Ancient Buddhist Statue May Be Returned to Japanese Temple after 10-Year Legal Battle

A high court in South Korea ordered the return of a Buddhist statue that was stolen from a temple in Japan in 2012.

The statue, which is more than 450 years old, depicts the Kanzeon Bodhisattva. Kanzeon is known among Buddhist culture as the One Who Perceives the Sounds of the World and is said to “grant salvation to the suffering.”

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The bodhisattva statue has been at the center of an international tug-of-war since it surfaced in South Korea, according to the Asahi Shimbun.

In 2013, the South Korean government arrested the thieves who looted the statue from the Kannonji temple in Tsushima, Nagasaki Prefecture. The statue was subsequently confiscated by the South Korean government. Shortly after, the Kannonji temple, with the support of the Japanese government, requested that the statue be returned.

But a temple in South Korea, Buseoksa, also claimed it had a right to the statue and demanded that it be granted ownership of the work. The temple says the Kanzeon Bodhisattva was stolen in the 14th century by a group of Japanese pirates known as “Wako” who sailed the along the Chinese and Korean coasts between 1200 CE and 1500 CE.

In 2017 a South Korean district court ruled in favor of the Buseoksa temple saying, “it is reasonable to assume” the statue arrived in Japan through “theft and looting.” The South Korean government appealed the ruling, with partial success.

On February 1, the Daejeon High Court found it was probable that the statue had been looted from Buseoksa temple, but rejected the temple’s ownership because there is no proof that the current Buseoksa is the same temple that was active in the 14th century.

Meanwhile, the Kannonji temple had obtained “acquisitive prescription” by having held possession of the statue for over 20 years, the amount of time needed to acquire ownership under the civil laws of both Japan and South Korea.

Setsuryo Tanaka, the current chief priest of Kannonji temple, told the South Korean court last year that, according to legend, the Buddhist monk who built Kannonji temple in 1526 received the statue when he traveled to the Korean Peninsula.

The court also ruled that the Kanzeon Bodhisattva be returned to Japan “while taking into account principles of international law,” the Asahi Shimbun reports. Buseoksa plans to appeal to a higher court.


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