Go to contents

Buddha statue issue to aggravate Korea-Japan relations

Posted May. 14, 2013 07:28,   


A Japanese civic group named "Liaison Council for Returning Korean Cultural Assets to Japan" announced a statement last week, which was not much touted about in Korean media. It said two Buddhist statues stolen from Tsushima Island in Japan and smuggled to Korea should be returned to Japan, while the restitution issue should be discussed separately. The council is headed by Shinichi Arai, a professor emeritus of Ibaraki University. The 87-year-old scholar has opposed to Japanese government`s history distortion for the past 20 years as he found 60 work logs that proved Japanese government`s distortion on Japanese sexual slavery on Korean women in 1993. The graveness of his statement can thus be well imagined. "This issue is leading to yet another emotional conflict between Korea and Japan. It will have negative impact on return of other cultural assets to Japan," he said through a phone. "I hope the two countries narrow differences by examining the issue together."

The statues had been supposed to be returned to Japan. But the Buseoksa temple in South Chungcheong Province claimed on the Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva statue, which was owned by Gwaneumsa temple on Tsushima Island, "The statue was originally made in Korea in the 14th century and enshrined in Buseoksa, but Japanese raiders stole it," and applied for an injunction of transfer ban, to which court accepted. Is there evidence that it was stolen?

On a phone interview with Buddhist monk Wonwoo at Buseoksa, he explained three reasons that it was stolen. "There is a rule to record transfer of Buddha statue In the Buddhist community, but the record showing that the statue is owned by Buseoksa is only found, with no record of its transfer. If it was a gift or donation as argued by the Japanese temple Gwaneumsa, why cannot we find any record on this? The fact that the head of the statue was damaged is also proof of its being stolen (by Japanese raiders)," the Buddhist monk said. "I`m not trying to support robbery crimes. If Gwaneumsa explains how it came to secure it, we will cancel the injunction application."

There is no document to prove how Gwaneumsa obtained the statue, however. Gwaneumsa argues Buseoksa’s claim that Japan stole it 600 years ago is a jump in the logic. Against this backdrop, Japanese media is stimulating Korean people`s emotions saying Korea is not returning the stolen good as some media report Korea is ignoring international law by engaging it with the sovereignty issue over Dokdo islets. When Buseoksa monks visited Gwaneumsa to explain the situation, this only caused side effects. The Korean monks had prepared a bronze Buddhist statue and a doll as gift and Gwaneumsa considered them as mockery.

With the issue becoming emotional, the Tsushima city cancelled the 32-year-long Korea-Japan cultural exchange event, which was due August this year. Japan`s Kyushu National Museum said it will postpone the Gudara (Baekje) special exhibition it had planned to hold jointly with the National Museum of Korea in the two nations in rotation in 2014 and 2015. This is because people planning to submit their cultural assets to the exhibition expressed concerns that if their goods are taken to Korea, they may not be able to get them back.

The Korean court must be perplexed as well over the worsening of Korea-Japan relations, which triggered diplomatic issues. But a fight was created over the ownership was created, the court made the ruling that the return should be suspended until the matter is settled..

While the matter is diplomatic, it is also an internal fight in the Buddhist circle. It Buddha were to solve this matter, what he would do? He would say, as Professor Arai said, "I understand Buseoksa monks. But why don’t you first return the statue. Whatever the reason, you would not want to take the stolen good back. Gwaneumsa monks, you need to take this case as a chance to reflect on Korean cultural assets that were stolen by Japan and kept in Japan. If both Buseoksa and Gwaneumsa build a foothold for trust between Korea and Japan, the world will respect the Buddhist circle."