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Editorial: Aichi art festival row should not end with vague ‘reconciliation’

A thick air of nontransparency hangs over the settlement of a row over the temporary suspension of a special exhibition titled “After ‘Freedom of Expression?’ ” that was part of the Aichi Triennale 2019 international art festival.


The Agency for Cultural Affairs has decided to grant a subsidy to the festival, albeit after a partial reduction from the initially planned 78 million yen ($723,000), in overturning an earlier decision to withdraw the subsidy altogether.


The Aichi prefectural government, one of the hosting bodies for the exhibition, was initially set to take the matter to court. But the prefectural government admitted to flaws in its own formalities and proposed a subsidy cut, which the cultural affairs agency accepted.


Some welcome the dispute’s resolution. That notwithstanding, there remains the undeniable fact that the agency, which is supposed to protect and foster culture, has forgotten that mission and taken an action that runs totally counter to it.


The “After ‘Freedom of Expression?’ ” show, which opened last August, faced a flood of protests against some of its artworks, including a statue of a girl inspired by comfort women, who were forced to provide sex for Japanese soldiers before and during World War II.


Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and Masahiko Shibayama, education minister at the time, hinted at reviewing the state subsidy for the festival.


The cultural affairs agency, overseen by the education ministry, decided in late September to withdraw the subsidy on the grounds that the prefectural government failed to report to the agency in advance that there were concerns about the safe operation of the event.


However, no such reporting obligation had been expressly given. The agency allowed clerical workers alone to revoke the subsidy, which had been approved through screening by experts, and said it kept no minutes of the decision process, which would have shown how the matter was discussed.


Every aspect of the decision shows it was an aberrant one. We could only conclude the central government took issue with the very nature of the exhibits and unjustifiably intervened in the event.


The central government faced the risk of losing the case if the matter had been taken to court because such background could have been brought to light.


Government officials wanted to avert that scenario, while Aichi Governor Hideaki Omura was also concerned about remaining at odds with the central government.


The ambiguous “reconciliation” likely emerged as the intentions of both parties were met.


But the matter is not something that should be left to an agreement between the concerned parties alone.


Activities of expression, once branded as “anti-Japanese” or the like, ended up bearing the brunt of violent attacks. Politicians, who should have reined in such moves, stirred them up on the contrary, and even the Agency for Cultural Affairs took their side.


In the face of that reality, not just creators of artworks but also providers of the venues for presenting them would feel terrified, which could suffocate freedom of expression, a cornerstone of democracy.


The row over the “After ‘Freedom of Expression?’ ” show was followed by other public institutions intervening in art exhibitions and a film festival.


The Hiroshima prefectural government has decided to assign an outside panel to check exhibits of an art festival in advance. That is a risky move, which could end up as censorship, banned by the Constitution, depending on how it will be put into practice.


The issue of the subsidy withdrawal has not been amply discussed in the Diet because lawmakers have been focused on scandals and suspicions, which abound under the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.


As we have pointed out time and again, any policy to be implemented should be underlain by the public’s trust in politicians and public administration officials.


By no means should the Aichi art festival issue be allowed to end as long as it remains unclear how everything transpired and who is to be held responsible.

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