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The two-year battle to bring Tom of Finland to Tokyo

The gay icon’s first show in Japan opened on 18 September after years of rejection.

Image: Tom Bateman

"I thought it would be a fun and nice thing to do. I didn’t expect it to be as difficult as it was."

That’s how Tokyo-based curator Shai Ohayon describes the experience of bringing Tom of Finland’s art to Japan for the first time, a process that took over two years, from start to finish.

"There was a sense of feeling let down, of frustration, and of getting to a point where I was thinking I really, really need to give this up," Ohayon recalled.

As every museum and gallery he tried turned him down - or simply failed to return his calls - Israeli-British Ohayon, a Tokyo resident of 11 years, realised that he’d been living in a bubble.

"The people I work with, people I socialise with, from the art scene of Tokyo, they’re very tolerant and open-minded," he said. "Now it’s a little bit difficult to forget how little awareness there is in the rest of society."

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Image: Tom Bateman

Tom of Finland, real name Touko Laaksonen, was born in Kaarina, near Turku, in 1920. In an artistic career spanning almost forty years up to his death in 1991, Tom produced over 3,500 works, mostly featuring his trademark stylised, erotic depictions of men - sometimes explicit - usually clad in leather or in uniform.

Ohayon said that while the homoeroticism of Tom’s work made it hard to put on an exhibition in Japan, this wasn’t simply due to homophobia on the part of museum and gallery curators.

"In Japan, people find a way to avoid things they don’t like," Ohayon explained. "No one said 'eww, it’s gay!', but they did say it might be difficult, that their clients might not like it or people associated with them might not like it."

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Image: Finlayson

Dr Thomas Baudinette, lecturer in International Studies at Macquarie University in Australia and an expert in Japan’s gay culture agrees. Speaking to Yle News via email he said, "it all boils down to the arbitrary and heteronormative ways that obscenity is defined in Japanese law."

According to Dr Baudinette, potential exhibition venues could be put off by Japan’s strict laws governing the depiction of human genitalia. These are often applied unequally, he explained, particularly to images that deviate from social norms like the male-male intimacy depicted in Tom of Finland’s work.

"In 2013, a prominent gay bookshop in Tokyo was charged with distributing obscene materials because they were selling photobooks of nude men by the photographer Leslie Kee," Baudinette said.

Pseudonymous Japanese gay manga artist Jiraiya's work is on display at Tokyo's Tom of Finland exhibition. Image: Courtesy of the artist

In another case, authorities in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo ordered an HIV awareness poster to be censured as it showed a man in his underwear.

"In this context, I can understand why some gallery owners would be hesitant to display a Tom of Finland exhibition," Baudinette told Yle News.

Despite the obstacles, Ohayon’s search for a venue ended in success with a chance introduction to the entertainment manager of the Parco mall in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, who agreed to host the exhibition.

"He as well saw it as a rare opportunity to make a change," said Ohayon.

The resulting exhibition, Reality & Fantasy: The World of Tom of Finland runs at Parco’s Gallery X until 5 October.

'Change' is something the Finnish Institute in Japan, a co-sponsor of the exhibition along with the Finnish Embassy in Japan, is keen to focus on. In promotional materials it called Tom of Finland’s work "a catalyst for social change and the acceptance of gay people," and noted the "legal and social reality they were fighting to change."

Outside of the main exhibition of Tom's work, there are satellite events including webinars, a discussion panel, an exhibition of Japanese artists inspired by Tom of Finland at Ohayon’s own Tokyo gallery, The Container, and a party live-streamed from the rooftop of the Parco building on 25 September.

For Ohayon, the hope is that visitors to the Tokyo exhibition will come away with a greater awareness of the obstacles gay people face, and, in a country where same-sex partners cannot get married, of the ongoing fight for equality.

"I think that’s in the spirit of Tom," he said. "Tom of Finland’s work is all about positivity and depicting people happy, doing whatever they want, even when it wasn’t acceptable."

"Everyone should feel comfortable and proud being who they are because you don't control who you are. You just are. What's the point of not accepting you?"