No pagoda for you!

Japan’s Okura Cultural Foundation has virtually denied a request by a North—South Korean delegation for the return of some pagodas taken from Korea during the colonial era, reports YTN.

Even better, they’ve demanded an apology for the use of the delegation’s use of the term “plunder.”

The delegation was in Tokyo to negotiate the return of several pagodas now on display at the Okura Shukokan, where a lot of Korean cultural properties taken from Korea during the colonial period are on display. When they met with an Okura Foundation official, however, the official became angry, banging documents on his desk and demanding an apology from the Korean side for the use of the term “plunder” to describe how the pagodas left Korea.

Mind you, the head of the Korean delegation is a Buddhist monk.

The Okura Cultural Foundation has made it clear it has no intention of returning the pagodas, as it could have an impact on all the roughly 60,000 Korean cultural properties currently in Japan, reported YTN.

The JoongAng Ilbo ran an informative piece on how Kihachiro Okura, who founded the Okura Group, got his hands on so many Korean cultural properties. In fact, he even had one of the buildings of Gyeongbokgung Palace disassembled and shipped off to his own residence, an act that might have had a bigger impact on world architectural history by exposing Frank Lloyd Wright to the joys of floor heating.

Now, I’m not naive — I know that a lot of the works that were “plundered” were probably sold to the Japanese at a time when there was precious little concern for the nation’s cultural heritage. Historically, the congregation of antique shops in Insa-dong was tied to this sad history. I also understand that a lot of museums in former colonial powers are full of artifacts looted from their colonies, and if the original owners started asking for their stuff back, there would be no end to it.

Still, as the JoongAng Ilbo story makes pretty clear, the colonial Government-General was involved in the removal of Korean cultural properties, including the pagodas in question, so perhaps a bit of self-reflection on the part of Okura Group wouldn’t be too much to ask, regardless of whether they decide to return the pagodas or not.

  • Sperwer

    Maybe Okura should turn them into desks for members of the National Assembly. See HMS Resolute.

  • iMe

    Korea and Japan need to stop bickering and channel their collective negative energy towards China.

  • DLBarch

    Uh-oh. As someone who back in the early 1990s spent practically every spare won of every paycheck on Korean artifacts from the shops in Insa-dong, just before prices seemed to go through the roof, I wonder how much of my living room now qualifies as “plunder.”



  • cmm

    @2 Quote of the day.

  • SomeguyinKorea


    Don’t worry, most are probably knockoffs. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Apodyopsis Gymnophoria

    I don’t think so, I also purchased many Korean artifacts from the shops in Insa-dong, and paid in excess of 1million won for each one. They do come with a authenticity certificate.

  • Apodyopsis Gymnophoria

    I find it funny anyway…

    K – “No Ulleungdo for you!”

    J – “Okay, No pagodas for you!”

  • Arghaeri

    Donโ€™t worry, most are probably knockoffs.

    I’m sure he’s grateful for your reassuring words.

    They do come with a authenticity certificate.

    Would that be authenticated by Mr Kim, Mr Park or Mr Lee. I’m sure i can get you a whole bunch of authenticity certificates guvna, all kosha from namdaemun market.

  • thekorean

    perhaps a bit of self-reflection on the part of Okura Group wouldnโ€™t be too much to ask…

    Apparently it is too much to ask, given Japan’s post-war history.

  • DLBarch

    One of the great post-War collectors of Korean art, at least in America, was actually Professor Gregory Henderson of Harvard, who had served in Korea as a young foreign service officer before moving on to Harvard and eventually publishing the much under-appreciated “”Korea: The Politics of the Vortex” in 1968. I read this book as an undergrad at Cal some 20 years after it was written, and much of it still rang true. I suspect it still holds up to this day.

    Anyway, in the 1980s, Henderson came in for some very nasty criticism by increasingly confident (and, frankly, nationalistic) Korean academics for having amassed his collection of Korean art at the expense of a then-poor nation. The thinking apparently was that Korea was poor in the 1950s and 60s, and that by collecting Korean art Henderson was somehow taking advantage of once proud families forced by circumstances into selling off their collections of Korean artifacts.

    I don’t really buy this argument (no pun intended), but I understand the sentiment. It must be painful for any country to see its cultural heritage snapped up my outsiders, legitimate or not. No doubt this was a major sentiment behind the great Korean buy-back of Korean art beginning in the late 1980s on the international art market. I think at one point Sotheby’s even had an office in Insa-dong.


  • Charles Tilly

    Apparently it is too much to ask, given Japanโ€™s post-war history.

    You’re more right than you thin (At least according to Dr. Lind).

    ….Professor Gregory Henderson of Harvard, who had served in Korea as a young foreign service officer before moving on to Harvard and eventually publishing the much under-appreciated โ€œโ€Korea: The Politics of the Vortexโ€ in 1968. I read this book as an undergrad at Cal some 20 years after it was written, and much of it still rang true. I suspect it still holds up to this day.

