As artists fight for the reopening of an exhibition on freedom of expression in Japan that was shut down after becoming the target of terror threats, many are raising their voices against the hate and discrimination underlying the intimidation.

Aichi Triennale 2019 closed the exhibition "After 'Freedom of Expression?'" three days after it opened on Aug. 1 following a barrage of phone calls, emails and faxes threatening violence, in particular due to a statue of a young girl symbolizing South Korean victims of sexual violence in wartime Japanese military brothels.

More than 10 artists with work unrelated to the exhibition chose to boycott the festival or altered their work to condemn the closure and expressed "solidarity with the censored artists." Artists have also issued statements and set up discussions spaces.

One statement said that the "Statue of Peace" made by South Korean artists Kim Seo Kyung and Kim Eun Sung "fundamentally addresses the human rights of women."

It said further that the hate speech and political pressure on the art festival "unfortunately reflect the pervasive entrenchment of discrimination against women in Japanese society today," adding that such discrimination affects "diverse genders."

(Statue of Peace)

Calling the hate speech and violent threats a direct contradiction of the Triennale's commitment to gender equality, the statement was signed by more than 500 people including artists, cultural workers, as of Wednesday.

"With the Triennale declaring commitment to gender equality, I thought, 'How could we stay silent about this matter?'" Yui Usui, a 38-year-old artist and instigator of the statement, told Kyodo News.

This year's Aichi Triennale, scheduled to run through Oct. 14 and directed by journalist Daisuke Tsuda, has achieved its goal of gender equality with a large number of participating female artists, said Tsuda. In a country where only two out of six national museum directors are women, this is a rarity for an art festival in Japan.

Usui, a participating artist who has created artworks on gender inequality including "comfort women" in the past, put up a message to visitors alongside her work, expressing deep respect for artists who had withdrawn their works to show solidarity.

"It is for the same reasons of solidarity that I have chosen to offer visitors the opportunity to enjoy my artwork to the fullest extent possible, as a means of resisting the forces that have deprived them of the opportunity to view other works," it read.

"I felt horrified that it won't be normal that we can see artwork and think and speak about it," Usui said.

The issue of comfort women -- a euphemism used in referring to those recruited mostly from South Korea and other Asian countries to provide sex, including those who did so against their will, to Japanese soldiers during World War II -- has been a major sticking point in Japan-South Korea relations.

(Yui Usui)

The exhibition's shutdown came at a time of escalating tension between Japan and South Korea over wartime and trade issues. Bilateral relations between the two countries have sunk to their lowest point in years.

"We harbor grave misgivings that the same kind of violent suppression of human rights-related discourse will be used again in the future to silence those who wish to address Japan's history of aggression," the statement said.

To network their activities and unite to bring voices of artists and the public to the negotiating table for the reopening of the exhibition, artists have launched a project called ReFreedom_Aichi, which nearly 40 artists have joined.

"We believe what is happening now at Aichi Triennale is that we are standing at a turning point," participating artist Meiro Koizumi said at a press conference announcing the launch. "Will the foundation of freedom collapse or will we prevent it?"

As one of the project's actions, artists have started to use the sealed entrance to "After 'Freedom of Expression?'" as a bulletin for expressing their experiences of past discrimination or oppression.

Visitors to the exhibition site have been asked to respond to questions such as, "Have you ever felt your freedom was taken away from you? In what way?"

(Eri Honma (2nd from L) and Meiro Koizumi (3rd from L))

The artists have posted the answers on the closed door. People can also participate by posting on social media a photo of a sheet of paper with a reply and hashtag #YOurFreedom.

"As soon as I was pregnant, I was asked, 'You're quitting your job, right?' (I should be able to freely decide that on my own)," read one of the posts on the door.

Another one read, in English, "I'm nervous to even write this memo -- I don't feel free to express critical ideas in Japan, even if I need to, to keep my sanity. I just suffer in silence. In my country, we don't ask permission."

About 1,000 cards have been posted so far, according to ReFreedom_Aichi.

The idea for the posts was inherited from Monica Mayer, one of the participating artists, and the creator of "The Clothesline," an art project where viewers write anonymously on pink sheets of paper about their experiences of sexual harassment or oppression, and pin them on a clothesline. Mayer has removed the sheets of paper for the time being in protest at the shutdown.

"This YOurFreedom project is for everyone, regardless of gender, age or nationality, to visualize the experience of how freedom was taken away," said Eri Honma, a member of the participating artist unit Kyun-Chome at the press conference.

"This is an action where everyone can recognize the oppression or discrimination that everyone is experiencing and say no to this," Honma said.

(Photo taken on Sept. 16, 2019, shows visitors reading posts of experiences of past discrimination or oppression written by visitors.)

(Photo taken on Sept. 25, 2019.)

Nabuchi, the other member of Kyun-Chome, said, "I think visualizing everyone's opinions of wanting to see (the artworks) is the biggest motivator to reopen "After 'Freedom of Expression?' exhibit."

"These many voices getting together here will definitely make an impact, and be a driving force, to move something. I believe it's possible that these small voices change the tide," Nabuchi said.

On Sept. 25, Aichi Gov. Hideaki Omura, the head of the festival's organizing committee, said, "We would like to aim for the reopening of the exhibition after certain conditions are met." He spoke after receiving an interim report from an appraisal committee that criticized art director Tsuda for going ahead with the exhibition, even though he could predict it would court controversy.

The Agency for Cultural Affairs, however, said the following day that it will not pay a 78 million yen ($724,000) grant for the art festival, as it was not informed in advance that the freedom of expression exhibition could trigger an outcry that would jeopardize the smooth running of the Triennale.

The conditions for reopening the exhibition include measures to avoid the risk of additional threats by phone or fax, improving the way the works are displayed and adding explanatory material.

Another rule would prohibit photos being taken and the spreading of messages about the artworks on social media.

But some artists who had their work included in the exhibition argue such conditions would constitute another form of censorship, according to the organizing committee of the exhibition.

The interim report has taken notice of comments and urged greater communication with overseas artists, who have described the decision to cancel the exhibition on the grounds of safety as "virtual censorship."

The report said the exhibition should be reopened as soon as possible as long as the conditions stipulated can be met, but Omura has avoided declaring a date for a reopening.

(Shun Kato contributed reporting)

Related coverage:

No grant for art festival after "comfort women" exhibition fiasco