No End to Japan's Kleptomania

The Japanese government went on a fierce legal offensive to keep hidden a list of treasures stolen from Korea during the occupation from 1910 to 1945, in the reasonable expectation that Korea will want them back.

The existence of the list emerged in a deposition from the Japanese government during a trial at the Tokyo High Court over a civic group's demands for access to official documents involving 1965 talks that normalized diplomatic relations between Korea and Japan.

Keiichi Ono, the director of the Japanese Foreign Ministry's Northeast Asia Division, said in the deposition that those documents "include a list of national treasures that have not been presented to the Korean government until now" and warned that Seoul may seek their return.

Ono added that the records contain information about how the treasures were stolen from Korea that Seoul would find "difficult to understand."

In 2008, Japan published 1,916 documents related to the 1965 talks but kept the remaining 22 secret. Eight of them, it has now emerged, relate to looted Korean national treasures.

They include lists of priceless Chosun Dynasty texts, artworks, and ceramics that were hoarded by the first Japanese resident general of Korea, Hirobumi Ito.

And now, a Japanese government official has not only admitted that the documents were kept hidden on purpose to prevent Korea from demanding the return of the loot, but that it wants them to remain secret for fear of having to part with the stolen goods.

The Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation estimates that around 66,824 Korean national treasures were taken to Japan. If treasures in the possession of private Japanese citizens are included, some say the number could be as big as 300,000.

Under the 1965 treaty, Japan returned around 1,400 looted items to Korea, but thanks to the lists it was able to pick out only the least valuable ones, including hats postmen wore during the colonial era and shoes made of straw, while hugging the rest close to its bosom. All this was done with a great show of generosity. 

Most Korean national treasures that are in Japan were taken out of the country illegally by Japanese colonial officials or citizens during the occupation. When it returned the "Uigwe" or royal protocols of the Chosun Dynasty in 2008, Japan said it wished to "conclude the matter" of returning Korea's national treasures. But this problem will not be concluded unless Japan comes clean about what treasures it has and how it got them.

Japan must immediately reveal the lists. What country in the world keeps secret for 40 years a list of national treasures that belong to another country?

englishnews@chosun.com / Jul. 30, 2014 13:01 KST