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Japan art world condemns gov't agency for pulling grant after 'comfort women' blowup

Professor Yoshitaka Mori is seen speaking in front of the gate to Tokyo University of the Arts, at a meeting in response to the withdrawal of grants to Aichi Triennale 2019, in Taito Ward, Tokyo, on Sept. 27, 2019. (Mainichi/Noboru Hirose)

TOKYO -- Japan's art world has condemned the Agency for Cultural Affairs' decision not to pay a grant of 78.2 million yen (about $724,000) to the embattled Aichi Triennale 2019, which is still running despite furor over a "comfort women" statue that led to the closure of a freedom of speech exhibit.

A petition has sprung up online seeking a retraction of the agency's decision not to pay. Artists and experts have also said the move could hamper art and cultural activities in the country.

The petition started on Sept. 26 with participation from signatories including artists being exhibited at the festival. By 7 p.m. on Sept. 27 it had collected more than 60,000 signatures. Modern artist Tsubasa Kato, 35, said, "It (the agency's decision) will cause the arts to shrink. It's necessary for us to find out who led this decision and other details."

On the night of Sept. 27, students, teachers and others gathered in front of the main gate of Tokyo University of the Arts in the capital's Ueno Park for an emergency meeting. Speakers at the meeting said the decision should be overturned, and that it is unprecedented for standing grants to be rescinded.

Convened using social media, the gathering was attended by around 200 people. Professor Yoshitaka Mori, one of those who called the meeting, is part of Tokyo University of the Arts' Graduate School of Global Arts' Department of Arts Studies and Curatorial Practices. He said, "I want students to think about this issue, so I thought I should visualize it. The Agency for Cultural Affairs, which is meant to support culture, is instead controlling it."

Students and alumni at the event also raised their concerns, saying they were worried that even exhibitions of works by the general public would not have their freedom of expression protected.

The chief curator at an art museum in eastern Japan's Kanto region said, "When based on international standards, it (the decision to withdraw grants) is equivalent to censorship. There are times when plans are changed after business aid is adopted, but normally a portion of the money is paid, or in the end the full amount is granted by deeming that the ultimate goal was fulfilled. The current decision is not rational."

Taisuke Katayama, a professor in cultural policy at Shizuoka University of Art and Culture, has sat on countless expert panels to inspect grant applications to the Agency for Cultural Affairs. He said, "Not providing any of the money is such a harsh response that it's extraordinary. The Agency for Cultural Affairs must provide a more detailed explanation."

Professor Yoko Shida is seen in Toshima Ward, Tokyo, on Aug. 5, 2019. (Mainichi/Kazushi Machidori)

Yoko Shida, a professor in constitutional law at Musashino Art University, was also critical of the move, saying, "The Agency for Cultural Affairs has a responsibility to explain how this decision does not contravene the Basic Act on Culture and the Arts, but there's no way it can." The basic act stipulates the protection of freedom of expression, and the national and local governments' proactive support for art.

(Japanese original by Akiko Nagata and Noboru Hirose, Cultural News Department, and Aya Shiota and Kazushi Machidori, Integrated Digital News Center)

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