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JapanFocus
Janus-faced Japan
[Commentary] Is the country a cultural 'guardian' or 'looter'?
Hisane Masaki (hmasaki)     Print Article 
Published 2006-08-18 11:41 (KST)   
Japan enacted recently a new landmark law obliging the nation to actively promote its crusade for the preservation of valuable foreign cultural assets. This is a welcome move.

Despite efforts made for many years by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and other organizations, there are still many sites, historic monuments and other vestiges of the cultural heritage common to humankind that are threatened with serious degradation, and even disappearance, due to war, natural disasters and environmental destruction.

The new law, the brainchild of renowned painter Ikuo Hirayama, was introduced to the parliament by a non-partisan group of lawmakers. Hirayama proposed the legislation because he felt distress at the destruction of two giant statutes of the Buddha at Bamiyan in Afghanistan -- dating back to the 6th century -- by the Taliban in March 2001 and the looting of the National Museum of Iraq during the confusion caused by the 2003 U.S. invasion.

Under the new law, Japan is expected to step up official development assistance (ODA) to help countries preserve and restore their cultural heritages, especially through the fostering of human resources in developing countries. Japan is the world's second-largest ODA donor after the U.S.

The new law is the latest in a series of Japanese initiatives aimed at elevating its international status. Japan put assistance for the preservation and restoration of valuable cultural assets abroad high on its diplomatic agenda clearly for the first time in the late 1980s.

During a visit to London in 1988, then-prime minister Noboru Takeshita unveiled his "international cooperation initiative," which made strengthened international cultural exchanges, along with increased ODA for developing countries and stepped-up contributions to peace, a major pillar of the nation's foreign policy. The Japanese initiative was aimed at deflecting a barrage of international criticism that it was not making sufficient contributions to global peace and prosperity despite its snowballing trade surplus.

Under this new policy of strengthening cultural exchanges, Japan began to provide financial and technical assistance to preserve cultural heritage abroad. In 1989, a trust fund with Japanese financial contributions was established within the Paris-based UNESCO. Japan has chipped in a few million U.S. dollars annually for the Japanese trust fund for the preservation of world cultural heritage.

While successfully scoring diplomatic points on the cultural front, culminating in the election of Koichiro Matsuura, former Japanese ambassador to France, as the UNESCO director general in 1999, Japan had long been far from serious about cracking down on illicit trade in foreign cultural assets at home. It was not until 2002 that Japan ratified a key international treaty banning illicit traffic in statues, paintings, manuscripts, books and other objects of historical or archeological value.

The UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, as the treaty is formally called, was adopted in 1970 to protect cultural assets against theft, illicit export, and wrongful alienation. It took effect in 1972. Japan dragged its feet on joining the treaty for 30 years. It was only shortly before Matsuura's election as UNESCO chief that the Japanese government began full-scale consideration of domestic legislative and regulatory amendments necessary to join the 1970 treaty.

Japan's ratification of the UNESCO treaty was aimed at shedding its notoriety as a global center of illicit trade in cultural assets, along with Britain. There was a growing criticism at the time that Japan was actually a looter of cultural assets because it was widely believed that many precious cultural assets stolen from troubled countries, including Afghanistan and Iraq, were being traded illegally in Japan. Japan's years of inertia on the treaty clearly contradicted its professed commitment to the preservation of valuable cultural assets abroad.

With no official data being released by law enforcement authorities, it remains unclear how much -- if anything -- the treaty membership has done so far to eradicate illicit trade in the world's second-largest economy. Critics say the country still has to do more to cleanse its image completely as a safe haven for cultural traders. There are two other international treaties concerning the protection of cultural assets that Japan has not yet joined -- the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, or the Hague Convention as it is more commonly known, and the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects.

Meanwhile, Japan also remains dogged by negative legacies of its militaristic history. The question of who are the rightful owners of cultural properties is not a thing of the past in uneasy relations between Japan and its Asian neighbors, which suffered Japanese aggression or colonial rule during and before World War II.

Earlier this year, a 2-meter-high stone monument, built in 1707 to commemorate Korean militia leader Jeong Munbu's victory over Japanese warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi's invasion force in the late 16th century and seized in 1905 by Japanese Imperial Army troops during the Russo-Japanese War from what is now North Korea, was returned to North Korea via South Korea. The statue had been kept at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where some 2.5 million war dead, including former prime minister General Hideki Tojo and 13 other Class-A war criminals, are enshrined.

The monument's return came at a time when South Korea and China began to step up efforts to recover cultural relics abroad, whether they have ended up in the hands of people or organizations abroad, legally or illegally.

Some South Korean experts claim that the number of known Korean cultural assets scattered around Japan totals about 34,000, most of which were unjustly pillaged during two periods -- first during the invasion by Hideyoshi Toyotomi's force and then during the 1910-1945 Japanese colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. Such figures cannot be verified independently, however.

There is strong dissatisfaction among many Koreans that when South Korea concluded the basic treaty with Japan normalizing diplomatic ties in 1965, it settled for the return of only 1,300 Korean cultural assets after Tokyo pledged US$500 million in desperately needed aid for economic development. Some experts say only about 3,500 cultural assets, including the 1,300 assets covered by the 1965 treaty, have so far been returned to South Korea.

In late 2004, two Koreans were arrested in South Korea for stealing precious goods from Kakurinji Temple in the western Japanese city of Kakogawa in 2002. Among the booty was one particularly important painting of the Amida Buddha from Korea's Koryo period (918-1392), which the temple had treasured for hundreds of years. The two Koreans insisted they were on a mission to reclaim pieces of Korean history, which had been appropriated by the Japanese.

Of the 130 odd paintings of the Amida Buddha from the Koryo period exhibited so far, only 13 are reportedly kept in South Korea, with 106 being held at Japanese temples.

In a handover ceremony for the monument of Jeong held in North Korea's Kaesong on March 1 -- the anniversary of the March 1, 1919 uprising by Koreans against Japanese colonial rule -- representatives from the two Koreas pledged to work together to seek the return of all of what they claimed were cultural assets looted by Japan during that period.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Fund for Recovery of Overseas Relics, a non-government organization devoted to the recovery of lost Chinese treasures abroad, also reportedly began to send a mission abroad this past spring, with Japan as the group's first destination. According to the organization, over 10 million Chinese cultural relics are estimated to be lost, mostly among private citizens throughout the world.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Hisane Masaki

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