Author:Shimada, Makoto

This article examines the legal parameters of the organisation of art exhibitions in Japan. It considers the definition of a museum under Japanese law and looks at the legal aspects of the organisation of special exhibitions, including the Japanese National Indemnity Scheme and anti-seizure legislation. Issues of copyright in relation to temporary exhibitions are analysed and the article finishes by considering the vexed question of when certain artworks might be considered to be contrary to public order and morality.


    In Japan, there are four categories of museums; (i) institutions registered as 'museum' at a Board of Education (the 'Registered Museums'), (ii) institutions designated to be equivalent to museums by a Board of Education or by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (the 'Museum-Equivalent Establishments'), (iii) national museums incorporated and existing under specific statutes ('National Museums') and (iv) other institutions carrying out businesses similar to museums and having the word 'museum' in its name ('Other Establishments Similar to Museums').

    1.1 Registered Museums

    Registered Museums are those formally recognised as a 'Museum' under the Museum Act of Japan. (2) The Act defines a Museum as follows:

    A 'Museum' is an institution:

    (i) the purpose of which is to

    * collect and store materials concerning history, art, folk customs, industries, natural science, etc.;

    * exhibit such materials to public to facilitate education, study and recreation; and

    * conduct study and research on these materials;


    (ii) which is established by:

    * a local government (a prefecture or city);

    * a non-profit association or foundation or religious organisation; or

    * Japanese Red Cross Society or Japan Broadcasting Corporation;


    (iii) which is registered as a museum at the Board of Education located at one of the 47 prefectures (i.e. Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Hokkaido and 43 other prefectures) or of the 20 major cities (Osaka-city, Nagoya-city, Kyoto-city, Yokohama-city, Kobe-city, Kitakyushu-city, Sapporo-city, etc.) of Japan.

    In order for an institution to be registered as a museum at a Board of Education, the following requirements must be satisfied: (3)

    (a) It is established by one of the entities provided in category (ii) above;

    (b) It has artistic, archaeological, cultural, industrial or scientific materials necessary for achieving the purpose provided in category (i) above;

    (c) It has a director (l*kancho'), a qualified curator ('gakiigei-in ') and other personnel necessary for achieving the purpose;

    (d) It has a building (total floor space of which shall be, in principle, no less than 165 square metres), a site and facilities necessary for achieving the purpose; and

    (e) It is open to the public for at least 150 days a year.

    There are nearly 920 Registered Museums, of which about 570 are public museums which are established by public bodies such as prefecture, city and municipal, and the other 350 are private museums.

    While a registered public museum may be granted a governmental subsidy for operational expenses, (4) a private museum does not get any public subsidies, but it may enjoy tax benefits: for instance, local and property tax in respect of its site and building may be exempted. (5) A private museum may request that the Board of Education of its prefecture provide it with expert and technical guidance and advice in respect of establishment and operation. (6)

    1.2 Museum-Equivalent Establishments

    There are quite a few public and private institutions, having materials equivalent to, and acting for the same purpose as, Registered Museums. However, most of them are not registered at a Board of Education because one or more of the requirements provided in 1.1 (a) through (e) above are not satisfied. In particular, an institution organised or incorporated by any entities, other than those provided in 1.1 (ii) above, including commercial enterprises and individuals, cannot be registered. The Museum Act provides that such institution may be designated by a Board of Education to be a Museum-Equivalent Establishment, i.e. an establishment equivalent to a Registered Museum. (7) Under the same system, a museum established by the nation or a public administrative corporation may also be a Museum-Equivalent Establishment if it is so designated by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology ('MEXT').

    In order to be designated as a Museum-Equivalent Establishment, an institution must satisfy the following requirements: (8)

    * It has materials necessary for achieving the same purpose as provided in 1.1 (i) above;

    * It has a staff member equivalent to a qualified curator;

    * It has a building (total floor space of which shall be, in principle, no less than 132 square metres), a site and other facilities necessary for achieving the purpose; and

    * It opens for at least 100 days a year.

