Sun, May 29, 2022


Seoul must act with common sense on Buddhist statue issue

A South Korean court has handed down a ruling deviating from the common sense of the international community. This is yet another factor that could further dampen the Tokyo-Seoul relationship.



The Daejeon District Court has ordered the South Korean government to hand over a Buddhist statue stolen from Kannonji temple in Tsushima, Nagasaki Prefecture, to Buseoksa Temple in central South Korea. The ruling upheld the South Korean temple’s statue ownership.
Concerning how the statue produced during the Goryeo period was moved to Tsushima, the court presumed that the statue had been transported after being stolen or looted. The ruling is in line with Buseoksa Temple’s claim that the statue was looted by Japanese pirates in the 14th century. Even though there are records to show that Japanese pirates were active in areas around the Korean temple at that time, there is no absolute proof that they looted the statue. Even investigations conducted by the South Korean government found that the temple’s claim is highly possible, but cannot be proven. So the district court’s ruling is unacceptable.
It is unreasonable to refer retroactively to an incident that allegedly happened about 700 years ago to recognize the ownership of the statue without the backing of clear evidence. If South Korea is a country ruled by law, it should return the stolen statue to Kannonji.
South Korea has conducted education in Japan-related history asserting one-sidedly that Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945 was an illegal deprivation. One aspect of the current case could be that the ruling is pandering to the South Korean people’s anti-Japan sentiment, which has been nurtured by such education.
Japan has repeatedly called for South Korea to return the statue as soon as possible. The matter has become a diplomatic issue. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said of the ruling: “It was extremely regrettable. We will continue to call for an appropriate response from the South Korean government.”
Disgruntled with the decision, Seoul has appealed the case to a higher court. The South Korean government should proceed with concrete steps toward returning the statue to the Japanese temple without complying with its transfer to Buseoksa Temple.
Japan and South Korea concluded an agreement on cultural assets when bilateral relations were normalized in 1965. Under the accord, Japan has handed over a number of artworks, books and other objects deriving from the Korean Peninsula. They also concluded an agreement on claims and economic cooperation, thereby resolving property claims finally. In connection with the issue of where cultural assets deriving from Japan’s colonial rule belong, Japan has no legal obligation to return cultural property.
In 2010, on the 100th anniversary of Japan’s annexation of the Korean Peninsula, then Prime Minister Naoto Kan expressed a plan to return the Uigwe texts of the Joseon Dynasty, which stemmed from the Yi Dynasty, saying, “Japan will hand them over to live up to the expectations of the South Korean people.” The plan was implemented the following year. It was a goodwill action to improve bilateral relations but likely sent a mistaken signal that Japan would allow South Korea to make further demands.
Kannonji explains that the statue came from the Korean Peninsula as a token of friendship. Having been revered as an object of worship for several hundred years, the statue is designated a tangible cultural asset of Nagasaki Prefecture. If the statue is not returned to the Japanese temple, it will amplify anti-South Korea sentiment among the Japanese.

Published : January 29, 2017

By : The Yomiuri Shimbun Asia News Network Tokyo