Japan vows to return ancient books this year

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Japan vows to return ancient books this year

Japan is sticking to its plan to return an ancient set of royal Korean books called “Uigwe: The Royal Protocols of the Joseon Dynasty” - which were seized during the Japanese colonial rule of Korea - by the end of the year, said Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara yesterday.

During his first meeting with the Korean press since taking office in September, the minister said he is “willing to return the books to Korea by the year’s end, if possible.”

The press meeting took place at the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

“The Japanese government is currently surveying the number of texts that can be returned, but first we have to go through the necessary process,” Maehara said, adding that a proposed agreement between Japan and Korea must first be submitted to the Japanese parliament.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said in a statement of apology released Aug. 10, to mark the centenary of Japan’s annexation of Korea, that precious books seized by the Japanese government during its 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula would be returned to Korea.

The Korean public was later dismayed to discover that only books held by the Imperial Household Agency of Japan would be returned, meaning books housed by public and national libraries are not likely to be transferred back to Korea.

Although experts believe that the gesture may signal a new phase in relations between the two countries, coordinating the books’ return may not be easy.

Last week, Japanese press said getting the agreement passed in the Japanese parliament within the year is “hopeless,” and Kwon Chul-hyeon, South Korean ambassador to Japan, echoed his words when he said during a National Assembly audit last week that it would not be easy to have the books returned within the year.

Maehara expressed hope that he would not be “battered with criticism” if it the books aren’t returned.

Japan previously said that all issues regarding what happened during Japanese colonial rule were settled in a 1965 compensation agreement between the two countries, which South Korean scholars have long deemed unfair.

Uigwe, of which Japan is believed to be holding 167 volumes, including 81 originals, is a collection of documents from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) and contains information and illustrations on formal procedures and customs, such as weddings, funerals, feasts and the royal family’s cultural activities.

The books were seized from a Buddhist temple in 1922.

There are currently 3,563 Uigwe volumes in South Korea, 703 of which are originals.

By Christine Kim [christine.kim@joongang.co.kr]
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