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Japan Returns Looted Documents after 100 Years
It`s easy to get robbed but trying to reclaim lost items is quite a different matter, not to mention it may take ages for them to be returned. On December 6, however, a pile of books did return. On this day, Japan gave back 1,200 ancient Korean books.
These books had been stored at Japan`s Imperial Household Agency after they were taken away during the Japanese colonial period. They include 167 volumes of 81 royal protocols, called uigwe, of the Joseon Dynasty; 938 volumes of 66 titles taken by then Resident-General Ito Hirobumi; 99 volumes of two editions of “Jeungbo munheon bigo” (Expanded Reference Compilation of Documents); and one volume of “Daejeon hoetong” (Comprehensive Collection of National Codes).
In October, on the occasion of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda`s visit, Japan returned “Daerye uigwe” (The Royal Protocol on Grand Wedding, 1 volume), “Wangseja garye dogam uigwe” (The Royal Protocol on the Wedding of Crown Prince, 2 volumes) and “Jeongmyo eoje” (Handwritten Texts by King Jeongjo, 2 volumes).
It was the second time this year that a massive amount of looted relics has returned to Korea. In April and May, books taken away by French sailors from Oegyujanggak, the Joseon Dynasty royal archives on Ganghwa Island, 145 years ago came back. These repatriated relics are a reflection of the nation`s painful history. It is hoped that their return will help increase our self-esteem and drum up renewed efforts to cement the foundation for co-prosperity with neighbors.
Regarding the terms of return, there is a significant difference between France and Japan. France returned the Oegyujanggak books on the condition of permanent lease from the National Library of France, while Japan transferred full ownership. France therefore maintains possession of the returned books and Korea must renew their lease every five years. But Japan handed over ownership to the Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea.
The return of the Joseon royal protocols is all the more significant as they will add to the value of the entire uigwe that are placed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. It also is noteworthy that with the latest batch, all of the books taken by Ito, the first resident-general and the chief instigator of aggression, have been returned.
Ninety volumes of 11 titles from among the books seized by Ito were returned in 1965, in accordance with an “agreement on cultural properties” signed by Korea and Japan earlier that year. It is truly fortunate that all the remaining books have now returned home. Japan deserves due recognition for faithfully delivering on former Prime Minister Naoto Kan`s promise in August last year to repatriate the books to mark the centenary of Japan`s annexation of Korea.
The return of these priceless cultural assets indeed warrants much fanfare and celebration. But more important is what lies ahead. All parties concerned should pool their wisdom to find ways to carefully preserve the repatriated books and make them fully demonstrate their value. Among the most immediate tasks is to decide where to keep the books. The Cultural Heritage Administration and the Buddhist community are waging a war of nerves over the question.
The Cultural Heritage Administration seemingly believes that all repatriated books should be kept at one place to increase their significance, whereas the Buddhist community asserts the books from Japan should be returned to their original royal archives on the grounds of Woljeong Temple on Mt. Odae. The Buddhist circles have a strong voice because they mounted vigorous efforts to get back overseas Korean cultural assets over the years.
It is hoped that the two sides will cooperate sincerely to find the best possible solution in consultation with the cultural circles. Furthermore, the return of the ancient books should be a wakeup call for Korea to step up efforts to bring back its cultural properties illegally taken out of the country, which have been tallied at approximately 14,000 pieces. These efforts should include careful documentation of unidentified artifacts and precise investigations into how they were taken away.