If I ask you ‘What country do you come up first when you think of East Asia?’, what would you answer? I probably assume that most people would say China or Japan in the first place. I understand both countries are the powers of Asia and the world. However, the country, I would like to talk about is Korea, a small peninsula country in East Asia, but sturdy. Even though the tiny territory is divided now as North and South by the Korean War, Korean cultural assets are all over the world. As Korea has a long journey of history that is over than 4,000 years history from Gojoseon (first ancient Korean Kingdom on the Korean Peninsula), for sure the nation has plenty of various cultural heritages and arts. Also, as there was the time of Korea under Japanese rule, during the time lots of cultural assets were lost or leaked out. “According to the Cultural Heritage Administration of the Republic of Korea (South Korea), about 168,330 Korean cultural assets are all over the world, and 71,422 numbers approaching about half of them are in Japan as of September 2018.”1 The most Korean cultural assets in Japan mostly plundered in the colonial time (1910-1945).
Then, how did the cultural assets plunder by Japan? Ogura collection is a well-known example shows that how the cultural assets were flown into Japan. Before talking about what the Ogura collection is, you better who Takenosuke Ogura was. His life shows how an individual take advantages from corrupt government.
“Takenosuke Ogura, (1870 to 1964).”2
“Takenosuke Ogura, was a businessman who extorted about 1,100 Korean artifacts.”3 “Ogura was a powerful capitalist in Daegu, who came over Joseon dreaming of ‘becoming wealthy overnight’. he was a reliable and verifiable person who had graduated from the Imperial University. Using his human network of the law department
including seniors, juniors and classmates in the key posts of the colonial government organization, such as the Japanese Government-General of Korea, Joseon Bank, Siksan Bank, and the Oriental Development Company, Ogura could take over an advantageous position for enterprise activities in Joseon by obtaining the right of the electricity business, merging electricity companies, gaining a subsidy, and borrowing funds. He can be said to have been a typical case of ‘Gwangyeongyuchak’, a corrupt relationship between political and business circles in Joseon. “4
His influence never stopped there; his power and money not only used for making more money in a short time but also used for extorting and collecting Joseon’s cultural assets. His company was one of the most influential companies in that time. His wealth being used for tomb robbery and sort of illegal ways, it committed under the silence of the Japanese Government General of Joseon. He collected thousands of treasures and arts widely until Japan defeated, and it was already well known in his time. He carried out about a thousand of his collection to Japan until the independence of Korea. He even said in an interview with Korean media in the 1960s, he felt more to be desired to bring more Korean cultural assets that he left in Daegu, Korea. “The collection includes some of the most important treasures of Korea from ancient and modern times. In the part of the collection, he even owned heritages of the Joseon Dynasty. Furthermore, 39 pieces of his collection designated as Japanese state treasures.”5
“Ancient tombs in Pyongyang excavated by Japanese Government, today’s North Korea.”6
“Joseon Dynasty (1392 to 1910), Youngbongmunjeongtugu (Helmet), The Art collection of Takenosuke Ogura, Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo, Japan.”7“The helmet bears a dragon-shaped white jade ornament on the front. Historians say the armor belonged to the highest authority in the royal court. In other words, it must have been worn by either the king or the crown prince. They also say it was likely worn during ceremonies rather than during battle.”8
“Joseon Dynasty (1392 to 1910), Ikseongwan (winged cap), The Art collection of Takenosuke Ogura, Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo, Japan.”9 “Ikseongwan was the hat that the king and crown prince wore with their daily wardrobe, or Gonryongpo (a royal robe). Records show that this hat belonged to Itaewang, or King Itae, which refers to Gojong, the 26th king of the Joseon Dynasty, and the first emperor of the Daehan Empire (1897 to 1910).”10
“Joseon Dynasty (1392 to 1910), Armor, The Art collection of Takenosuke Ogura, Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo, Japan.”11 The armor also decorated with dragon-shaped decorations. It is also assumed to belong to the highest authority in the royal court.
Even though it could be sensitive and sounded kind of political or aggressive problem between Koreans and Japanese, there are reasons that I am a little bit obsessed with this problem. First, human beings always have wondered about where we are belonging and where the individual came from. History is the root of each individual and nations, also it is important for us to feel a sense of belonging. Thus, as a human being I just wanted to understand myself better and feel sense of belonging. Koreans often say, ‘A nation that forgets its past has no future.’, so it seems to be a really important matter to us as once our ancestors ruled by another country in the past. Besides, returning cultural assets can help the nation establish a national identity. That can contribute the citizens to feel having a stronger attachment to each other in society. Also, individuals have a higher possibility to reconsider national pride.
Now, in your minds, how can the Korean government take back their treasures to their arms? Usually, there are formal steps of return of cultural property internationally. Principally, governments use lawsuit, negotiation, and cooperative investigation by path returned. However, there is no international legal force for the cultural assets leaked in Japanese colonial times, so the only way the Korean government can depend on is the negotiation. To get into the first step of the negotiation, both governments should make an agreement of the targets for returning. But that is not easy as the Japanese government has never agreed that the Ogura collection as the target. Even though the collection has been a major issue of the Korea-Japan Agreement from the 1950s. So, despite the fact that the works are plundered cultural property illegally, it is rejected to be returned to Korea in the 1965 Korea-Japan Agreement as Japan insisted the Ogura collection is private property. Ironically, his collection is exhibited in Tokyo National Museum now as his son donated the cultural assets to the nation. How contradiction it is!
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