An art exhibition (in)famous for displaying controversial materials is once again sparking uproar, this time in Japan’s neighboring state of South Korea (Korea).
Titled “Non-Freedom of Expression Exhibition,” the Aug. 25-28 event in Nagoya followed the Aichi Triennale held in 2019, a government-funded gala forced to close prematurely due to issues. security for right-wing activists.
A particularly controversial collection this time concerned the “Statue of Peace”, a five-foot monument of a young girl seated in a wooden chair. Designed by a sculpture duo in Korea, it depicts aspiring Chosun women who were allegedly dragooned and sexually enslaved by the Japanese military during its colonial rule – euphemistically called “comfort women”.
The issue of comfort women was widely disputed and remained an unresolved enigma between Japan and Korea for many decades. No scientific consensus has been reached on the precise definition or the approximate number of women involved.
The Japanese government believes the issue has been settled under the 1965 Basic Treaty and the 2015 “comfort women” agreement. Its counterpart has been reluctant to accept this position. Therefore, a rapprochement on this historical issue has shown little progress, especially since the former South Korean administration Moon Jae In refused to implement the bilateral agreement signed in 2015.
Freedom of expression and the battle for truth
Despite widespread criticism, event organizers decided to showcase the statue and an equally controversial film of Emperor Hirohito’s image reduced to ashes in a scheduled four-day event at Citizens’ Gallery Sakae. in Nagoya.
Since 2019, many Nagoya residents and even Mayor Takahashi Kawamura have challenged the legitimacy of the organizer’s motive and whether such a “work of art” qualifies as freedom of speech. Moreover, many still wonder to what extent ー often subject to abuse ー rights of expression should be tolerated in a liberal-democratic society.
Kim Byungheon, director of the National Movement to End Comfort Women Law, a civic group in Korea, agrees with the sentiment of Nagoya residents. Formed in 2020, the NMECWL is a grassroots organization that campaigns against the fraud of comfort women and the proliferation of “peace statues” at home and abroad.
View of Korean scholars on the exhibition
From August 25 to 28, three members traveled to Nagoya to protest the organizers and demand that the monument be removed from the site.
Kim Byungheon, who visited the paid exhibition on the second day (August 26), felt utterly stunned by what he saw as the Japanese organizers’ deliberate attempt to profane their own national history and defame their ancestors. He was particularly disturbed to learn that the coordinators had invited sculptors Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung via zoom for an exclusive one-hour talk show.
During the Q&A session, Kim Byungheon asked the artists to provide evidence that the Japanese military had sexually enslaved and sometimes murdered young Chosun girls. In response, Kim Eun-sung, borrowing the words of a comfort activist, exclaimed, “My testimony is the proof, fool!”
Whether this profanity was directed at the interrogator is unclear, but he failed to adequately address an extremely complex historical issue.
Invite controversy, avoid debate
NMECWL activists also sent a letter to the mayor’s office and held a press conference attended by some four dozen onlookers, including major Japanese media.
A meeting with the mayor of Nagoya initially seemed plausible, but the mayor’s office turned it down at the last minute for undisclosed reasons. An insider said JAPAN Striker that if the mayor supported the rally, some members of the town hall vehemently opposed it, saying they wanted to avoid a confrontation between left and right activists.
During the press conference, Kim Byungheon refuted the many erroneous claims about “the promise engraved on an empty chair,” a designer note released by the sculpting duo in 2016.
Justify lies in the name of art
The note’s authors claimed that the girl in the wooden chair was inspired by their 11-year-old daughter to depict young Chosun women who were abducted and forced into sex slavery.
They further claimed that the Statue of Peace was “social art” that reflected nationalist sentiment and a sense of unresolved grievance against the injustices suffered by Koreans under the administration of the Japanese. (Their book was translated into Japanese in 2021 and was available at the exhibition for around US$16.)
Challenging the artists’ depiction of a teenage sex slave, Kim Byungheon said:
Comfort women were wartime sex workers and Japanese law required them to be over 17 years old. Likewise, no historical record indicates that such atrocious crimes were committed against these women by the Japanese military or that the upper echelon issued corresponding orders. The Statue of Peace is just an embodiment of the lie, used by sculptors and the Korean Council (the largest comfort women advocacy group) to spawn comfort women scams.
“I cannot in good conscience sit idly by when my people and the international community, mainly the younger generation, are deceived by such malicious propaganda,” Kim added.
Examining the Testimony of Former Comfort Women
Park Se-Won, senior researcher at NMECWL, reviewed the eight volumes of testimonies from former comfort women published by the Korean Council.
“The biggest culprit was poverty and misery, not the Japanese military. In the vast majority of cases, the women blamed their parents for selling them for easy money or brokers for deceiving them,” she concluded.
When the artists’ note was published, the Statue of Peace, which cost US$30,000 per figurine, had been erected in many cities in Korea and exported to at least half a dozen places around the world. Today, in 2022, 144 statues are officially established in Korea (the most recent was recently erected at Chungnam National University on August 15, 2022), including 34 overseas, including one recently unveiled at the University from Kassel in Germany.
“Nowhere in the world would one find such an incessant proliferation of identical statues outside of the monuments of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jeong Il in North Korea. This kind of worshipful behavior, almost like religious fervor, is unprecedented even among authoritarian or communist regimes,” Kim Byungheon said.
Free Incentive Pass
Perhaps what infuriated many Japanese and Korean critics the most was the host’s license to post just about anything under the facade of free speech.
Yumiko Yamamoto of Nadeshiko Action, a Japanese civic group, said, “Make no mistake, even unsavory exhibits should have their place free from violent threat. But when a work of art spreads outright misleading information that in turn defames our country, it’s a cause for deep concern.
To Kim Byungheon’s surprise, he quickly discovered as he walked around the hall that the exhibit’s ‘masterpiece’ was actually a film of Emperor Hirohito’s image in a blazing fire and not the statue. herself. Nobuyuki Oura, the filmmaker responsible for the images shown on a 50-inch screen behind closed curtains, is often known for his flamboyant collage and esoteric characterization of the former emperor. Ironically, however, given the host’s theme of freedom and anti-censorship, no photography or video was allowed in this section.
Disconcerting tolerance of propaganda
Some amazed and others visibly irritated, onlookers watched the burnt image reduced to ashes. Kim Byungheon was clearly the latter:
I am completely baffled and saddened by the images. Baffled by the way a native Japanese [filmmaker] could possess such deep anti-Japanese feeling. Saddened because this is classified as art and released under the guise of free speech.
Indeed, freedom of expression is at the heart of liberal-democratic values and is rightly guaranteed by the Japanese Constitution. But, inseparable from the legal dimension, public discourse on its limits and the problems related to selective censorship must go hand in hand to prevent our fundamental rights from being militarized to carry out ideological and political agendas.
Korean activists, out of exasperation, momentarily considered burning down the Statue of Peace during one of their gatherings at home in a kind of “eye for an eye” performance – a technique Kim calls proportional escalation.
Fujio Ito of the Nagoya Patriots Club, a civic group, urged the Korean team not to be manipulated by an opponent’s nasty tactics. Kim Byungheon, of course, was just joking when he made this suggestion. We can only hope that such proportional escalation remains merely a rhetorical idea for the foreseeable future.
Author: Kenji Yoshida