Photo/IllutrationA video work at the Vienna art exhibition shows an individual bearing a resemblance to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offering an apology to China and South Korea for wartime atrocities. (Provided by Museums Quartier)

A series of decisions made by the central government and local entities raised concerns that authorities are trying to stifle--rather than guarantee, as they should--diversity of expression, a vital element to creating a more vibrant society.

The Japanese Embassy in Austria withdrew its certification for an art exhibition in Vienna to help mark the 150th anniversary of Japan’s diplomatic relations with the country.

The decision was apparently prompted by a backlash over art works concerning Japan’s responsibility for World War II and the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Some critics labeled them as “anti-Japan,” prompting a lawmaker of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to make inquiries about the event with the Foreign Ministry.

One basic principle of a modern society is that authorities should not unnecessarily intervene in activities concerning freedom of expression. It is vital for developing democracy for people to discuss and reflect on issues, including inconvenient topics.

The embassy’s action amounts to a declaration that Japan does not understand this basic principle and lacks respect for artistic expression.

On the domestic front, the city government of Ise, Mie Prefecture, stopped a graphic artist’s mixed media piece with a photo of a statue representing “comfort women” from being displayed at a municipal exhibition. It cited concerns that allowing the work to be shown could put the safety of citizens at risk.

The Kawasaki city government expressed concerns about plans to screen a documentary about former “comfort women” during a film festival it supported, prompting a nonprofit organization sponsoring the event to decide against showing the film. The decision was eventually retracted.

Ise officials cited the row over a show on freedom of expression at the Aichi Triennale 2019 international art festival in Aichi Prefecture.

Kawasaki officials pointed to a legal dispute between the producers of the film, titled “Shusenjo: The Main Battleground of the Comfort Women Issue,” and some of the people who appear in the documentary.

However, these explanations are far from convincing.

In the case of Ise, there were no specific facts that justify its decision, such as threats. If there are legitimate concerns about public security, the city should deal with the problem in tandem with the police.

By not allowing the work to be displayed at the exhibition, the city is effectively supporting those who forcefully try to suppress activities to express views and opinions they do not agree with.

Kawasaki’s move is clearly an overreaction to possible problems. Both cases demonstrated a dangerous lack of consciousness of the risk that such behavior could breed the “don’t-rock-the-boat” mentality and thereby wither society as a whole.

Other worrisome moves have occurred.

Japan Arts Council, a culture-promotion body supervised by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, revised guidelines for its operations to allow it to withdraw subsidies for activities it deems “inappropriate from the viewpoint of public interest.”

The council says the new provision will basically apply to cases where the people involved have committed crimes. If so, the council should make that clear in the guidelines.

The vague term “public interest,” which is open to many interpretations, should raise serious concerns about the implications of this seemingly minor change.

The council’s move caused disquiet and distrust within the cultural community because it came soon after the Agency for Cultural Affairs took the unusual step of canceling a state subsidy for the Aichi Triennale 2019, citing “violations of procedures” as a reason for the decision. The revision should be retracted.

The agency’s decision provoked widespread criticism. At a Nov. 7 meeting of the Council for Cultural Affairs, some expert members condemned the action.

In the end, organizers of the Kawasaki film festival opted to screen the documentary after a number of directors and viewers denounced the decision not to show the movie.

It is important for individual members of society to keep tabs on such actions and raise their voices in protest in line with their own viewpoints.

Silence and resignation in the face of such pressure on freedom of expression can only lead to a bleak society without civil liberty.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 9