Freedom of Expression? Censorship in the arts

Censorship in the arts is becoming an increasing concern – in a recent ‘Freedom of Expression’ report in the UK, 70% of the participating artists explained that they would hold back from criticizing a funder, for fear that future opportunities would be jeopardized. 


In a climate of increasing financial precarity, many artists feel that their work needs to cater to the preferences of funding bodies.  Consequently, self-censorship or ‘soft censorship’ is impacting creative practices and, in turn, cultural discourse.  In short, our culture – our ideas, our taste, our conversations, our debates – is becoming increasingly molded by currents of wealth. 


The emergence of Coronavirus is likely to intensify the state of uncertainty and precarity in the arts, further impacting the culture we live within.  In the months and years after a major crisis, there is often a tendency to favour simple and speedy ‘top down’ solutions to emergent issues, disregarding the complex implications of political decisions, sidelining the arts and leaving the long-term social impact.


'My work about a Memorial for Korean Forced Labourer Gunma Prefecture was made in 2015 and exhibited initially at Omotesando Gallery in Tokyo.'
Image©Shirakawa Yoshio

The consequences, and suppressed stories, of this kind of top-down, hierarchical approach do not go by unnoticed.  Artists have continued to remind audiences of these not-so-distant histories. But, amidst the creeping ‘culture of censorship’, these art practices are often shut down. In 2017, artist Yoshio Shirakawa’
s installation about the ‘Memorial for the Korean forced labourer, Gunma Prefecture’ was withdrawn from the exhibition at the National Museum of Modern Art in Gunma. The artwork was based on a monument to Korean men and women forced into labour under the National Mobilization Law.  


Fast forward two more years, to the 2019 Aichi arts festival.  The artwork ‘Statue of a Girl of Peace’ by Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung – a statue representing the Korean women who were forced into sex slavery during WWII - led to the withdrawal of a ¥78 million grant by the Cultural Affairs Agency. The exhibition was shut down and then briefly re-opened at the end of the festival with restrictions in place for the exhibits. 


These examples of ‘hard censorship’, combined with increasing culture of ‘soft’ self-censorship, indicate a worrying erosion of freedom of expression. And this is a global issue – censorship of both kinds is dramatically impacting artists and audiences alike.


Living in lock down during a global pandemic is an anxious time for everyone, but is important not to ignore the issue of censorship at this crucial time – art can play a powerful role in the way in which we understand, and are able to respond to the lived experiences of crises.


In the following interview, Yoshio Shirakawa discusses his experience as a censored artist:


In 2017 your artwork ‘Memorial for the Korean forced labourer, Gunma Prefecture’ was removed from an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Gunma.  What happened?


My work about a Memorial for Korean Forced Labourer Gunma Prefecture was made in 2015 and exhibited initially at Omotesando Gallery in Tokyo. It was exhibited again in 2016 at Tottori Prefecture Museum. In 2017, same work was due to be exhibited in the show called “Arts of Gunma”, starting on  22nd April. The work was installed on 21st of April the day before the opening.  However, late that night on the eve of the opening of the show, I received communication from the Gunma Museum telling me that the work was to be withdrawn under the decision of Museum director. Early morning of 22nd April I had to take down the installation. The catalogue produced later for this show did not mention my work. However Japanese media has noticed this incident and highlighted issues of censorship.


In 2014, a dispute and legal proceedings about the decision made by the Gunma Prefecture Council to remove the Memorial for Korean Forced Labourer was highlighted in news media, and I made the work as a response to the issue. The reasons given from the Museum for the withdrawal of my work in 2017 was that the Gunma Prefecture Council itself was in the midst of legal case and therefore they told me that they could not exhibit this work.  However this position was not publicly declared and even to this day, it was treated as if it was a director’s discretion to which artist complied to withdraw. 


What are you working on at the moment?

I am currently working towards solo exhibition due in July 2021 at Maruki Museum in Saitama, and I am working with a theme of War, particularly about the WWII played out in Pacific rim region. I am focusing on the Historical revisionist ideology. As I am concerned about huge pressure to change and re-write the history of WWII since 1980’s  as Historical revisionists has been gaining power in political structure.


In the UK, ‘soft’ censorship (self-censorship) is impacting cultural production.  To what extent is this an issue for artists working in Japan?

