Photo/IllutrationProtesters gather in front of the Agency for Cultural Affairs on Sept. 26 after it decided to withdraw a government subsidy to the Aichi Triennale 2019. (Shinnosuke Ito)

The government’s decision to withdraw a state subsidy for an art festival in Aichi Prefecture already marred by an acrimonious dispute over some politically sensitive exhibits smacks of monumental bad judgment.

It shows an utter lack of understanding about the concept of artistic expression.

This grossly misguided move could undermine society’s support for freedom of expression and breed international distrust and contempt for Japan’s cultural policy. The government should immediately reverse the decision.

The Agency for Cultural Affairs has said it will not provide about 78 million yen ($724,000) in unofficially committed subsidies for the Aichi Triennale 2019. Organizers of one of its themed exhibitions were forced to suspend the show after a string of protests and threats of violence. The agency has taken an unprecedented and outrageous step.

Koichi Hagiuda, the education minister who oversees the agency, cited violations of procedures and flawed management as the reason for the decision. “The exhibits are not fully in line with what was described in the application (for the subsidy),” he said.

But it is hard to accept his explanation at face value.

The controversy arose over “After ‘Freedom of Expression?’” exhibition featuring a sculpture meant to symbolize "comfort women" forced to provide sex to wartime Japanese military personnel as well as a video presentation that included scenes of burning portraits, including one of Emperor Showa, the posthumous name of Emperor Hirohito, who reigned from 1926 until 1989.

Criticism arose that the works served only to express “hate” toward Japanese, prompting Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga to suggest in early August that the subsidy could be canceled.

The process leading to the decision leaves no doubt that the government’s decision not to provide funds to the art festival directly clashes with what the exhibition tried to express. That is tantamount to declaring to the entire world that the Japanese government will not provide funds to events it does not like.

There is no denying that there are people who are offended by the “comfort women” statue and some other works displayed. But that does not justify the government's attempt to suppress specific artistic and other expressions.

A committee set up by the Aichi prefectural government to review the troubled art festival made a convincing case against the government’s move in its interim report published on Sept. 25.

The panel is composed of experts in art museum management and cultural policy issues and constitutional scholars well-versed in issues concerning freedom of expression.

While admitting flaws in the descriptions about the works for the “After ‘Freedom of Expression?’” exhibition and in the way they were displayed, the report stressed the importance of freedom of expression in a democratic society.

The panel argued that use of taxpayer money for art works with political messages is acceptable and pointed out that artistic works may be about issues people do not want to face. The report also said the statue in question does not represent an “act of hate” by accepted standards.

It warned that keeping the exhibition in limbo could set a bad precedent and lead to self-restriction on artistic expression and called for reopening the exhibition after improving the environment.

The report’s argument is quite well-reasoned.

The panel’s recommendation that the descriptions of the works be changed as a condition for reopening the exhibition provoked criticism from some people and artists involved in the exhibition.

If, however, the exhibition remains shut until the end of the triennale on Oct. 14, that would only be a victory for this unreasonable attack on artistic expression.

We hope the government will find common ground with event organizers for an early resumption of the exhibition.

It is vital to resist such political pressure and take a first step toward repairing the damage done to freedom of expression.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 27