Tokyo, Seoul clash over artefacts taken to Japan during colonial period

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 November, 2013, 10:59pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 November, 2013, 5:14am

There is growing anger in South Korea over an exhibition of ancient Korean artefacts that are on loan from a museum in Tokyo, with a Japanese legal expert warning that "emotional" demands by the media are likely to strain ties that are already at breaking point.

"Both countries have ratified the conventions that cover these artefacts so the situation seems to be more legal than nationalistic, but the South Korean media is becoming more and more emotional and that is certain to accelerate the nationalistic tendencies," said Toshiyuki Kono, a professor in the faculty of law at Kyushu University and an expert in the trade of ancient artefacts.

Under the headline "Stolen national treasures come home for 90 days", The JoongAng Daily on November 21 said visitors to an exhibition of treasures from the Gaya period at the Yangsan Museum, in South Gyeongsang province, were "stunned" that the items were only on loan from the Tokyo National Museum.

The exhibition includes earrings, necklaces and a gilt bronze crown excavated from a nearby tomb that were confiscated during Japan's colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsula and transferred to Japan.

Under the treaty signed in 1965 by Japan and South Korea to normalise diplomatic relations, Seoul essentially gave the artefacts - and an estimated 66,824 others - to Japan.

South Korea requested the return of 4,479 items of particular national importance, of which just 1,432 have been given back.

There has been further anger over the Yangsan Museum exhibition after it was revealed that the centrepiece of the show, the bronze crown, is actually a replica that was made after the Tokyo National Museum refused to allow the original to be displayed in Korea.

Given the upsurge in anti-Japanese feeling in Korea, it was possible that a legal challenge might have been mounted to keep the crown in Korea, although the Japanese museum insisted that was not the reason for their decision.

"As we received a request from the Yangsan museum, we loaned 19 artefacts, in accordance with usual procedure," Katsuya Shirai, curator of East Asian Archaeology, said in an interview.

"As for the crown, it is not in the best condition for exhibition and it requires treatment," he said. "So we decided not to lend this artefact for conservation reasons."

The museum will undoubtedly have been monitoring the case of the Tathagata Buddha, which was stolen from a shrine in Nagasaki prefecture in 2012 by a South Korean criminal group.

The statue is believed to be originally Korean and the thieves were hailed as heroes by many in Korea. Defying requests from the Japanese government that the statue be returned, a local court in Seoul has ordered the South Korean government not to hand the artefact over. The case has yet to be resolved.