In Japan, censorship issue has been a continued problem since 1920’s. The main target for the censorship is about sex and politics. Although after the defeat of  WWII in 1946, Japan has ceased to be a militant nation and the censorship has been loosened somewhat for a while. However since 1980’s it has become tighter and within the Art University as well as Art industries, It is considered to be better to avoid topics on Sex and Politics, and the general consensus in Japanese Art education has been that Art should be for Art sake and artist  should avoid political issues. In that sense the self censorship is already well engrained into the education system. Obviously, there are a few artists who are resisting this trend, however.


‘Freedom of expression’ can also allow for the expression of hate – how can we sustain discursive space when there is a possibility that it might be co-opted by those inciting extremist viewpoints?

In Japan there are not many spaces where you can exchange opinions about the freedom of expression. Even in the media, there is only limited tendencies to proactively engage with the artists political expression.


What is the curator’s role in these difficult cases? What sort of role should they be able to perform in an ideal world?
この様な困難な問題に対してキュレーターの役目はなんでしょうか? 理想的にはどの様な役目を負うことができるのでしょうか?

In  Japan, the decision making power rests on the Museum director or Local Council responsible for the Museum. In the case of Gunma Museum, Even though curators were happy to accept my work, the Museum director had a power to negate the agreement. There are some occasions, curators succeed in arguing the case, however public showing can be very difficult. Also at the private institutions, the curators struggle to curate works touches upon socio-political issues.


Do you have any advice for young or emerging artists?

 I do not have any particular good strategies to counter the restriction on freedom of expression and censorship. Basically, I believe that artists need to keep on working, with our own understanding of need and also our own desire to create. Perhaps  we can also consider subversive ways to express ideas using different means by developing subtle language and adding double layers of meaning so that audience can read opposing message from the one which might appear as one straight message.


Article: Jessica Holtaway
Image©Shirakawa Yoshio

If you are an artist and  have concerns about censorship, the following platforms can offer advice and support:  National Coalition Against Censorship (USA), The Arts Censorship Support Service (UK). 

Art Action UK is pleased to announce the 2020 AAUK residency award winner: 
Yoshio Shirakawa

This year we have received our largest number of proposals and they have been of a very high standard. From this group we are delighted to announce that we have selected the artist Yoshio Shirakawa.
Shirakawa has been based in Gunma, a regional city north of Tokyo, after returning from his study in art and philosophy in France and Germany in 1970’s. His practice has been  focused around marginalised communities, and his activities are regarded as a precursor to today’s multiculturalist and participatory practices in Japan. Shirakawa has conducted research and authored numerous texts on contemporary art history, constantly developing criticism and revaluation of the dominant historical views and discourses, while engaged in his sculptural practice.
In 2019, Shirakawa found himself at the epicentre of Aichi-Triennale Censorship controversy. During his residency in the UK, Shirakawa will be sharing his first hand experience of the current socio-political climate of Japan, asking how the potent conjuncture of the Post Fukushima and Pre- Olympic context is impacting arts and culture.
Please watch this space for the events taking place in April 2020!
mage by  Satoshi Hashimoto and Hajime Nariai

We are pleased to announce the winner of 2019 Residency Award !
Satoshi Hashimoto 
Artist/ Activist/ Curator/ Researcher 
For our Autumn Residency , October - November 2019

We are looking forward to receive 2019 residency award winner, Satoshi Hashimoto this autumn. A series of programmes will be organised during the residency in London, where artist will present his practice and contribute to the discussion events. 
So, please watch this space, and come and join us.

Hashimoto is an Artist / Activist / Curator/ Researcher based in Tokyo, operating internationally.  Often taking performative and audience participatory approaches, Hashimoto's practices goes beyond normative understanding of art.
You can find out more about Hashimoto's  practice by clicking below links.

198 Methods of Abstract Direct Action 
Satoshi Hashimoto “Pie Charts: Everything and Others”
"The World’ s Three Major Round Things: the Sun, the Moon,the Eye" 

Art Action UK is an arts collective that began through responding to the 2011 disaster in North East Japan, which triggered the nuclear crisis in Fukushima. 
We will be hosting artists for our Residency Project this autumn, and deliver discussion events in relation to the question;
How Can Art Contribute to Discourses on Planetary Crisis?

