By Jeong Nam-ku, Tokyo correspondent
In an interview with the Hankyoreh on Thursday, 41-year-old photographer Ahn Se-hong, said “I still can’t accept it at all. I will carry on preparing for the exhibition as normal.” Ahn was informed by Nikon Salon on May 22 that his photo exhibition had been cancelled. Ahn photographs of South Korean comfort women were scheduled to be shown from June 26 to July 29 in Shinjuku, Tokyo.
Ahn had been aware that rightwing groups in Japan would oppose the exhibition. But he never believed, he says, that Nikon Salon would suddenly cancel the entire event.
It was in December last year that Ahn entered his photographs in a Nikon Salon competition. On January 24, Nikon Salon accepted his work for exhibition. For the next four months, there were no problems. Ahn started publicizing his exhibition, with activities including a lecture in Nagoya on May 19. That day, a large article on the lecture and exhibition was published in the local edition of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. Nikon Salon’s Osaka exhibition space also suggested displaying Ahn’s works from September 13 to 20.
Ahn had decided to display 38 photographs he had taken of elderly former “comfort women” at the exhibition. Since 1991, he has been photographing elderly women who were abducted by the Japanese military and used as sexual slaves. Between 2001 and 2005, he visited China seven times and photographed comfort women who had been left behind in China after the war. He told their stories to Japanese readers in magazines such as monthly Segye, but this is the first time his work was to be exhibited in Japan.
“I got a phone call from the organizer on the 22nd,” said Ahn “They said they couldn’t hold the exhibition. They said they would come and apologize personally, but I told them not to come because they said they would only apologize without explaining the reason for the cancellation. They said exactly the same thing in another call on the 23rd.”
Camera maker Nikon supports the photographic arts in ways including providing exhibition space for photographers through five Nikon Salons, in Tokyo’s Shinjuku and Ginza districts, Osaka and other places. “Even if there was some kind of pressure, it makes me wonder if Nikon is capable of leading the world of photography if it disregards freedom of expression to such an absurd extent,” said Ahn. He pledged to continue preparing for the opening of the exhibition until Nikon Salon gave a specific, written explanation of the reason for its cancellation.
In a phone call with the Hankyoreh, a Nikon public relations manager said, “It is true that we received several protests regarding the holding of the comfort women exhibition, but the decision to cancel it was taken in consideration of all circumstances.” It has emerged that, starting on May 21, many postings were uploaded to the right-wing blog 2channel criticizing Ahn’s exhibition and calling for a boycott of Nikon cameras. It appears likely that such movements influenced Nikon’s decision.
Japan’s right wing has long been a vociferous denier of the forcible abduction of comfort women. Since December last year, when South Korean president Lee Myung-bak strongly urged that the comfort women issue be resolved, it has been particularly vocal. In February and March, Japanese rightwingers held frequent demonstrations outside the Korean embassy in the Yotsuya area of Tokyo; they continue to do so every Wednesday. Rightwing groups applied pressure to Japanese pharmaceutical company Rohto when it used Korean actress Kim Tae-hee as a spokes model for its skincare brand Yukigokochi, leading to the cancellation of an advertising presentation that was due to take place in Tokyo on February 21. Kim created controversy in Japan when she commented that the Dokdo islets were rightfully the territory of South Korea.
Ahn said that the Japan Visual Journalist Association regarded the sudden cancellation of the exhibition as a violation of freedom of expression and had decided to worked with him on handling the matter.
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