Noi Sawaragi: Notes on Art and Current Events 53

Looking back on 2015 – From the other side of ‘Best Exhibitions’

Posted in Japanese on December 22, 2015

The Aida Family – Manifesto (2015), installation view at “An Art Exhibition for Children: Whose Place is This?” Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, 2015.

At around this time every year, various newspapers and other media put together columns on “The Best Exhibitions of the Year.” As usual, I too published my four favorites of the year along with brief comments in the morning edition of the Yomiuri Shimbun dated December 10. (1) I sometimes hear people argue the term “best” is incompatible with assessments of artistic expression. Frankly, however, I think it is precisely by adopting such a standard that we can clearly understand what kinds of exhibitions hit the spot in a particular year. In particular, this year marked 70 years since the end of the war. In society at large, too, there were many unsettling events that caused sensations both in Japan and overseas. In light of this, with the passage of time, who rated what kind of exhibition by putting their name to such a list will probably come to be critically reassessed according to different standards.

At the same time, while such year-end retrospective assignments are good opportunities for focusing on superior, high-quality projects, they are not suitable for looking back on the various problems that arose over the course of exhibitions throughout the year. This year, for example, regulation/censorship of expression by the government and other authorities was a greater problem than usual. The most conspicuous example of this was probably the official escalation of the arrest and prosecution of artist Rokudenashiko into an incident this year by the 10th Criminal Affairs Department of the Tokyo District Court in the form of “2016 (Wa) No. 3268/Display of an Obscene Object.” The trial, which began on April 15 with the first hearing at Courtroom 425 at the Tokyo District Court, is currently in its seventh hearing (November 24: questioning of the defendant). I have stood in line to get a lottery ticket several times to date in the hope of observing proceedings, but unfortunately I have not yet been successful.

Rokudenashiko’s next hearing is scheduled for February 1, 2016. As well as the prosecutor’s closing argument and the defense’s closing argument, the defendant’s final statement of opinion is also expected to be heard.

However, it can hardly be said that interest in this incident outside the art world is running high. Defendants in cases involving expression are unilaterally declared guilty by the authorities even though there are no victims, despite proceedings not having made it as far as the courts. I have raised this incident once before in this column and analyzed why it has been ignored by the art world. (2) As well, it has been referred to both a standing committee and regular meetings of the Japanese Section of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA JAPAN), of which I am a member, and expressions of opinion gathered from supporting members up to that point posted on the Association’s website in the form of a joint petition. (3) Incidentally, one of these members, Sophia University professor Michio Hayashi, appeared in court and gave a statement of opinion as a witness for the defense at the sixth hearing of this case (November 20). (4) This problem will probably require continued scrutiny next year and beyond.

Also this year, following the unveiling of an exhibit entitled Manifesto by the art unit called The Aida Family, comprising Makoto Aida, Hiroko Okada and Torajiro Aida, at “An Art Exhibition for Children: Whose Place is This?” held at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo over the summer (to be precise, it was displayed as part of an installation that also included a work by Makoto Aida entitled Video of a man calling himself Japan’s Prime Minister making a speech at an international assembly), chief curator Yuko Hasegawa is reported to have directly requested the artist to remove/modify the display, eliciting much criticism.

Makoto Aida – Video of a man calling himself Japan’s Prime Minister making a speech at an international assembly (2014), single channel video, 26 min. 7 sec. © Makoto Aida, courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery

Ultimately, however, the exhibit in question was not removed and the exhibition itself came to a close as if nothing had happened, and this together with the fact that, in spite of the scale of the exhibition, a catalog was not produced left many people feeling a great deal of bitterness. Perhaps the seriousness of this incident should not be compared to that of the Rokudenashiko incident, which has turned into a court battle. But to the extent that it was not the police or other authorities but the museum’s chief curator – who is in a position to protect expression from such outside pressure – who put pressure directly on the artist to remove/modify the work, this latter incident reveals a more serious problem.

To date, there has been no sign whatsoever of the comments from Hasegawa that were originally supposed to have been issued. On the other hand, we have the clear explanation of the circumstances that Aida issued early on as a move to counter them. (5) As a result, the engagement between the museum and the artist has become asymmetrical, and it has become difficult to discus the matter based on the opinions of one side only. However, even putting together the coverage and articles by the Asahi Shimbun and others, (6) it is still unclear whether the reason for the request was that the exhibit was “unsuitable for children,” that “it was because complaints were received,” or that it was a case of “self-censorship of a parody of the Abe administration and criticism of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.” Until there is a full explanation, however, we can only conclude that there was in fact a request from Hasegawa to the Aida Family or Makoto Aida for the removal/modification of the artwork in question.

