Kunstsammlung NRW
Foto: Tadashi Kobayashi © Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen

#32 meets: Tadashi Kobayashi

Tadashi Kobayashi (born 1976) is a curator from Kobe/Japan. Currently, he is spending three months at the Schmela Haus in Düsseldorf as a fellow of the Goethe Residency Program. As a part of the Futur 3 program, Kobayashi is giving two lectures that offer insights into Japan's art world. His first lecture, held on October 22nd, focused on selected works by the Japanese artists Seiki Kuroda, Youichi Umetsu, and Rokudenashiko. In this lecture, he also dealt with the topic of nudity in contemporary Japanese art, with reference to the case of Ryudai Takano, an established Japanese artist, whose photo exhibition in 2014, which featured images of genitalia prompted police intervention to enforce the so-called "Law of Obscenity". Ultimately, the artist decided to cover up some offending artworks with rice paper.


For #32, Deniz Elbir interviewed Tadashi Kobayashi


Mr. Kobayashi, why are you dealing with the topic of nudity in Japan?

Because I believe that - precisely with regard to the significance of a westernized and globalize Japan - the mere existence of obscenity laws can mean a precarious status for art in Japan.


As you mentioned, Japan is considered a very progressive and technologically advanced nation. A very "western" understanding of progress is probably also manifested in the treatment of the naked human body in art. What distinguishes Japan from Germany when it comes to nudity in art and culture?

It is widely known that Japan is flooded with images of female nudes. Even when using public transportation, it is easy to find magazines showing semi-naked women. You can find magazines containing pinups and pornographic comics (Hentai) in every convenience store in town. In Japan , it's very easy to acquire erotic images designed to satisfy male desires. But I think these kind of ready availability and popularity of nude female images by no means stands for "openness" or "progressiveness" which needs to be maintained in order to respect freedom of expression and artistic expression . in Japan, nonetheless, obscenity laws still exists. You might wonder how artworks containing nude and erotic imagery could be presented publicly without violating the law . A judicial precedent dating from 1969 resulted in a waiver according to which nude and erotic images having high artistic quality are excused from obscenity charges. This litigation was conducted concerning the publication of translation of Marquis de Sade's, novel Histoire de Juliette ou les Prospérités du vice. Although this judicial precedent dealt with literary expression, it has also been applied to visual representations. In my view, this approach entails the risk of surrendering the right to define art to judicial authorities.

But there is another problem as well: obviously, we are utilizing a double standard when dealing with judgments concerning nudity. On the one hand, there is a wealth of erotic images catering to male sexual desire. On the other, we see a stricter approach with other types of representations of nudity, as shown by the case of Rokudenashiko, a female Japanese artist who works with sculptures of her own vagina. The tensions and police interventions associated with her work and exhibitions could certainly be considered a problem of gender asymmetry. If one treated the above-mentioned magazines and comics strictly in legal term, they would probably be regarded as illegal. I think they are just overlooked, while Rokudenashiko and Ryudai Takano aren't. But I want to stress that we must be careful in comparing these cases, in claiming that it is unfair to overlook those magazines and comics, but not the nudity found in some artworks, just because these magazines also contain nude images.



Because these kinds of complaints could involve the danger of bringing these kinds of explicit magazines under judicial control, even justifying imprisonment. Anyway, I believe that the relationship between obscenity laws and the freedom of expression guaranteed by Japan's constitution are in contradiction, and that we must engage in discussion in order to make things clear, open and fair.In 2014, after a police intervention, works by Ryudai Takano in an exhibition at the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art were covered up with rice paper. Are you of the opinion that such incidents contradict freedom of expression?

Of course I believe the case of Ryudai Takano - a well-known Japanese artist - represents an interference with freedom of expression. But I also don't think it's enough to just claim the right of freedom of expression. Japan is a country where the rule of the law prevails. On the other hand, the obscenity law still exists. A law is a law, however undesirable it may be. So what we need is a public discussion concerning the possibility of changing this undesirable law. As in other democratic nations, authority in Japan is vested in the people. Legislative power is invested in the National Assembly, and its members are our representatives. And I would like to praise Ryudai Takano's reaction to police interference. He made the issue public in a very clever and - I dare say - artistic way.


There are voices in Japan demanding that freedom of expression should be regulated on the basis of history, public policy, and morality. Are there legal base for distinguishing between artistic value and obscenity? How does this affect artistic practice and curatorial work?

Yes, this demands exist. But there is no written law, just the judicial precedent in 1969. But strictly speaking , the obscenity law of criminal Penal Clause 175has no general relationship to the definitions of fine art Today, the obscenity law seems old-fashioned and outdated, which is why some people are discussing changing or even abolishing it. As I mentioned before, it's very easy to acquire pornography in Japan, which is to say, this law doesn't work as a matter of fact. As a principal, freedom of expression is guaranteed by Clause 21 of Japan's constitution, which applies, needless to say, to everyone living in Japan. From a curatorial perspective, , I don't think it should be regulated by law. Legislators must not and cannot define who is an artist, what art is, and how artistic values are measured. I think the Clause 21 of our constitution is good enough.


How do you see curatorial practice in Düsseldorf or Europe when it comes to nudity? Can we learn anything from Japan, or vice versa?

Concerning nudity, I believe there are few obstacles or restrictions in Europe. I'm also a bit envious about the fact that museums and other institutions here don't seem very nervous about art or cultural critics or the demands of visitors .And even if they are nervous , they seem very confident when defending their curatorial activities. In contrast, Japanese institutions are so worried about avoiding scandal, they sometimes engage in self-censorship. Openness and self-confidence in curatorial practice is the most important things I am learning from Europe.

And vice versa: I find that in Germany and Europe, the fine arts seem very well-established. Not only as a fundamental human activity , but also as a specific world - the so-called art scene. This is not yet the case in Japan. That is why there many activities that challenge and broaden the boundary of the fine arts , which I find very exciting. This kind of instability isn't necessarily always a disadvantage, but can instead be seen as advantageous , as an alternative to the Europe's authentic art world. Someone might say that this idea involves a kind of Orientalism. I would also agree with that.