Prime Minister Kan Naoto made an important statement on August 10, formally apologizing on behalf of the entire country for Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910 and the wrongs committed during the colonial period. In the course of this speech, he promised to “transfer”(1) some number of artifacts and documents seized by the Japanese during the colonial period and currently in the hands of the Japanese government.
This was a pretty major event, and stirred up its share of controversy, attracting attention not only from the Japanese and Korean media, but from Western and international media as well.
Putting aside the inevitable arguments about whether this apology was sincere, whether it’s enough, whether anything will ever be enough to satisfy the Koreans, focusing on this promise to return artifacts, there would seem to be two major issues. One, how many objects will the Japanese return, how many should they return, how many is appropriate or enough? Two, there is controversy over the fact that Japan is not offering to return any artifacts in private hands.
Let me address the latter first. I can easily imagine the arguments made against the idea that Japan should only return objects in public possession. It seems like a sleight-of-hand, a trick, a way for Japan to avoid returning objects just as illegally(2) stolen, as if it was intended, conspiratorially, all along, that certain objects would be sold into private hands precisely for the purpose of not returning them when such a “transfer” as this one now is proposed. Essentially, it’s choosing to look at it as a conspiracy, a sneaky plot, when really it’s nothing more than the natural way of things. People buy and sell things all the time, acting in their own best interests, and when it comes down to it, though the government can request private individuals to return objects, and could probably even force them to do so through legislation, it’s just not really done in any country (such as South Korea) that respects private property ownership rights.
As for the first issue, the more I think about such things – not just in the Korea-Japan case, but in the Parthenon Marbles example, and in most cases around the world – the more I think that returning objects to their country of origin should be done as a gesture of good will by the giving country, and not under pressure from the receiving country. It is only in the last 40 years or so, I believe, that we have any real system of international laws about the trafficking in stolen artifacts. When it comes to things that fall under that rubric – such as the Euphronios krater, purchased by the Metropolitan from a black market dealer who in turn obtained it from tomb raiders – it’s a completely different story. But when it comes to things obtained as a matter of conquest, imperialist activities, transfers of objects within a colonial empire, and the like, to put it plainly, you may not like it, but it’s legal (or, it was until after WWII).
Peoples, nations, have been invading one another for millennia, seizing artifacts in the course of the war or raid, or simply moving them within the empire after conquest. When these issues are discussed today, the lens generally tends to fall on the Western countries, and on Japan, as the possessors, or purchasers, of artifacts stolen from so-called “source countries”; two categories have been established. However, in fact, historically, of course, every nation has at one time or another conquered another nation, raided from them, or otherwise obtained objects not originally theirs. What can be said about Japan’s “stealing” of objects from Korea goes just the same for the US & Hawaii, the US & Japan for that matter, China & Tibet, the UK & Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, and, as a matter of fact, for hundreds of other cases. What about things the Vikings stole from Scotland? Is the modern nation-state of Norway responsible? What about objects stolen from Guryeo (Korea) by the Mongols (i.e. the Yuan Dynasty of China)? Surely, there must be some kind of statute of limitations on this. I hesitate to name any specific number of years, because, after all, what number could you cite, when the history of conquest was so different in so many different parts of the world? But surely, some limitation must be given.
Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely think that Japan should return these objects – especially the older ones, the rarer ones, the more historically significant or culturally precious ones – as a gesture of goodwill. But I think they should do so because it’s a good idea, because of what it might help lead to for the future, and not because they should feel morally obligated as if keeping these objects were a crime.
I visited the Bishop Museum here in Honolulu yesterday. The Museum is the chief museum of Hawaiian culture and history, and possesses the largest collection of Polynesian artifacts in the world. This summer, they have on display the only three wooden statues of the Hawaiian god Kū remaining in the world (most were destroyed when the Kingdom of Hawaii converted to Christianity and decided to burn all the idols of the old religion). One is owned by the Bishop Museum, and the other two are on loan from the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, and from the British Museum in London. Both of these two museums have extensive collections of Polynesian artifacts, and I think it quite safe to assume that most of these artifacts were obtained within the context of colonialist, imperialist exploration and conquest and such. I recall seeing once at the British Museum a Tuamotu canoe which is said to have been among the first objects brought back to Britain by Captain Cook and his men. Yet, notice that while the Hawaiian people can be quite up in arms about sovereignty and such in many cases, when it comes to relations with these museums, the Bishop actually has quite friendly relationships with the PEM and the BM. No one is angrily demanding that objects be given back, and no one on the other side has reason to fear that Hawaii is going to refuse to return objects they borrow. These Kū statues were rescued from destruction at the hands of Hawaiian Christians, and serving an important purpose of educating and inspiring people elsewhere in the world to know more about Hawaii, and to be interested in it. They were loaned to the Bishop Museum and will be sent back, and I am sure that over the years, plenty of other Polynesian artifacts have been, and will be, loaned, and returned, with amicable relations, no shaken fists, no demands for apologies… Maybe some other peoples around the world could learn something from this…
At least the Koreans are focusing on things taken in 1910-1945, and not shaking their fists about artifacts seized by a completely different Japan from a completely different Korea in the 1590s. That’s a step up from reports or arguments I have heard in the past.
(1) “Artifact transfer may cause friction: Ownership question could keep in Japan some Korean items seized during colonial rule.” Japan Times Online. 16 August 2010.
(2) I employ the word “illegal” here because it is a word very commonly used in this sort of context, and one which I am sure the Korean media (and much Western media) employs in this particular context. However, I include a note here because I believe that, technically, literally, it does not apply. When Korea was a part of the Japanese Empire, it was under Japanese law, and so the only way this could be “illegal” would be if it were in violation of Japanese law. During that time, moving objects from Seoul to Tokyo would have been no more unusual or illegal than moving objects from, say, Nagasaki to Tokyo, or from Arizona to New York.