Koreans tend to eschew rational reasoning to make a special case in controversial matters with Japan. It may be somewhat understandable that they often become emotional when it comes to dealing with their former colonial ruler. Recent moves by Japan’s right-wing government to dilute its wartime atrocities and strengthen its claim to a group of islets controlled by Korea has exacerbated the public sentiment here.
Amid this antagonistic atmosphere, however, Koreans need to be cautioned against their emotional tendency. If not, they would find it difficult to attach convincing moral justification to their demands that Japan should face up to historical truth and repent for the suffering it inflicted on its neighbors. In this sense, it is undesirable that emotional approaches seem to prevail over logical reasoning in handling the issue of two ancient Korean Buddhist statues stolen from Japan last year.
In October, a Korean crime ring stole the statues from temples on the Japanese island of Tsushima and brought them here months later in a botched attempt to sell them to local private collectors. The police arrested eight of the nine thieves, retrieving the statues.
A local court approved jurisdiction applied for by a Korean temple to ban the return of one of the statues, which is presumed to have been taken from it by Japanese pirates in the 14th century. The other ― there has been no clue to how it was taken to Japan ― is also being held by the Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea pending a final decision on whether to send it back.
Raising a more reasonable voice, a local civic organization has argued that the statue kept by the cultural agency should be immediately returned to its Japanese owner as there is no suspicion that it was acquired in an unjust way. The group held a news conference Monday to press its argument, which we support as appropriate and sensible. The group’s leader, who is a Buddhist priest, correctly noted that sending back the stolen statue would help open a new horizon in efforts to retrieve Korean cultural assets plundered by Japan, particularly during its 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. It should be realized that the issue of retrieving cultural properties abroad cannot be solved by an emotional approach lacking historical, moral and logical grounds.
In this sense, it is right to return the other statue to the Japanese temple, which had cherished it for centuries. A document discovered inside the statue revealed it had been placed at a Korean temple in 1330, raising the possibility that it was taken away by Japanese pirates, who frequently looted the western and southern coastal areas of the peninsula at that time. Though many Koreans may feel disappointed and displeased, the record itself falls short of being the explicit evidence that the statue was plundered by Japanese raiders. It can also be hardly expected that the upcoming trial requested by the Korean temple to reclaim the Buddhist sculpture will figure out exactly what happened nearly 700 years ago.
Neither can the historical presumption be allowed to mitigate the theft by Korean thieves. There needs to be caution not to give, if inadvertently, the impression of encouraging or justifying the stealing of Korean cultural properties abroad.
Both of the stolen statues should be given back to their Japanese owners. It is only then that consideration may be given to asking for their return, especially the 14th-century sculpture, to Korea ― in a cordial and sincere manner. It would have made such a request more persuasive to send them back as soon as they were retrieved from the thieves without taking the legal step.
From a spiritual viewpoint, Buddha will certainly not mind where his statue is placed as long as it is viewed by his worshippers.