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Japan-South Korea confrontation over statue likely to intensify

Publication Date : 04-05-2013


Statue was stolen from Kannonji temple in Tsushima, Nagasaki Prefecture, and later confiscated by South Korea


Confrontation between Japan and South Korea is likely to intensify over a Buddhist statue that was stolen from Kannonji temple in Tsushima, Nagasaki Prefecture, and later confiscated by South Korea.

The Kanzeon Bosatsu Zazo--a Bodhisattva statue listed as a designated cultural asset by Nagasaki Prefecture--was stolen from Kannonji temple by a group of South Korean thieves in October.

But South Korea's Buseoksa Temple filed a court petition to suspend the return of the statue to Japan, and the Daejoen District Court in South Korea issued a provisional ruling in February to block its return.

Buseoksa Temple claimed that the statue had originally been plundered by Japan.

The court ruled the statue should not be returned to Japan unless proof can be provided that Kannonji temple acquired the statue in a lawful manner.

A document inside the 50.5-centimetre-high statue states that it was produced on the Korean Peninsula in the 14th century.

In January, South Korean police tracked down seven members of the criminal organisation that stole the statue. They are currently on trial at the Daejoen District Court on suspicion of stealing the statue and other cultural assets in Japan.

South Korea's Cultural Heritage Administration currently has custody of the statue and is appraising it.

A number of members of Buseoksa Temple in Seosan, central South Korea, claimed the statue was originally produced there and formed a committee to seek its return to South Korea.

The temple's priest, Wonu, who sought the provisional ruling at the district court, visited Kannonji temple in March, but was refused a meeting.

The Tsushima municipal government started a petition drive led by Mayor Yasunari Takarabe in mid-April that seeks the early return of the statue.

On Wednesday, Takarabe and other persons interested demanded that the Foreign Ministry negotiate with the South Korean government.

A parade of people dressed as the Korean diplomatic mission of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) scheduled for August in Tsushima was canceled due to the ongoing row over the statue.

The Kyushu National Museum in Dazaifu, Fukuoka Prefecture, also postponed the Baekje exhibition slated to be held next year.

Many other cultural assets that originated on the Korean Peninsula have not been returned to Japan after they were stolen.

There are now campaigns in both countries calling for the statue's "return."

Differing views

"A cultural asset gains value when it's situated in its place of origin," said Wonu, a 45-year-old monk from Buseoksa Temple, in April.

After learning about the Buddhist statue in a newspaper article about the thief ring, Wonu and dozens of his fellow Buddhists visited South Korea's Cultural Heritage Administration in February. But only five of them were allowed to view the statue.

"We filed a petition with a court for an injunction as we were concerned our government might comply with the Japanese claim and return [the statue to Japan]," the monk said.

He said his visit to Tsushima in March was intended to offer "consolation" to Kannonji temple over the theft of the statue and to learn about how the statue had been kept during its time there.

Wonu was refused access to the interior of the temple, but he said: "The statue had been plundered [from what is now South Korea] and taken to Tsushima in the 14th century, and was designated an official cultural asset [by Nagasaki Prefecture] in 1973. From this fact, we can ascertain that the statue initially wasn't viewed as important."

Meanwhile, Sekko Tanaka, a 66-year-old former head priest of Kannonji temple, said: "The value of the statue isn't determined by when it was designated a cultural asset. Its value comes from the fact that it has been respected and protected by local people for a long time."

Regarding the claim by the South Korean side that the statue was plundered, Tanaka said, "It remains unknown how it reached Japan, but the statue could have been given to a Japanese, as Buddhism was persecuted [in South Korea] during the Joseon dynasty."

"It is common sense in developed countries that stolen items are returned immediately," he added.

But he showed a willingness to be flexible, saying, "Once the statue is returned, we'll agree to hold talks [about its future]."

According to the Cultural Affairs Agency, Japan ratified the Unesco treaty, which obliges the return of stolen cultural assets, in 2002. Even if, as the South Korean side claims, the statue was plundered by "wako" Japanese pirates, incidents that occurred before the treaty's ratification do not fall under it. Moreover, the statue was stolen by the South Korean thief ring in October, an incident that took place after Japan ratified the treaty.

"This case does indeed fall under the treaty," an official of the agency confirmed.

At a press conference in late February, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said, "We'll call for the speedy return [of the statue] in accordance with international law."

Stolen items found in S. Korea

Many cultural assets originating on the Korean Peninsula have been stolen from Japan and taken to South Korea.

In 1994, the Buddhist scripture "Dai Hannya Kyo" was taken from Ankokuji temple in Iki, Nagasaki Prefecture. The artifact was then transferred to South Korea, where it was designated as a national treasure in 1995.

The Seoul Central District Prosecutors Office concluded that the scripture's purchase can be regarded as a bona fide acquisition under South Korean civil law, as the final purchaser was unaware it was a stolen item. Currently, a South Korean businessperson reportedly owns the scripture.

In 2002, a Buddhist painting designated as an important national cultural asset was stolen from Kakurinji temple in Kakogawa, Hyogo Prefecture. A group responsible for the theft was identified in South Korea. Local police searched a South Korean temple that allegedly purchased the painting, but the artwork could not be found and its whereabouts remain unknown.


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