Statue of a Korean Girl Causes Meltdown at Aichi Triennale

by Kaori Shoji

It’s 35 degrees Celsius in Nagoya City and the mercury is expected to rise even further. Maybe the recent incident at the Aichi Triennale has something to do with it – the heat feels merciless and suffocating, much like the protest calls that continue to plague an otherwise celebratory art event.

Whether in the state of California or on the prefecure of Aichi, Japan, statues of comfort women, raise the ire of certain Japanese males who would like to sweep the past under the chair.

For those not in the know, here’s a rough sketch of what happened: On August 1, the Aichi Triennale kicked off. Directed by celebrity artist Daisuke Tsuda, the Triennale aimed to close the gender gap and encourage increased participation from women artists and feminist themes. One of the main exhibits, “The Non-Freedom of Expression – What Happens Later,” caused a huge stir. Created by a Korean sculptor couple (whose identities have not been revealed in mainstream media), the centerpiece is a statue of a young Korean girl. The description says she is a comfort woman, forcibly taken from her home by the Japanese military during WWII.

On August 2, the Triennale offices are flooded with calls of protests and outrage, including one from Nagoya mayor Takashi Kawamura, who it was said, sputtered with anger all over his phone screen, and then followed that up with a written statement. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga also phoned in his appearance, expressing concerns that a government funded art event was showcasing a statue loaded with anti-government sentiments – is this right? There were more than a few death threats, many of which expressed intentions to replay the recent Kyoto Animation arson incident that killed 35 people.

On August 3, Daisuke Tsuda holds a press conference announcing the cancellation of the exhibit. A controversial firestorm erupts across the archipelago.

It feels like the Japanese will never see eye-to-eye on the comfort women issue with their neighbors on the peninsula. On the list of old wounds that Japan would prefer to forget, or failing memory lapse, ignore completely – the sexual slaves known as “ianfu” or comfort women” to the western world, occupies first place. There’s something about this chunk of history that grates on Japanese male nerves, for it’s usually the men: politicians, commentators, academics and the rotund salariman sitting next to me on the subway – that get incoherent with indignation at the mere mention of the term. Last summer, I happened to be at an informal gathering when the subject came up. We were standing around a small table of drinks, and as soon as the word “ianfu” was uttered, the women scattered like sparrows and the men launched into a tirade that amounted to: “Of course there were comfort women in wartime. What else were they expecting? We were at war!”

Infuriatingly, the Japanese term for “comfort women”  (慰安婦・ianfu) is comprised of the kanji characters ‘ian’ which means to console and heal, and ‘fu’ which means female. ‘Ian” is still in circulation, most often in terms like ‘ianryokou,’ which refers to annual trips that many corporations dole out to their employees, ostensibly to let them relax and have a good time. Back in the mid-Heisei era, it was still quite common for these consolation trips to include geisha attendance and jaunts to strip bars, for the benefit of their male employees. In some companies, it was the norm for executives to invite prostitutes to their hotel rooms, and put it on their company tabs. For many, many Japanese men, a woman’s value is measured by how well she consoles and heals their tired nerves. One of the highest praises that can be bestowed on a woman, remains: ‘iyasareru’ (癒やされる)meaning, “you heal me.” When the outside world (in this case South Korea) dares to put a dent in that beautiful, traditional, man-woman relationship (i.e., the brave male being healed by a willing sexual slave, regardless of nationality) which Japanese men apparently see as their birthright, it probably feels like a punch in the face. Nagoya mayor Kawamura said as much when he wrote in his statement: “The collective Japanese heart has been trampled to bits.”

Awww, what a shame.

But the incident at the Aichi Triennale shows that though their hearts are trampled, Japanese men are capable of pushing back, albeit over their smartphones. At the press conference, Triennale director Daisuke Tsuda stressed that the cancellation wasn’t due to Mayor Kawamura, or the Chief Cabinet Secretary, or anything political. “It was because of the phone calls,” he said. “The office lines were jammed with protest calls and there simply weren’t enough staff to deal with them. Everyone was working overtime anyway, and I could not, in good conscience, ask these people to deal with angry callers on top of their already considerable workloads.”

Tsuda went on to say that the decision was “heartrending” because “this will create a precedent of being able to crush work of art with anonymous phone calls.”

And now that the statue has been taken away, we have yet to assess the repercussions. As the dust settles, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party members are getting their act together to say – altogether now, boys! – that threats and violence are BAD. Freedom of expression is GOOD.

Now that we’re clear on that matter, who’s ready to address the problem of comfort women?

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Kaori Shoji

Kaori Shoji

Kaori Shoji is a film critic for the Japan Times and write about fashion and society as well. 欧米の出版物に記事を執筆するフリーランス・ジャーナリスト。The Japan Times、The International Herald Tribune、Zoo Magazineへ定期的に記事を寄稿している。

3 thoughts on “Statue of a Korean Girl Causes Meltdown at Aichi Triennale”

  1. I think you’ll find Japanese women are possibly equally as complicit (if not more) in the handling comfort women issue. One told me that the placement of the statue on a bus in Seoul was an affront to Japan and was unacceptable; another just couldn’t understand why Korea and China had a problem with Japan and they needed to shut up about what Japan did to their countries. Yes, the men are more outspoken, but I’ve yet to meet a woman who denounces Japan’s past dismeanours. I was shocked, I thought they would show solidarity across racial/ethnic lines like western feminists do (in principle) but ethnonationalism is a much stronger force in Japanese society

  2. Not living in Japan I had not heard about this. Sadly, the ‘comfort women’ controversy continues. And then, in the face of all of this angry denial, the Japanese government wonders why the S Koreans keep bringing it up?!?

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