A Buddhist monk in South Korea has revealed on Jan. 20 that he has filed a lawsuit with the Seoul Administrative Court calling for the government of South Korea to return to Japan an ancient Buddha statue that was designated by Japanese authorities as a national important cultural property. The bronze standing statue of Tathagata Buddha was stolen from a shrine in Tsushima, Nagasaki Prefecture, by a group of Korean thieves in October 2012, also including another cultural property of Japan and of the prefecture, a seated statue of the Kanzeon Bodhisattva.
The artifacts have already been recovered from the thieves, who have already been imprisoned for the crime. But the government of South Korea still has refused to return the idols until Japan can prove that both items – which they claim have originated from the Korean peninsula – were legally acquired by its Japanese owners in the first place. The two statues are now being kept at the Cultural Heritage Administration of South Korea. This is why Hyemun, a 40-year-old South Korean monk who heads an advocacy group for the repatriation of cultural properties, had initially filed an administrative appeal after a court upheld prison sentences for three of the convicted men in November. In his appeal, the monk is demanding that the South Korean government immediately return the Tathagata Buddha statue to Kaijinjinja shrine.
The Cultural Heritage Administration of South Korea rejected his initial appeal, saying that they will be waiting for the outcome of the cases, which may point to the legal purchase of the statues by its Japanese owners or prove that they were illegally acquired in the first place. “After the ruling by the Supreme Court of Korea comes, we will consider it along with relevant laws and regulations,” the Cultural Heritage Administration said at that point.
Hyemun said that his next move has been to file an administrative lawsuit with the Seoul Administrative Court. “It is obvious that the Buddha statues are stolen properties,” he said. “We believe that they should be returned to where they belong.” As for the other stolen statue, a South Korean temple that claims to be its original owner has sought a court injunction to prevent its return to Japan. In February last year, the Daejeon District Court issued the said injunction, thereby stopping any effort to return it to Japan. And in October last year, South Korean Culture Minister Yoo Jin-Ryong was roundly criticized by the Korean public when he implied that the “rational” solution to the issue would be to return the statues to Japan.