A statue of Buddha stolen from a shrine in Japan and smuggled into Korea has been returned to Japan.
In announcing the decision to return the stolen artifact, the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office said that it could not be determined whether the bronze standing Tathagata Buddha statue, dating back to the 8th-century Unified Silla period, had been taken out of Korea illegally. It also said that no one had come forward to claim ownership of the Buddha statue.
The statue was smuggled into Korea after it was stolen from the Kaijin Shrine on Tsushima, Japan in October 2012. The same band of thieves also stole a seated Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva statue, dating from the 14th century Goryeo Kingdom, from the Buddhist Kannonji Temple, also on Tsushima. The Japanese government designated the standing Tathagata Buddha statue an important cultural property while the seated Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva statue was designated by the Nagasaki prefectural government as a tangible cultural property.
The thieves were arrested in 2013 after the Japanese government requested an investigation and the priceless artifacts were recovered in a warehouse in southern Korea. Tokyo has since repeatedly called for the return of the Buddhist statues.
While the National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage, which has been holding the standing Tathagata Buddha statue, returned the artifact to Japan, the seated Avalokitsevara Bodhisattva statue remains in Korea, as a Korean Buddhist temple in February 2013 filed an injunction against its return to Japan.
In the case of the seated Avlokitsevara Bodhisattva statue, there is a record of original ownership by Buseoksa Temple in Seoan, South Chungcheong Province. The statue contained a record, discovered by a Japanese monk in 1951 while cleaning the statue, stating that it was created at the temple in the 1330s and was managed by the temple until the 1370s. Given the absence of a record of transfer of ownership of the seated Avlokitsevara Bodhisattva statue, experts assume that there is a high probability that the artifact was looted by the Japanese during the late Goryeo period. However, it falls upon Buseoksa Temple to prove that it was taken out of the country illegally some 600 years ago. If Buseoksa Temple cannot accomplish this by February, when the injunction expires, the Goryeo-period seated Bodhisattva statue will have to be returned to Japan.
Emotions run high when it comes to Korean cultural artifacts in Japan, many of which were taken out of the country illegally. The official estimate on the number of Korean artifacts in Japan stands at more than 67,000 items but activists working toward their repatriation suggest that the figure could be much higher.
Those opposed to the return of the stolen statues argue that they should not be returned to Japan since they were looted from Korea in the first place and have now returned home. However, keeping the stolen artifacts runs counter to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibition and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, to which Korea is a signatory. Furthermore, refusing to return the stolen artifacts robs Korea of the higher moral ground from which Korean activists have been arguing in demanding the repatriation of cultural items taken out of the country by illegal means.
In stark contrast to the Japanese government, which brought up the issue of the two stolen Buddhist statues at every possible occasion, the Korean government has been neither vocal nor insistent in demanding the return of illegally looted artifacts. A court ruling in Japan last year found that the Japanese government had hidden many important Korean artifacts during the negotiations for the 1965 Korea-Japan Normalization Treaty. The government should do everything it can to discover these items and pursue their repatriation.