Photo/IllutrationDaisuke Tsuda, the artistic director of the Aichi Triennale, center, claps his hands to end the art festival at the Aichi Arts Center with Aichi Governor Hideaki Omura, to Tsuda's left, on the evening of Oct. 14 in Nagoya. (Yoichi Kawatsu)

The Aichi Triennale 2019 international art festival ended on Oct. 14, after hundreds of angry phone calls and even threats of violence forced the temporary closure of one of the exhibits, “After ‘Freedom of Expression?’”

However, the exhibit was reopened one week before the festival’s closing. Although attendance was restricted to people who won lotteries for tickets to the exhibit, we applaud the organizers for defying undue pressure.

What transpired has underscored the extremely precarious state of freedom of expression in Japan today. A continued examination and measures are needed to protect this freedom.

A furor erupted almost as soon as the Triennale opened on Aug. 1, sparked by “critics” who hadn’t even seen the exhibit in question nor assessed the artists’ intentions but acted on fragmented information.

Certain politicians, including Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura, added fuel to the fire by fussing over superficial matters to attack the event’s organizers.

But the worst offense was committed by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, the very organ that should be defending and promoting arts and culture.

The agency in late September abruptly announced the withdrawal of an already-approved subsidy for the Aichi Triennale.

The agency claimed that clerical errors had been made in the subsidy approval process. But Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga was already talking about the possibility of withholding the subsidy in early August, so that left no question about the agency’s real purpose: to suppress artistic expression itself.

The agency never sought the opinions of third-party experts involved in the screening of subsidy recipients, nor are there documents showing that the agency ever reconsidered the matter.

The only conclusion we can draw is that the agency deviated from its mission and sided instead with parties that had no qualms about suppressing art with threats of violence.

Ryohei Miyata, chief of the agency, is a former chancellor of the Tokyo University of the Arts and surely must have been aware of the gravity of the situation. Yet, he explained that the subsidy withdrawal was the decision of a subordinate, and that he himself knew nothing about it.

If Miyata was telling the truth, then he should be branded unfit to lead the organization.

The education minister as well as the prime minister both appear determined to keep their heads buried in the sand.

What would happen if no satisfactory explanation is ever given for the withdrawal of the subsidy? One inevitable outcome would be widespread “self-restraint” among the public against any activity that could arouse controversy or invite the ire of the government.

Whether in visual art, literature or music, works that challenge traditional concepts and values have always ushered in a new era and inspired people to seek greater freedom and diversity in their lives.

When this is no longer permitted, society will only shrink and suffocate itself.

The “After ‘Freedom of Expression?’” exhibit contained a sculpture of a young girl inspired by prewar and wartime “comfort women” and a video showing burning portraits of Emperor Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa. Some people have denounced these works as expressions of “hatred for Japan,” but that is utterly preposterous and we could not disagree more.

Society has repeatedly discussed the notion of “acts of hatred” and how such acts should be controlled in a manner that does result in excessive suppression of freedom of expression.

To condemn any work as “hateful” just because one doesn’t like it is tantamount to negating society’s collective wisdom and ordering, like a petty tyrant, that the work be outlawed.

The Aichi Triennale has left many issues that must not be ignored. The festival is over, but that does not mean that the case is closed.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 16