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'Freedom of expression': Austrian art display blasts Japan gov't for ending support

"The video of a man calling himself Japan's prime minister making a speech at an international assembly" by Makoto Aida, currently on display at Japan Unlimited at the MuseumsQuartier in Vienna, is seen in this image provided by the MuseumsQuartier.

VIENNA (Mainichi) -- The Japanese government recently withdrew its support for the art exhibition "Japan Unlimited," which celebrates 150 years of friendship with Austria and has been running since late September.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan rescinded its official approval of the show at the end of October, a month into its run at the Austrian capital's MuseumsQuartier, after some of the displayed artworks were criticized on platforms including Twitter for using images of the Japanese prime minister and former Emperor Hirohito in what they call anti-Japanese works.

Individuals connected to the display have hit back against the switch in the Japanese government's stance, saying that the latter made the decision based not on whether the pieces were right or wrong, but out of fear of a possible backlash at home.

Japan Unlimited features 18 sets of artists from Japan, Italy and other countries and is set to run until Nov. 24. Two of the participating artists were also involved in the controversial Aichi Triennale 2019 exhibition "After 'Freedom of Expression?'" which was temporarily suspended over a statue of a "comfort woman" that drew ire from politicians and sections of the public in Japan.

According to Marcello Farabegoli, the curator of the Austrian show, he considered how the two countries' ties have deepened over the last 150 years, and tried to bring together a collection of works that uses themes and ideas that are ordinarily difficult to express in Japan.

In late January, the Embassy of Japan in Austria approved the exhibition as a commemorative event. Farabegoli sent a list of participating artists to the embassy on July 30, and apparently no specific complaints were raised. Embassy staff attended a preview on Sept. 25, the day before the exhibition's official start, and other embassy workers were present at an Oct. 15 event featuring artists from the show and a subsequent gathering. Farabegoli said they were positive about the display.

"1945," a collaborative work by BuBu de la Madeleine & Yoshiko Shimada, which is currently on display at Japan Unlimited at the MuseumsQuartier in Vienna, is seen in this image provided by the MuseumsQuartier.

But the embassy's stance changed in late October, when some parts of the Japanese population became vehement in their criticism that the exhibition was anti-Japanese, leading members of the National Diet to raisse the issue with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The ministry then resolved to re-examine the content of the exhibition.

Farabegoli says that around this time he was contacted by an official at the embassy, who told him that a problem had emerged in Japan. Then on Oct. 30, the embassy sent an email to the art museum saying that it was revoking its approval of the exhibition as commemorative activities. Farabegoli said that from the outset, the embassy should have fully grasped what the contents of the exhibition were, and that it was regrettable its stance had changed partway through its run.

A spokesperson for the Embassy of Japan in Austria said regarding the reasons for cancelling support, "The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the embassy received a number of emails and other communications expressing views on the exhibition's content. It was comprehensively decided that it (the display) was not conducive to friendly relations between both countries."

On the subject of the withdrawal coming a month after the exhibition opened, they said, "It took time to reach a decision." The Japanese government did not originally provide grants for the show, and the decision has no direct influence on the event.

But the Austrian art museum holding the exhibition has taken a different view on the issue. The MuseumsQuartier, which receives 75% of its funding from the Austrian government, has responded by saying freedom of expression must be protected. It added that it has a public duty to provide a space for artists to express their ideas.

Diethard Leopold, president of the Japan-Austria Society, which has supported ties between the two countries for many years, said that the decision by the Japanese government is an infringement of freedom of expression. He added that he hoped they would be able to overcome any problems that may follow.

Some 17,000 people are reported to have visited the exhibition so far. There is no plan to change or alter the art on display, and it is expected to continue as scheduled.

(Japanese original by Koji Miki, Vienna Bureau)

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