December 16, 2005

Japan returns Bukgwandaecheopbi monument to Korea

Posted at 5:59 pm in Similar cases

The most interesting part of this article is not the main story in the text, but the introductory preface, not mentioned in any other English Language Press, that Japan is to return a monument to Korea that was taken during the Russo-Japan War of 1904-1905. Prompted by this act by the Japanese, the author then considers whether other countries that hold looted artefacts would consider returning them & following Japan’s example.

The Korea Times

Koh-i-Noor: The Mountain of Lights
12-15-2005 17:17
By Prabhat K. Mukherjee

A news item a few weeks back surprised many, including foreigners. Japans’s Yasukuni Shrine announced that it would return a Korean stone monument commemorating the defeat of 16th century Japanese invaders to South Korea. The Bukgwandaecheopbi monument, which till recently was located at the Tokyo shrine, was transported to South Korea. This would be ultimately handed over to North Korea where the monument had originally been installed in 1707. The stone monument was built in memory of Korean Admiral Li Sun Sin who fought against Japanese expeditions launched by warlord Hideyoshi (1537-1598) to conquer Korea in the late 1590s. Stories of the war are engraved on it. The shrine had held on to the monument since the Japanese forces brought it to Japan during the Russo-Japan War of 1904-1905.

Some Koreans assert Japan plundered the monument during the war, while the Yasukuni Shrine said that forces transferred it to Japan with the written consent of its creator’s descendants. The South Korean government asked Tokyo in late June to return the monument by the end of this year, the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. Although the request to return the monument was inter-governmental, the Yasukuni Shrine is not under Government control, so the Japanese government couldn’t demand that they return it. Good sense prevailed and Yasukuni’s leaders decided to return the monument of their own volition. It was a move in the right direction for goodwill, and from one of the most nationalist institutions in that country.

While I was reading this story in Korean newspapers, a stray thought crossed my mind. In 2002, every western TV news channel was showing the funeral procession of the deceased Queen Mother of Great Britain. The stately funeral cortege passed through the Royal Mall slowly, denoting the gravity of the situation. What caught my attention was the crown on the casket. As expected, it was indeed the crown Elizabeth wore in 1937, when she became Queen.

The purple, velvety crown was surrounded by stunning gems that shone brilliantly; the shiniest was, of course, the Koh-i-Noor diamond with a glitter that could light up a room.. The solemnity and dignity of the occasion, I felt were a bit marred by this display. Koh-i-noor or the “mountain of lights.” 186 carats in weight, was a giant diamond that was mined in India some 600 years back, and went to London the way the Korean stone relic went to Japan.

History showed us that for several centuries the Koh-i-Noor diamond had been in the family of the King of a central Indian kingdom. In 1739, when Nadir Shah of Persia invaded India and captured Delhi, he got it from the Moghuls, and took it with him to Persia. Through a turbulent history, it passed on to Afghan warlords. Then Ranjit Singh, who was recognized by the British Government under a treaty as the king of the state of Punjab, acquired the diamond. A succession crisis followed Ranjit Singh’s death in 1839, and predictably, the British seized the opportunity. In 1849, the British East India Company got the diamond after subduing the Sikhs, and a year later, the Company presented the diamond to Queen Victoria, to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Company. She had the diamond cut and it was set in the crown, which usually rests in the Tower of London.

In its Indian incarnation, the Koh-i-Noor had 200 facets ㅡ four times more than 99 per cent of cut diamonds ㅡ and was intended to be worn on an armlet to catch the light. Today it is considered as one of the main attractions of the British crown jewels. Ranjit Singh’s under-age heir, Duleep Singh, who had signed it away to the British, presumably under duress, subsequently tried hard to get it back. But he failed.

To be sure, the Koh-i-Noor diamond is not the only contentious object in British possession. Go to the British Museum, and marvel at the fantastic Elgin Marbles. The sculptures, which were once in the Parthenon in Athens, are awe-inspiring. The British justification of their refusal to return them to Greece is that the pollution in Athens would erode the beauty of the marbles. Today, museums around the world are concerned because many objects in western museums have been acquired under questionable circumstances, and it remains a cultural dispossession that rankles deeply with the former colonies.

I do not know whether the British would imitate Japan and return the cultural treasure or not. But, I remember the words of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of Independent India, when confronted with the questions by journalists as to what the Government of India was doing to get back the jewel from UK, he said ㅡ “Jewels are for Emperors and we do not need Emperors.”

The writer is a general engineering manager at Hyundai Heavy Industries in Ulsan.

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