A censorship fight over “comfort women”

A frail old woman with white hair, a bent back, and a deeply lined face sits by herself in a small, shabby room.

That description would fit several of the black-and-white photos I saw at an exhibition last night in Tokyo. As mundane as the pictures are, certain people strenuously object to their being seen. And that’s why I had to see them.

To get into the exhibition, held on the 28th floor of a Shinjuku office building, I had to wait in a corridor while a uniformed guard used his arm to block the doorway of the small gallery space, allowing people to go in one by one. A woman ahead of me had a very large bag, and he looked inside it before admitting her. Once I got through the door, another guard watched as I walked through a metal detector.

And then I saw a bunch of perfectly ordinary black-and-white portraits of harmless-looking old ladies.

What was the big deal?

A certain number of women, many of them Korean, were forced to work as sex slaves for members of the Japanese military during World War II. They were euphemistically called “comfort women.” The ones who are still alive today are very old. A few of them are the subjects of the photos in this exhibit, taken by photographer Ahn Sehong.

The existence of “comfort women” is an accepted historical fact, but right-wing groups in Japan would prefer to sweep it under the rug.

The Nikon Salon in Shinjuku had planned to display Ahn’s photos, but then canceled its plan. It seems that no clear reason for the cancellation has been given, but you can sample the unofficial speculation and official evasions in coverage by The Japan Times herehere and here, The Wall Street Journal here and here, and Radio Australia here.

Ahn sued, and won. The court ordered Nikon to hold the exhibition after all, and it is now doing so. The show runs through July 9, this coming Monday on the 28th floor of the Shinjuku L Tower, on the west side of Shinjuku Station.

The gallery’s website states, “Although the originally scheduled photo exhibition by Ahn Sehong was canceled for certain reasons, the Tokyo High Court has issued a provisional disposition order allowing the temporary use of the Shinjuku Nikon Salon for Mr. Ahn’s exhibition. In accordance with this provisional disposition, the Shinjuku Nikon Salon will be temporarily used for Mr. Ahn’s exhibition.”

You can see a few of the photos at Ahn’s website, here. The images themselves are not particularly remarkable, but the effort to censor them is outrageous.

Admission to the exhibition is free.

Speech should be, too.

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