    I don’t think it’s under-appreciated. It’s getting its healthy number of cites. As to whether what the late Gregory Henderson wrote still rings true or holds up, I’m a skeptic. For instance, this idea of the “mass society” that underpins much of the work doesn’t stand up too well.

  • robert neff

    Nice posting DLBarch.

    I, too, also wonder what is considered plunder. Private collectors do a lot to protect history but are always given a bad name. I know of several people who buy historical material – in the future are we expected to give it back? (Not that my material is really expensive or anything).

  • thekorean

    CT, that was a depressing (yet educational) read. Thanks.

  • DLBarch

    BTW, if any MH readers actually attend Harvard, the Henderson collection is housed in the Harvard University Art Museum.

    As an addendum, Henderson’s wife, Maria-Christine Elisabeth von Magnus, was herself an accomplished artist, came from an aristocratic German family, and taught at SNU in the late 50s/early 1960s. Her award-winning bronze sculptures of the stations of the cross are at St. Benedict Church in Seoul.

    That might make for a nice field trip for someone with penchant for photography. Hint, hint.


  • Ruger

    @DLB #3 Who ever said this particular pagoda was bought from a private collection? It seems to me like the pagoda was from a Confucian temple and was forcibly taken by Okura, in collaboration with the Japanese government. If anybody was paid any money for it, it most likely was the Japanese Governor General of Korea, Yoshimichi Hasegawa. While I’m sure there are Korean artifacts in Japan that were purchased by Japanese civilians looking to exploit poor Koreans at the time, no evidence suggests that such a thing occurred with these pagodas. Your attempt at a clever remark fails miserably.

  • Q

    I don’t expect Japan return the plundered Korean treasures to Korea. Most probably, thousands years later, they will advertise them as National treasures of Japan. Just check out what the national treasure no. 1 of Japan.

    [์ผ๋ณธ ์†์˜ ํ•œ๋ฏผ์กฑ์‚ฌ ํƒ๋ฐฉ] ๊ตํ† ์—์„œ ๋งŒ๋‚œ ๆ—ฅ๊ตญ๋ณด 1ํ˜ธ “์‹ ๋ผ ๋ถˆ์ƒ๊ณผ ๊ผญ ๋‹ฎ์•˜๋„ค”

    The irony is that Japanese try hard to beautify and justify their conolial history and do not apologize to other Asians, whilst they demand apology of the US about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    I support the argument of the US veteran who took video of dropping A-bomb over Hiroshima, refusing any apology to Japan.

    “I don’t apologize. We have a saying, Remember Pearl Harbor.”

  • hoju_saram

    That was an interesting read CT.

    On the author’s premise, that apologies and other gestures aren’t as important vis-a-ve post war relations, as people believe, I sort of agree.

    But with Japan and Germany, you’re comparing apples and oranges. There are so many additional elements to factor in to the equation.

    Most important is the fact of prolonged occupation. The Japanese were in Korea for half a generation. That’s a long time to suffer an occupier, and it adds to the sense of injustice; by comparison, France, Belgium etc, were occupied for a shorter period.

    Also, Europeans have been invading each other for thousands of years, to the point that the latest war is just another in a long series of tiffs between estranged siblings. The Korea-Japan relationship is different. Had Korea had a history of occasionally raizing Japan, ill feelings about 1915 onward might not be so pronounced.

    I think one important element here is hurt pride. Koreans are proud, and to have been subjugated and bullied for so long – without any reciprocity – creates bitterness and resent, and a feeling of injustice.

    The other theory I have (which explains why both the Japanese and Germans have actually been very well behaved since WW2, despite very different levels of acknowledgement of their wrongdoing) is that nations need to be suitably punished at the end of the war to move on.

    Both Germany and Japan were punished at the end of ww2 quite severely (though Japan less so, since they didn’t suffer Russian occupation). So they were suitably chastised – they learnt a lesson, in effect.

    Compare that to the German reaction after WW1. Because they managed to negotiate a last-minute truce that allowed them to remain unoccupied, they never really felt like they were beaten, and so they felt aggreived by reparations, rather than chastised. Had the allies marched into Berlin, preceded by carpet bombing and artillery strikes, they might not have raised the Fuhrer up for seconds.

  • Bodoblock


    GO BEARS! ๐Ÿ˜€

  • Sperwer


    It’s true that Henderson’s reliance on the then academically fashionable social scientistic theory of mass society dates his book. More importantly, subsequent scholarship has unearthed a lot of new information, some of which would require changes or additions to his more detailed, “historical” accounts. Still, it’s very serviceable in providing a thematically well-organized synoptic view of Korean history, i e , his under-appreciated (because insufficiently theoretical in the eyes of the social “science” crowd?) vortex meme.

  • Anonymous_Joe

    In this piece, if you replace Japan with hagwon, pagoda with severance and pension, and Korea with English teacher, the story would be more germane to your readers.