TOKYO (Reuters) – A controversial statue symbolising “comfort women” was withdrawn from a Japanese art exhibition on Saturday after organisers received security threats, amid a resurgence of tensions between Japan and South Korea rooted in their bitter wartime past.
Comfort women is a euphemism for those, many of them Korean, forced to work in Japan’s World War Two brothels and is a highly emotional topic for people of both countries.
Japan says the issue was settled by past agreements and apologies but many Koreans say Japan did not go far enough and have demanded further compensation for victims. The current flare-up over the issue comes during a trade dispute between the countries.
“Statue of a Girl Of Peace” attracted a flood of complaints since Aichi Triennale, an international art exhibition being held in central Japan, opened just three days ago, organisers said.
The festival decided to remove the statue after it received “terror threats” by telephone and email, Aichi Governor Hideaki Omura told a news conference on Saturday.
“Yesterday we also received a fax saying, ‘Get rid of it fast or else I’m going to bring a can of gasoline and cause some trouble,’” Omura said.
The statue had been part of an exhibit aimed at promoting freedom of expression.
“There have been a growing number of cases in recent years in which artists’ freedom of expression has been curbed over concerns that their pieces might offend some viewers,” the Asahi newspaper quoted artistic director Daisuke Tsuda as saying before the festival opened.
“We are providing an opportunity for audiences to view the exhibits and judge for themselves,” he said at the time.
Relations between Japan and South Korea are arguably at the worst in decades as a trade row threatens to affect diplomatic work between the two U.S. security allies.
Japan last month imposed curbs on exports to South Korea of key high-tech materials and on Friday removed Seoul from a favoured trading nations list.
Tokyo cited unspecified security reasons, but its moves were seen as a response to a South Korean court ruling last year that ordered Japanese firms to compensate some of their wartime forced labourers.
South Korea is exploring all options in the trade dispute including scrapping an intelligence sharing pact, a senior South Korean official said on Saturday.
Reporting by Chris Gallagher; Editing by Frances Kerry