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"Stolen" Buddhist statue raise friction between Japan and South Korea

by Emi Hailey Hayakawa, BTN, March 30, 2013

Seoul, South Korea -- In October 2012, a bronze standing statue of Tathagata Buddha, designated an important cultural property by the Japanese government, from Kaijinjinja shrine, and a seated statue of the Kanzeon Bodhisattva, designated a tangible cultural property by Nagasaki Prefecture, from Kannonji temple were stolen by a theft ring of five South Koreans causing further diplomatic dispute between Japan and Korea.

Kaijinjinja shrine and Kannonji temple are located on Tsushima island, Nagasaki prefecture, which is a small island that lies between Japan and Korea.

The monks of Buseok Temple  of Seosan, South Chungcheong Province claims that the statues were made in their temple but stolen by Japanese invaders during the 14th century.  On February 26th, 2013 the Daejeon District Court ruled in favor of the Buseok Temple in South Korea's southwestern province, saying that the Kanzeon Bodhisattva statue should not be returned until it becomes clear through legal proceedings that the Kannonji temple in Tsushima, Nagasaki Prefecture acquired it in a lawful manner.

The Cultural Heritage Administration of South Korea stated that they had planned to return the statues to Japan once it had been confirmed stolen. However, the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism urged the South Korean government to investigate how the statues were acquired by the temple and shrine in Tsushima in the first place.

The Buddhist community of Seosan, South Chungcheong Province and Buseok monastery have formed an anti-return group of the two statues and had an internal meeting at the Buddhist History and Cultural Memory Hall of Jogye Order of the Korean Buddhism in Seoul. During this meeting, they have decided to voice their opinions on why the statues should remain in Korea.

Ven. Jugyung states that “.. the seated statue of the Kanzeon Bodhisattva has made its difficult journey back to Korea. Although this situation is difficult, we are working hard to turn this situation for the best.”

Ven. Wonwu of Buseok Temple hopes that the statue will not cause further diplomatic dispute between Japan and Korea, but a beginning of a different and innovative relationship between the two countries.

Former lawmaker, Kim Won-ung emphasized that returning the Buseok Temple’s statue should not simply be a Buddhist matter, but a governmental matter. He goes on to state, “I dont think this is simply an issue concerning only the Buddhist community. I believe this includes sentiments from Korea being invaded and plundered in the past.”

Ven Doshin visited the Kannonji temple to find a diplomatic way to resolve this issue however he was unable to meet with the abbot of Kannonji temple.

Ven. Doshin states, “I believe communication is very much necessary in the Religious communities for both countries.”

Asahi shinbun stated that on March 15th, Ven Wonu brought a set of three miniature female figures sold as the temple's mascots along with a bronze Buddha statue made by an artist more than 20 years ago.

"We intended to give them to the temple as souvenirs. We wanted to offer our consolation," Wonu said.

But the visit failed to mend fences, as the Kannonji temple refused to meet the South Korean visitors, saying, "(Their visit is) nothing more than a performance to justify their claim that the statue belongs to them."

The Korean Buddhist community plans to hold various seminars, urge the South Korean government for an official document to Japan for the Buddhist statues to remain in Korea.

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