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Review panel says controversial Aichi art festival had 'many faults'

A statue of a girl symbolizing wartime "comfort women" is seen in an exhibition on July 31, 2019, as part of the "After 'Freedom of Expression?'" display at the Aichi Triennale 2019 held at the Aichi Arts Center in Nagoya's Higashi Ward. (Mainichi/Takehiko Onishi)

NAGOYA (Kyodo) -- A review panel slammed an art festival in central Japan on Wednesday saying the event, which sparked controversy for featuring a statue symbolizing "comfort women," had many faults in its displays and preparations.

The Aichi Triennale 2019, held from Aug. 1 to Oct. 14 in Nagoya and nearby cities, attracted public attention after one of its exhibitions -- titled "After 'Freedom of Expression?'" -- was abruptly closed three days after opening due to complaints and threats over the statue.

"Comfort women" is a euphemism used for those procured to work in Japan's wartime military brothels against their will.

The exhibition, which also displayed a piece showing the burning of a work that featured Emperor Showa's image, was suspended from Aug. 3 through Oct. 7, a decision backed by the panel.

The review panel formed by the Aichi prefectural government said in its final report the halt of the controversial exhibition was "unavoidable" in the face of imminent danger and "did not consist an unwarranted restriction on the freedom of expression."

The report pointed out the exhibition deviated from its concept of showcasing works eliminated from displays in the past in what critics call censorship, as it included newly created works and pieces that have not been removed by public museums.

It also said there was a lack of coordination between Daisuke Tsuda, the artistic director of the festival, curators and other members involved, and there was no system for preventing the director's mistakes or misjudgments despite giving him significant power.

Tsuda, who is also a journalist, was critical of the report, saying at a press conference later in the day it "unilaterally puts the blame on the artistic director."

The six-member review panel headed by Toshio Yamanashi, chief of the National Museum of Art, Osaka, called for a complete overhaul of the triennial festival's management body through such measures as establishing an advisory panel consisting of arts and culture experts.

But the panel proposed continuing to hold the event, saying it can help promote the region and resolve local challenges.

"We will sincerely accept the proposals and work toward the next triennale by gaining local residents' understanding," said Aichi Gov. Hideaki Omura, who headed the festival's steering committee.

The governor seeks to hold the event in 2022 by appointing an individual from the private sector to head the committee.

But problems surrounding the latest festival have yet to be settled as the Cultural Affairs Agency has withdrawn a 78 million yen grant ($712,800) for the art event, saying the Aichi government failed to provide necessary information that the exhibition could stir protests when applying for the state subsidy.

The city of Nagoya, capital of Aichi, has also refused to pay a part of the event's expenses.

Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura argued that the comfort women statue should not be displayed at a publicly funded event as its presence could give the wrong impression that Japan accepts South Korea's claim the women were forcibly taken by the Japanese military.

The issue of comfort women has been a major sticking point in Japan-South Korea relations, which have recently hit the lowest point in years due to disputes over a wartime labor row and tighter export controls.

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