SOUTH KOREA – JAPAN The theft of a Buddhist statue revives cultural tensions between Korea and Japan

South Korea’s Daejeon Court of Appeal overturned an earlier verdict: The object must be returned to the Japanese temple on the island of Tsushima. The decision divides public opinion. The Bodhisattva in question had been made in Korea but stolen in Japan.

Seoul () – The Daejeon Court of Appeal (South Korea) has handed down a ruling on the robbery of a buddhist statue, made in Korea but stolen in Japan, overturning an earlier verdict and underscoring how difficult relations between the two Asian neighbors can be. The mistrust is mutual, fueled by periodically resurfacing dislike and resentment, especially when it comes to issues of cultural identity such as the one faced by the Daejeon court.

The case dates back to 2012, when South Korean thieves stole works of great artistic value from the Kannon Buddhist temple, located on the Japanese island of Tsushima. They smuggled them into Korea with the intention of reselling them, but the Seoul police managed to stop them and confiscate the items. Although they returned some of them, Buseok Temple prevented the return of a Bodhisattva statue and claimed his original property.

Indeed, the statue dates from 1330 and was produced by the South Korean temple itself, located in Seosan, about 100 kilometers southwest of Seoul. According to Buseok, the statue had been confiscated as booty by Japanese pirates which had raided the coast of Korea and finally reached the Kannon Temple in Tsushima during the first half of the 16th century.

In 2016, the South Korean Buddhist temple, supported by citizen groups, had petitioned the Seoul government not to return the statue to the Japanese authorities and instead acknowledge its ownership to Buseok Temple. The following year, a lower court ruled in favor of the South Korean temple, sparking sparks between the two countries.

However, the Daejeon Court of Appeal recently overturned the first instance ruling recognizing ownership of the South Korean temple. Although they emphasize that the statue most likely arrived in Japan illegally, the judges consider that there is no concrete evidence that the current Buseok temple is also the original owner of the statue. The court also recognized ownership of the Kannon temple because for some 60 years, beginning in 1953, when the Japanese temple was legally registered, the statue was displayed “openly and peacefully,” which would make the Japanese temple a legitimate owner by usucapion.

In South Korea, where there is still strong anti-Japanese sentiment dating back to the colonization times of the last century, Public opinion is divided on the return of the statue to Japan.

The Buseok temple lawyer said an appeal would be filed, while the head of the South Korean civil and religious committee for the return of the statue said that “today’s sentence is difficult to understand and lacks legal logic.” For his part, Sekko Tanaka, former abbot of the Japanese temple, was satisfied but regretted that what is basically a simple case of theft has lasted for more than a decade.

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Written by Editor TLN

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