Japan from the inside out

Stolen fair and square

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, August 14, 2010

PRIME MINISTER Kan Naoto announced earlier this week that the Japanese government would “hand over” the Uigwe, records of the royal protocols of the Joseon dynasty, to South Korea. The Japanese governor-general of Korea took them to Tokyo in 1922, and few people knew of their existence or whereabouts until 2001.

As this detailed article on explains, however, the return of items such as these is not as cut and dried as one might think, particularly for older relics. An additional complication is that international law has been hazy on this issue until recently.

The article notes:

Over the past two decades, globalization, changing attitudes, and the spread of both international law and civil lawsuits have emboldened aggrieved nations to demand the return of cultural property seized by enemy forces decades or even centuries ago, and a few holders of these spoils have complied. Five years ago, Japan returned a Korean monument on the centennial of its theft during the Russo-Japanese War; three years before that, Italy returned a 3,000-year-old obelisk taken during Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia.


The fact is, there is no legal or customary basis to demand the return of anything plundered prior to the turn of the 20th century. Doing so successfully is ultimately a matter of public relations, of convincing whoever possesses the object that giving it back is the right thing to do.

“There’s no source of international law that clearly goes back before the late 19th century, and there’s no [international] statute of limitations that would get you back to the 15th, 16th or 17th centuries,” says Patty Gerstenblith, director of the Center for Art, Mu­seum, and Cultural Heritage Law at the DePaul University College of Law. “There are examples of things being returned from long ago, but they were done on a cooperative or moral basis, not a legal one.”


Repatriation becomes a more confusing undertaking for objects seized in the early 20th century, a period for which legal remedy is uncertain, but possible. This “gray period” spans the time between the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1954, a half-century in which the wartime plunder of cultural objects went from being frowned upon to being explicitly forbidden under international law.

As to the Uigwe:

The picture is further complicated in the early part of this period because most of the world was under colonial rule. For the colonized, this often felt like a belligerent occupation, particularly when independence movements were crushed with military force. But if a now independent nation seeks the return of objects allegedly plundered during such occupations, a former imperial power can easily dismiss a suit on the grounds that at the time the colony was, legally speaking, its own sovereign territory. Under such circumstances, claimants can turn only to the court of public opinion.

The French wound up with the originals of the Uigwe in the 1860s, and the absence of international law applicable for the time likely explains their insistence that they retain ownership and have only “loaned” them to the Koreans. The items in Japanese possession are copies. Meanwhile, were the Japanese of a mind to be ungenerous, they could claim that taking the Uigwe to Tokyo was merely a shift of the items from one part of the country to the other.

Meanwhile, here’s a Yonhap article about the Uigwe with more details about the items in Japan, but it does not examine the issues with the French.


Lest my fellow Americans begin to think that “we wouldn’t do anything like this”, here’s another excerpt from the article:

American forces took the three bells from a church tower on the central Philippine island of Samar during the Philippine-American War, fought primarily from 1899 to 1902 (although the Moro Rebellion phase lasted until 1913). For the past 13 years, the government of the Philippines has pressed for their return, so far without success.

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3 Responses to “Stolen fair and square”

  1. Ut videam said

    Meanwhile, were the Japanese of a mind to be ungenerous, they could claim that taking the Uigwe to Tokyo was merely a shift of the items from one part of the country to the other.

    Except, of course, for the inconvenient fact that Japanese and Korean scholars are in agreement that the royal edict proclaiming the annexation treaty was never validly issued, and hence the legality of the annexation is highly suspect.
    UV: Thanks for the note.

    “Japanese scholars”? EVERY Japanese scholar is “in agreement”?

    How many Japanese scholars?

    What was their general position before the issue of the seal arose?

    How many of these Japanese scholars determine Foreign Ministry policy?

    I saw a Japanese-language reference within the past week to a group of “American scholars” at a conference a few years ago who thought the colonization was not invalid under international law. Couldn’t find anything about it in English, however.

    One can also find an amorphous number of scholars who would argue the opposite based on their own bias. In some ways, academics can be bigger tools than attorneys.

    The previous post is one about the “scholars” who think the name of the Sea of Japan is the East Sea, for example.

    I’ve had a post on the back burner about a specific American “scholar” who takes certain positions about Japan in certain publications, and then takes positions 180 degrees opposite for other publications. With her it seems to be about burnishing her credentials in a politically correct manner depending on the audience. That’s another one I should get off my duff and finish.


    – A.

  2. Kakugo said

    Hello and allow me to congratulate on this wonderful website.

    I’d like to add a note about this whole “repatriation” saga.

    The Axum Obelisk was taken to Rome by the Fascists together with a statue of the Lion of Judah as spoils of war. During Haile Sellassie’s visit to Rome in 1961 both items were formally returned to him. The Negus, fully realizing the costs and difficulties associated with returning the obelisk to Axum, took the statue and left the obelisk as “token of friendship” to the City of Rome.
    After Colonel Menghistu took power, he asked the obelisk back. This must have been around 1973. Lot of negotiations followed and, again, it was agreed that Rome could keep the obelisk in return for an undisclosed sum to pay for “cultural damages”.
    Fast forward again to 1997, with a new Ethiopian government claiming the previous agreements to be null and void and asking again for the obelisk to be returned. This time the Italian authorities agreed.
    What followed was a saga of bumbling incompetence, corruption and just plain idiocy. But more was to follow.
    The obelisk was finally dismantled in 2003. Immediately after it was discovered that there were no means to get the large cargo to Axum: the port of Massawa was effectively blocked due to ongoing conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the airport in Axum was simply too small to house the large cargo airplanes which could carry out the operation and roads between Addis Abeba and Axum were simply unsuitable to heavy lorries.
    In yet another show of corruption and incompetence the Italian authorities paid to have the runaway at Axum enlarged to handle the large Antonov cargo aircraft which were to carry out the operation. Curious behavior from the same authorities which claimed to lack funding to even charter the needed cargo airplanes until the previous year.
    After the obelisk arrived in pieces, Ethiopian authorities again claimed they lacked money and expertise to put the obelisk in its rightful place. Yes, you guess it: the hapless Italian taxpayer (luckily with a little help from UNESCO this time) again paid for the whole operation.

    I sincerely hope the Japanese government will be smarter and won’t allow itself to be similarly humiliated and squeezed dry by their former “colony” when returning the Uigwe.

  3. Roual Deetlefs said

    Here in South Africa, the rich platinum mines (80% of World Production) is located in areas, that were once under the rule of the Matabele tribe. They were driven off into Zimbabwe by the Voortrekkers (my ancestors) in 1838. The present royalties of platinum is being paid to the Bafokeng tribe that was under Matabele rule. I do believe there is going to be a big legal tussle because of these royalties. We’ll just wait and see.

    One again thanks for a great article Ampontan, and the same to you Kakugo-san. I never knew about these things.

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