S. Korean Temple to Return Ancient Buddha Statue to Japan

S. Korean Temple Needs to Return an Ancient Buddha Statue to Japan, as Decided by the South Korean Court on February 1.

Feb 11, 2023By Angela Davic, News, Discoveries, In-depth Reporting, and Analysis
S. Korean Temple
Shiobune-kannonji Temple


S. Korean temple needs to follow the rule of law. A few days ago, a South Korean court ordered a return of an ancient Buddha statue to Japan. The court also rejected the temple’s claim, saying that Japanese pirates stole it in the 14th century. Overall, Japan can now send an official request for its return to its temple.


S. Korean Temple Requests the Ownership of the Buddha Statue

S. Korean Temple
The 20-inch gilt bronze statue was stolen from a Japanese temple in 2012. TSUSHIMA CITY BOARD OF EDUCATION


The artifact in question is a statue of the Kanzeon Bodhisattva. South Korean thieves stole the statue in 2012. They stole it from Kannonji temple, Tsushima. The statue is nearly five hundred years old. The South Korean authorities arrested the thieves in 2013. After this incident, the S. Korean government seized the statue.


The Japanese government, alongside the Kannonji temple, requested its return. But, a South Korean temple, Buseoksa, said the statue belongs to them and thus requested ownership of it. The temple said pirates stole it in the 14th century from their premises. A South Korean district court was the first court to discuss this matter.


In 2017, the S.K. The district court ruled in favour of the Buseoksa temple. Their decision looked back at the past and said it is possible and reasonable to assume they arrived at Kannonji temple through theft. But, another ruling took place on February 1. The Daejeon High Court also said there is a great chance that somebody looted the statue from the Buseoksa temple.


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But, the court decided not to grant the ownership of the statue to this temple. The court stated there is no original proof that the Baseoska temple is the same one from the 14th century. The decision also says that Buseoska needs to return the statue to the Japanese temple.


Japan’s Civil Code Grants Ownership to Japan

S. Korean Temple
The impressive Bell Tower gate at Kannonji Temple.


2023 The court’s decision says: “The defendant needs to deal with the issue of returning the statue in consideration of international law, norms, and conventions concerning the protection and return of cultural properties”. The court also said the statue peacefully remained in Japan for more than two decades before thieves stole it in 2012. Because of this, Japan’s Civil Code grants ownership of the Japanese temple.


“It was a very fair ruling”, said Sekko Tanaka, former head monk of Kannonji. “With the South Korean judiciary acknowledging for the first time that we are on the right side, we have been able to take a step forward.” Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said Japan will try to work things out with South Korea and finally resolve this question.


 gilt bronze statue
The 20-inch gilt bronze statue was stolen from a Japanese temple in 2012. Credit: Tsushima City Board of Education


Although it was not a direct participant in the lawsuit, the Japanese temple Kannonji contended during the trial that the relic was not obtained by pirates but rather through legal trade. Setsuryo Tanaka, 47, the current chief priest said the legend has it that the statue was given to a Buddhist monk who established the Kannonji temple in 1526 while travelling to the Korean Peninsula. The plaintiff could go to the Supreme Court.

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By Angela DavicNews, Discoveries, In-depth Reporting, and AnalysisAngela is a journalism student at the Faculty of Political Science in Belgrade and received a scholarship for continued education in Prague. She completed her internship at the daily newspaper DANAS and worked as an executive editor at Talas.