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  • Jul 30, 2020

Japanese Prime Minister Look-alike statue in South Korea Stirs Controversy


The recent installation of a pair of bronze statues commemorating wartime victims of sexual slavery has come under fire, adding fuel to South Korea’s pre-existing strain with Japan.

Located in the private Korea Botanic Garden in Pyeongchang county, and commissioned by the garden’s owner, Kim Chang-ryeol, the work, titled Eternal Atonement (2020), depicts a male figure bearing a passing resemblance to the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, kneeling with his head bowed before a seated representation of a "comfort woman." The latter is a euphemism for the estimated 200,000 women across Korea and elsewhere in Asia forced into prostitution by the Japanese military during its occupations of East Asian countries before and during World War Two. 

In response to images of the sculpture, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga denounced the installation during a Tokyo news conference on July 28, warning that if the alleged representation is accurate, it would be an “unforgivable breach” of international protocols, negatively impacting relations between the two countries. The South Korean government has remained elusive on the matter. Foreign ministry spokesperson Kim In-chul maintained that “comity” should be shown towards foreign heads of states, but did not specify whether this applies to private citizens, according to The Guardian. Meanwhile, according to The Independent, the display drew some criticism among South Koreans who regarded the statues as “tacky” and “excessively provocative.” 

Garden owner Kim claims that similarities to Abe were unintentional and that the statues are open to interpretation, further adding that “The man represents anyone in a position of responsibility who could sincerely apologize to the victims of sexual slavery, now or in the future,” as reported by The Guardian. While he has canceled the public unveiling of the work slated for August 10, he insists that they will remain in place.

The artistic depiction of comfort women has been a focal point of dispute, as exemplified by the 2019 Aichi Triennale controversy. Titled “After ‘Freedom of Expression?’,” the exhibition’s display of previously censored artworks brewed nationalist ire in Japan, notably towards Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung’s sculpture of a seated comfort woman, Statue of Peace (2011), which Eternal Atonement resembles. Following anonymous threats of violence which prompted the Triennale’s closure in August 2019, heated debates regarding the freedom of artistic expression erupted, including the withdrawal of works by participating artists. While the show eventually reopened, the Japanese government’s Agency for Cultural Affairs (ACA) withdrew its promised JPY 78 million (USD 722,000) grant to the Triennale, only to partially reverse this decision in April by offering a reduced amount of JPY 66 million (USD 610,000).

Charmaine Kong is an editorial intern of ArtAsiaPacific.

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