    At present there are about 350 Museum-Equivalent Establishments designated by either a local Board of Education or MEXT. However, only the legal benefit of being a Museum-Equivalent Establishment is to be qualified to enter into a government's indemnity agreement set forth in 4.1 below.

    1.3 National Museums

    Eleven national museums listed below are not Registered Museums under the Museum Act. They are incorporated and organised by the nation of Japan in accordance with specific statutes and are operated under the jurisdiction and control of MEXT.

    National Museums, including: (9)

    * Tokyo National Museum;

    * Kyoto National Museum;

    * Nara National Museum;

    National Museums of Art, including: (10)

    * The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo;

    * The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto;

    * The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo;

    * The National Museum of Art, Osaka; and

    * The National Art Centre, Tokyo;

    * National Museum of Nature and Science; (11)

    * National Museum of Ethnology; (12) and

    * National Museum of Japanese History. (13)

    1.4 Other Establishments Similar to Museums

    Under Japanese law, anyone can use the word 'museum' in its trade name or in the course of its business without registration or designation under the Museum Act. There are numerous institutions, facilities and business entities which designate themselves as 'museums'.

    For example, in many local resorts, it is common to find a souvenir shop with a name of 'XXX Museum'. In Yokohama City, there is a popular amusement park, named 'Ramen Museum' where Japanese noodle (ramen) restaurants from various locations in Japan operate at the same site.

    Apart from those purely commercial facilities, there are more than 4,500 public and private entities, using the word 'museum' in their name, having certain objects for exhibition and carrying on the same purposes as Registered Museums and Museum-Equivalent Establishments, but not registered or designated under the Museum Act.

    Although it is not necessary to be designated by a Board of Education in order to use the word 'museum' in the trade name or in the course of business activities, the prestige of being a Registered Museum or a Museum-Equivalent Establishment is important for organising special exhibitions. Generally, it is not easy for other museums to borrow valuable artworks for exhibitions.


    All the museums have certain collections of objects to be exhibited to public. However, there are only a few museums which own sufficient collections to provide substantial and attractive permanent exhibitions. It is not so common in Japan to visit museums solely in order to view their exhibitions of permanent collections. Almost all Registered and National Museums, as well as Museum-Equivalent Establishments, organise and hold special temporary exhibitions borrowing artworks from other domestic and foreign museums and other collectors. Generally, each museum organises special exhibitions at least twice a year and for the duration of a few months. The number of visitors during the period of special exhibitions accounts for no fewer than 70 per cent of the total number of museum-goers annually.

    2.1 Certain Features of Special Exhibitions

    The organisation of special temporary exhibitions of artworks at museums differs in several respects from the organisation of exhibitions of permanent collections.

    Firstly, special exhibitions are not always planned by the museums themselves. In many cases an exhibition plan is initially prepared by an independent consultant or a media company (a newspaper publishing company, etc.), and offered by the planner to museums. Most Japanese museums do not have sufficient funds, know-how and staff to plan and organise an interesting and successful exhibition.

    Secondly, a media company, such as a newspaper publisher or a broadcasting station, is normally involved as co-organiser of an exhibition. Almost all nationwide and local newspaper publishers have a special section dealing with art exhibitions and the staff from that section of the newspaper will frequently undertake the leading role in organising special temporary exhibitions at a museum or elsewhere.

    Thirdly, special exhibitions are quite often organised on a touring basis, i.e. the same exhibition is held in several museums in different cities. This is for the purpose of sharing costs for planning, arrangements of loan and advertising.

    Fourthly, borrowing artworks from abroad for an exhibition is quite expensive for Japanese museums. Normally, borrowing artworks from other domestic museums or from private owners in Japan is free of charge. However, foreign museums expect substantial amount of loan fees when they lend their collections to a museum in Japan. In addition, foreign lenders normally require borrowers to bear travel expenses of their personnel acting as courier to accompany with the loaned artwork. Costs for transportation of artworks and insurance premiums are also substantial.

    2.2 Related Parties

    The major players in the...

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