If you would like to get involved in future activities, please contact us via

Art Action UK:

Art  Action UK 2018 Residency Programme with Yumi Song

We are delighted that 2018 AAUK residency project was delivered successfuly in London.
Art Action UK's 2017 Residency Award winner Yumi Song, was selected out of a very strong contestants.
Yumi Song ( Artist/ Curator) has worked in North East of Japan within Fukushima and with her deep understanding of the current situation, she has managed to bring forward a new perspective on the on going issue since 2011 Triple Disaster struck north East Japan. She has highlighted the proximity of disaster here in UK through her exhibition of info-graphic installations, film screening, discussion events, and also discussed about the worring trend of nationalism and xenophobic tendencies.
Jessica Holtaway has written about the Events on the Bolg. Please click  HERE

Events were hosted by Deptford X Deptford X Event space
We are also happy to that good link with Art Catalyst has been forged through this year's activities.

We are also proud that Yoi Kawakubo and Natsumi Seo, AAUK's past residency award winners are included in Yokohama Triennale,
Also Kyun Chome is selected for Re-Born Art Festival 

Art Action UK will continue to develope these vital discourses with artists, curators and audeinces through out 2017-18. If you would like to receive regular updates, please contact us by clicking HERE.

Art Action UK is a collective that explores ways we can show solidarity and support for people who have been affected by natural and manmade disasters. It hosts an annual respite residency for artists who live and work in areas affected by disasters.  Arts Catalyst is an arts organisation that commissions art that experimentally and critically engages with scienc

Invisible changes in East Japan: an interview with Yumi Song

Artist and curator Yumi Song discusses her current exhibition Place as an Extension of Body:  Linking London and Fukushima, and reflects on the role of art in a changing world

By Jessica Holtaway 

SUIKO, “Tuchiyu”, Arafudo Art Annual 2013 photo by Kazuyuki Miyamoto.

Yumi Song arrived in London in May 2017 and has spent four weeks on the Art Action UK residency programme.  As an artist and curator, her exhibition Place as an Extension of Body:  Linking London and Fukushima features documentation from curatorial projects that took place in Fukushima – Arafudo Art Annual 2013/ 2014 - and in Northern Ireland in 2015.  The exhibition also features her artworks How to know the distance to it and OYASUMI – Trees: This is the story of how I acted as an artist and worked on March 11th.

Yumi Song "OYASUMI-trees" photo by Yumi Song

As an artist, Song is interested in the ways in which we might visualise subconscious impressions.  Her work aims to uncover commonalities between people and places that are not immediately visible.  Spanning performance and installation, her artworks focus on instances of hope and joy - they celebrate life.  But this is not to say that Song looks at the world through rose-tinted glasses.  Song was born in Japan and lives in Tokyo, but as a Korean she frequently faces prejudice and been subject to hate speech.  Her father is a survivor of genocide during the Cold War. Responding to her family history, Song’s work often addresses themes of memory and communality – for example in 2016 she collaborated with artist Yisha Garbarz (whose mother survived the Holocaust) to make Throw the poison in the well a video work that developed over the course of two months in which the artists lived and worked together in Kyoto.   

In the residency exhibition Place as an Extension of Body:  Linking London and Fukushima Song focuses on the consequences of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in East Japan.  Through discussions about her practice, she draws attention to how the name ‘Fukushima’ is now used as a blanket term to describe a number of places, all affected differently by the disaster. In 2014 and 2015, Song spent time in Tsuchiyu-Onsen, working creatively with local residents.  Tsuchiyu-Onsen is a village in the mountains, historically popular for its hot springs and with the lowest levels of radiation in the Fukushima area.  Song worked with local people to playfully subvert some of the regulations in the village – she facilitated a wall mural (which some may have seen as ‘defacement’, by graffiti writer SUIKO) and encouraged local people to produce home-brewed alcoholic drinks made by artist Nobuhiro Kuzuya, which had been prohibited.  Media sources soon heard about the arts festival and throughout the summer thousands of visitors came to Tsuchiyu-Onsen.  The media presented the festival as proof that Fukushima was a safe place to visit and that it was once again thriving.  Whilst Song had hoped to provide a positive creative experience for residents and visitors, her aim was to engage with the repercussions of the disaster in a more nuanced and critical way.

Nobuhiro Kuzuya "Pioneer party fermented recipe"
Arafudo Art Annual 2013 photo by Kazuyuki Miyamoto

Song’s artworks explore the way in which corporal sense creates a perception of place.  Often her works unfold into participatory practices, such as the site-specific work in Deptford - How to know the distance to it.  In this piece, British cities are mapped out on the wall of the gallery piece and visitors can use wooden measuring sticks that show the distance between the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and Tokyo, to see the equivalent distances here in the UK (the distance between the power plant and Tokyo, is roughly the same distance as London to Sheffield).  OYASUMI – Trees This is the story of how I acted as an artist and worked on March 11th features texts from Song’s diary, in which she reflects on act of giving gifts (lavender bags in the shape of trees) to people who were experiencing loss and anxiety after the 2011 disaster.  These small acts of giving, of creating something tangible to share, also characterised her curatorial practice at Arafudo Art Annual.  Here local residents were encouraged to participate in familiar creative practices in new ways, and visitors to the village could buy ceramic artworks by artist Hiroyuki Yamada using an ‘honesty box’.  