Even if this were not true, Akiko Komuro, the deputy director of the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, which, like the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, is under the jurisdiction of the Tokyo Metropolitan Foundation for History and Culture, has admitted that in February 2014 the museum requested the removal/modification of a work by Katsuhisa Nakagaki titled Toki no shozo – Zetsumetsukigushu idiot JAPONICA enfun (Portrait of the Times: The Endangered Species Idiot JAPONICA Round Tomb) that was part of a Federation of Contemporary Japanese Sculptors exhibition. (7) At the time, Komuro responded by citing one of the operational guidelines for the city’s art museums that states that a museum “may choose not to use a work if it supports or opposes a particular political party/religion,” explaining that museum officials regarded as problematic a sign collaged onto the work that included the line, “Let us protect Article 9 of the Constitution, admit the stupidity of visiting Yasukuni Shrine and stop the rightward tilt of the current administration.”

I must postpone a discussion of the appropriateness of this decision to another occasion, but in this case at least the institution itself admits issuing the request for removal/modification. As for the request for the removal of the text accompanying the Aida Family’s Manifesto, which reached a far larger audience, the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo’s disregard for and silence in response to demands for an explanation is inexcusable for a public institution with the attendant social responsibilities. Going back even further, in 2014 during the “Photography Will Be” exhibition at the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, there was a similar situation in which the Aichi Prefectural Police ordered the removal of a number of photographic works featuring male nudes by Ryudai Takano on the grounds that they “amounted to the display of an obscene object,” prompting a response from the museum. (8) In this case, however, the museum did not acknowledge that the works were obscene, and after discussions with the artist responded by displaying the works in a different way by draping cloth over the lower half of the subjects’ bodies (a critical response in historical terms) and even going as far as issuing a detailed report on the incident in its own bulletin. (9) In this respect, too, the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo’s response can only be described as extraordinary.

Ryudai Takano – With KJ#2 (2007), installation view draped in cloth at “Photography Will Be,” Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, 2014. © Ryudai Takano, courtesy Yumiko Chiba Associates and Zeit-Foto Salon.

Mind you, these are merely the incidents about which information has been shared via newspapers and SNS and which have been the subject of a certain amount of discussion. With the Tokyo Olympics just a few years away and art museums among the institutions being called on to actively collaborate on various initiatives, one cannot deny the possibility of the frequent occurrence of similar instances behind the scenes. In Japan, the end of the year is referred to as toshiwasure, a time for “forgetting the old year,” and is traditionally regarded as a good opportunity to “wash away” the dirt that has accumulated over the course of the past year. However, it could probably be said that it is precisely because a number of “omens” that appeared last year were completely “forgotten” that even worse instances are now occurring one after another. At this rate, it would not be surprising if in the years to come there were an escalation of similar cases of self-restraint/censorship/requests, only in a far worse form.


    1. ”Looking back at 2015: Art,” Yomiuri Shimbun, morning edition, December 10, 2015.

  1. See edition 46 of this column “Obscenity as a symbol – Rokudenashiko and Genpei Akasegawa,” Japanese edition posted December 22, 2014.
  2. Request for explanation of the unfair arrest of and withdrawal of charges against Ms Rokudenashiko,” January 13, 2015 (in Japanese).
  3. Reference: “The case against Ms Rokudenashiko: Art historian testifies ‘A great many works exist with female genitalia motifs,” News, November 20, 2015 (in Japanese).
  4. Makoto Aida, “On the issue over removal of work from the ‘Children’s exhibition’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo,” July 25, 2015 (in Japanese).
  5. Hikari Maruyama, “Artists refuse to budge over request to alter piece critical of education ministry,” Asahi Shimbun, July 25, 2015.
    Hikari Maruyama, ‘Makoto Aida work will remain in exhibition – Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo abandons pursuit of modification,” Asahi Shimbun, July 31, 2015 (in Japanese).
    Andrew Mckirdy, “Artist Aida defiant over latest work,” The Japan Times, July 28, 2015.
  6. Shigeki Ohira, “‘Concern over complaints’ behind Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum’s removal of ‘political’ artwork,” Tokyo Shimbun, February 19, 2014.
  7. Ryodai Takano, Ryo Sawayama, “On the display of Ryodai Takano’s works at Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art,” Yumiko Chiba Associates website, August 20, 2014 (in Japanese).
    Kenji Komai, “Photographer Ryodai Takano talks about being compelled to change the display of his works at Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, or face arrest for not removing them,webDICE, August 17, 2014 (in Japanese).
  8. “Bulletin of Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art,” No. 2, 2014 (in Japanese).


Noi Sawaragi: Notes on Art and Current Events 1-6

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