor, condemned the agreement and dissolved the foundation last year. The New York Times reports that the feud between the two nations escalated further on Friday when Japan said it would halt or slow exports of materials that are crucial for South Korean industries. South Koreans responded by taking to the streets to protest.