Hiroyuki Yamada "Earthy radish" Arafudo Art Annual 2013 photo by Kazuyuki Miyamoto

In the following interview, Song further explains the context and implications of both her art practice and curatorial practice:

Your exhibition Place as an extension of body looks at embodied practices that respond to the disaster in Fukushima in 2011 – can you tell us a little more about you approach the relationship between body and place?

When I was deciding whether to hold an art festival, I talked with people living in Tsuchiyu-Onsen in Fukushima. They were not concerned with the actual amount of radiation, but they were worried that something invisible was entering their daily life. For example, the scenery that we see everyday can be said to be part of our body. We see an arrangement of the books on the shelves of our favourite library in our head, as if it is part of our body. We know the distance to nearest supermarket when feeling hungry. Although there is a clear boundary between my body and my environment (my skin) I think the actual boundaries in our mind are a little more ambiguous than we think.

I know a chef at the hotel in Tsuchiyu-Onsen who used to be proud to use local wild vegetables and fish. But his business has suffered since 2011, despite of the fact that Tsuchiyu-Onsen has not directly been affected by the earthquake, tsunami or radiation. The mountain still looks identical in appearance. But after the disaster, the mountain he knew became an unknown territory. The trouble is that the problem is invisible. The chef cannot move out of the village as his business is deeply linked to the mountains and hot springs, which cannot move with him. Everyday we experience the landscape around us as an extension of our bodies.  Invisible uneasiness and anxiety spreads over the ground. We thought about and discussed how to deal with this new reality and the changed relationship with the landscape around us. And we talked about the possibility of considering the landscape as a part of our body. 

You are an artist and a curator – do you see the two roles as different? Are there any ways in which they overlap?
Yes, they are different, and I do not exhibit my own artwork when I curate. However, when I work alongside other artists as a curator I use similar logic to my own practice, so there is a similarity in both roles.

What are some challenges you have faced as a curator working in Fukushima?

It was difficult period after the disaster to work as a curator in Fukushima. People’s hearts were still sensitive and delicate. For example, authorities in Fukushima City requested that we withdraw a video work by artist Kouichi Tabata in which rose flowers wither, as they thought it might hurt children's feelings. They thought the withering of flowers were reminiscent of death. In the end I managed to show this piece. Does this mean I have hurt children’s feelings in Fukushima? I do not know who will be hurt by a piece of artwork, and I do not know how to choose a criteria to measure the harm caused by the artworks. I question "what criteria should we use?”

Kouichi Tabata "rose" Arafudo Art Annual 2014 photo by Kazuyuki Miyamoto

What role do you think art has in responding to a disaster?

Art did not directly impact the recovery effect after the disaster. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, people needed to be given space and time and physical necessities were the first and foremost priority. People had to survive after the disaster. I first went to the disaster area as a volunteer to clear up the debris. I also helped to search for bodies along with the local fire brigade and took photographs. But I saw cases where the local evacuation centre received requests from artists who sent artworks/ projects with a box of supplies and asked the centre to send them a photograph of the local victims. It was obviously a real annoyance to the locals and as an artist I felt embarrassed by the actions of other artists. But then, after a while, around 2012, I was invited to Tsuchiyu, as they had started to make an effort to recover the local economy, which had been indirectly affected by the disaster. They approached me because they thought art might help the economic recovery of the area. I accepted this invitation as I believed that we had to reconfigure new moral frameworks after the disaster. And I thought art could help to view a world that had changed.

What plans do you have for 2017/ 2018?

I have been the director of an art museum in Miyagi pregacture in the north of Japan since 2014, so I will organize an exhibition there. And when I’ll go back to Japan after this residency, I plan to develop an old house in Kyoto as a space for art. The name will be “Baexong Arts Kyoto” which combines both my mother and father's family names. In Korea women keep their family name after marriage but children use their father's family name. In this art space the presence of women is as important as the presence  of men.  I started this project in 2016, using the space as a residency space and also hosting discussion events etc. I would like to develop this programme, and am hoping to find funding to run it as a proper programme in the future.