Buddhist monk leads effort to retrieve Ogura collection

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Buddhist monk leads effort to retrieve Ogura collection

Uigwe books that detail the protocols for Joseon Dynasty royal ceremonies and rites were once in the possession of the Imperial Household Agency of Japan. And an Ohdaesan version of the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty once belonged to the University of Tokyo. These are a few of the major Korean treasures that were taken to Japan and returned. The Uigwe books were returned in 2011, while the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty came back to Korea in 2006.

Buddhist monk Hye Moon of Bongseon Temple in Namyangju, Gyeonggi, who leads the Committee for the Return of Korean Cultural Property that he founded in 2006, played a crucial role in the return of the two important cultural properties. He worked as a member of “Repatriation Committee of Uigwe Books” and a similar entity for the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, and flew to Japan about 40 times as part of the campaign to return them.

Last year, the Korean government recognized his role and awarded him the Order of Civil Merit, Magnolia Medal.

The religious leader says his next target is the Ogura collection, which includes the helmet and the armor of Gojong (1852-1919), the last king of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) and the first emperor of the Daehan Empire (1897-1910).

Q. Why are you particularly focused on Korea’s imperial artifacts? Are you saying Korea should push for the return of only part of the Ogura collection?

A. The emperor’s helmet and armor are the symbol that he was the commander-in-chief of the state’s forces. It also represents a country’s sovereignty. So far, there are no such relics that remain in Korea. It bears great importance not just as a symbol, but as a cultural property.

It would be best to get back the entire collection, but is realistically difficult. That is why we are demanding the emperor’s helmet and armor and artifacts from the ancient tombs of Changnyeong, South Gyeongsang, for now, which are very likely to be the work of robbers or stolen goods.

Some people say it’s better to organize joint research, give it time and resolve the issue on good will. What do you say to that?

I respect their opinions. But how many cultural properties did Japan return to Korea out of good will? We were only able to get back the Uigwe books and the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty because we repeatedly delivered to Japan the rational and justifiable reason why they have to be returned. It is important to make Japan realize their wrongdoing first. I believe the Ogura collection is the symbol of Korea-Japan relations 2.0 [or the new chapter of Korea-Japan relations].

Some countries with imperialist pasts like the U.S., U.K. and France claim that it should also be recognized that cultural properties have been preserved well thanks to their museums and specialists.

It is immoral to say that. In the case of the Odaesan version of the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty that Japan took from us, a large portion of it was burned in the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake, whereas the other two versions that Korea kept, the Jeongjoksan and Taebaeksan versions, were well-preserved even as the country suffered the Korean War [1950-53]. Also, France - which had the Uigwe books - did not have an exact idea of the books’ history and value.

The movement to return the cultural properties to their home countries is the process of healing the painful past for the countries that went through colonial rule. Our committee tries to go beyond just repatriating cultural properties but also deliberates on why the cultural properties have to be returned and what kind of messages they have for our people.

By Lee Chul-jae, Kim Hyung-eun [hkim@joongang.co.kr]
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