Shining light on colonial theft

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Shining light on colonial theft

It turns out that Japan hid a long list of cultural assets it took from Korea during the colonial period to avoid Korea’s demands for their return. Circumstantial evidence also suggests that Tokyo excluded our highest-value cultural properties when it returned some of the items after the normalization of diplomatic ties in 1965. A Tokyo-based civic group aimed at making public all the documents of the Treaty on Basic Relations between Korea and Japan posted a written judgment by the Tokyo High Court, which includes such information, on its website earlier this week.

In a statement written on behalf of the Japanese government and submitted to the high court, Keiichi Ono, director of the Northeast Asia Division at the Japanese foreign ministry, expressed worries that if Tokyo revealed the documents demanded by the citizens’ group, Seoul would most likely call for the return of the cultural assets which were not included in Japan’s original list when it returned some of them.

Ono also stated that some documents contained Japanese experts’ deprecating assessments of some of the books Japan returned to Korea in 1965. That strongly hints at the possibility that Tokyo tried to send back cultural assets with comparatively low academic value. Ono’s remarks - that if the way they were smuggled to Japan were disclosed, it could trigger an uproar from Koreans - also suggests the possibility that the works were simply stolen. After accepting Ono’s views, the Tokyo court overturned a lower court’s ruling that the documents be made public.

Korea and Japan signed a pact on cooperation in cultural assets in connection with the 1965 treaty. Then Korea demanded the return of about 4,000 items, but Japan only sent back 1,431. But Ono’s statement shows the Japanese government had a comprehensive list of our cultural properties to prepare for the demand for their return.

The Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation estimates that as many as 66,800 Korean cultural assets are in Japan. A considerable number of them were probably looted. Tokyo hid the long list of stolen items out of concern that if Korea had access to the entire list and the methods of smuggling, we would immediately call for the objects’ return. Now that new shocking facts have been found, our government must find out what really happened and hold Tokyo accountable for the deceit if necessary. Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the normalization of bilateral ties - perfect timing to raise the issue with Tokyo.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 30, Page 30

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