The FBI Repatriates Looted Artifacts from Japan

The FBI, or the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Decided to Repatriate Nearly Two Dozen Pieces, Looted From Japan.

Mar 20, 2024By Angela Davic, News, Discoveries, In-depth Reporting, and Analysis
A vase, repatriated to Japan. Photo: Courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.


The FBI, or the Federal Bureau of Investigation, decided to repatriate nearly two dozen pieces, looted from Japan. More precisely, these pieces went missing from Okinawa, Japan, during World War II. The bureau announced the repatriation. It also collaborated with the United States Defense Department and the Smithsonian Institution to examine and return looted artifacts to Japan.


The FBI Did Not Disclose How the Family Got the Pieces

A scroll, repatriated to Japan. Photo: Courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.


The Federal Bureau of Investigation started investigating in January 2023. The investigation started when a Massachusetts family, which was not recognised, discovered some of the precious artworks amid their late father’s stuff in the attic of his home. Their father never deployed in Japan, but he was a World War II veteran. The bureau did not disclose information regarding who took the artefacts.


Also, the institution did not disclose how these pieces came into the family’s hands. However, the artefacts emerged with a scribbled statement explaining fully how they ended up in Okinawa. Special Agent Geoffrey Kelly, the art theft coordinator for the Boston field office, dubbed it the “Rosetta Stone” of his investigation.


A hand-drawn map of Okinawa dates back to the 19th century. Photo: Courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.


“There were some scrolls, there were some pottery pieces, there was an ancient map. They looked old and valuable. And because of this, [the family] did a little research, and they determined that at least the scrolls had been entered about 20 years ago in the FBI’s National Stolen Art File”, Kelly said. Okinawa’s Prefectural Board of Education previously registered many of the 22 looted items with the National Stolen Art File in 2001.

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A Repatriation Ceremony in Japan

A vase, repatriated to Japan. Courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.


The FBI discovered six painted scrolls from the 18th and 19th centuries, a hand-drawn map of Okinawa, and different pottery. “When taken together, they really represent a substantial piece of Okinawan history”, Kelly said. After being recovered by the FBI, the pieces headed to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Asian Art in Washington, D.C. Then, the Smithsonian examined the pieces and prepared them for proper shipment.


Colonel Scott DeJesse and soldiers from the United States Army’s renowned Monuments Men and Women carried the artefacts to Japan. The artefacts were presented to Japanese officials in a ceremony on March 15. A formal repatriation ceremony will take place in Japan at a later date. “I think one of the biggest takeaways from this entire investigation is the fact that in this case, the family did the right thing”, Kelly said.


Adolf Hitler in conversation with Japanese foreign minister Yōsuke Matsuoka, 1941, via Hitler Archive


“They had some questioned artifacts that they thought might not belong here in this country. They checked the National Stolen Art File. And when they realised that they may have been looted cultural property, they did what they should have done, which is called the FBI. And we’re very grateful for them for all the assistance they gave us”, Kelly concluded.

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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.