[Column] Japan takes a small step forward in history
The author is a Tokyo correspondent for the JoongAng Ilbo.
A subtle change was noticed in Japan as voices for improvement in South Korea-Japan ties gain ground. After staying mum on its history of aggression, the Japanese government has allowed schools to address the issue of returning Korean cultural assets.
Amid endless controversy over the restitution of Korea’s cultural properties and artifacts taken during the colonial rule, a few high schools in Japan have begun to touch upon the sensitive issue since last year. A related issue was also included in the entrance exam for Kyushu University last year.
In its sourcebook for high school history classes, Tokyo Horei Publishing, a provider of school textbooks and handbooks, included a section on the return of cultural properties for the second straight year. The publishing house is the first Japanese publisher to deal with the stolen treasures. The sourcebook is reference material for high school students. A high school in Kanagawa Prefecture actually used the guidebook as teaching material last year. The publisher based in Tokyo and Nagano is a midsized publisher founded in 1948 after Japan was defeated in World War II.
The section on the theme starts with the question where cultural assets should be? Mentioning the ongoing multiple restitution claims over the world’s best-known museums, including the British Museum and Louvre Museum, the section explains examples of colonial rule and legacy. The section introduces the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, which was adopted in 1970 by the Unesco.
The 1970 Unesco Convention mandates “appropriate steps to recover and return” of any “stolen cultural property that has been inventoried by a museum or cultural or religious institution in another state party.” (South Korea ratified the convention in 1983.) The reference book in Japan explained about France’s return of cultural artifacts in 2021 to its former colonies in West Africa. The book also introduced Japan’s pledge to return ancient documents to Korea in 2010 to imply the global trend of the restitution of cultural assets taken from another country.
After an agreement during a summit between President Lee Myung-bak and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan in 2010, nearly 1,200 ancient documents of Korea, including 150 copies of Uigwe — Joseon Dynasty royal texts — came home the following year, 90 years after the colonial government took them in 1922. The Overseas Korea Cultural Heritage Foundation estimates that 229,655 Korean artifacts and cultural assets are in foreign countries. Among them, 95,622 or 41 percent, are held at Tokyo National Museum and other Japanese institutions as of January.
In another development, a related topic came up in an entrance exam at Kyushu University last year. It asked applicants to write their opinion on how to address the issue after explaining various types of stolen artifacts at display in major institutions, including the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
A gilt-bronze hat from the Shilla Dynasty, a part of the Ogura collection on display at the Korean Gallery of the Tokyo National Museum. [KIM HYUN-YE]
Akira Igarashi, a Japanese historian who wrote a book on the issue of restitution, said that Japan took an important step of joining the global trend of returning cultural properties to the countries of their origin. “The fact that the issue came up in college entrance exams means students must know the theme, which is a positive direction,” he said.
He spoke on the Ogura collection at the Korean Gallery of the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park. Half of what is at display in the museum came from Takenosuke Ogura, a Japanese businessman who had built huge wealth with his business in Daegu during the colonial period. After his death in the early 1980s, his family donated nearly 1,100 cultural properties taken from Korea. They include a golden hat from the Gaya confederacy (42-532), a gilt-bronze hat from the Unified Silla Period (676-935) and the daily hat of King Gojong (1852-1919). Some of them are listed as Japan’s national treasures. Seoul asked for the return of the Ogura collection at the time of the basic treaty in 1965, but Tokyo refused, citing them to be an individual property.
Igarashi maintained that the national museum in Tokyo must clarify how Korea’s cultural assets arrived here and if the Japanese government cannot clarify their origin as they were taken illegally, Japanese people must know that.
He pointed to a memo Ogura left. Ogura kept records on his collection list. Ogura explained that a wooden tea table was taken from the Gyeongbok Palace after Japanese assassins killed Queen Min. “Since there is a record showing they are stolen properties, they should not be displayed at a national museum and must be returned to their original country,” he said. “If the cultural properties really could not be returned as they belonged to individuals in the 1960s, they can be returned now as they are property of a national institution.”