Chinese civil organization seeks return of looted relics
Letter to Japan in step with global repatriation trend
Published: Jun 08, 2023 10:13 PM
Photo: snapshot

Photo: screenshot

A Chinese civil group is putting pressure on Japan to return a pair of stone lions, precious relics looted 128 years ago from Northeast China's Liaoning Province and now located inside the Yasukuni Shrine, a temple that enshrines Japan's infamous Class-A war criminals who symbolized Japan's war atrocities and militarism during World War II.

Tong Zeng, president of the China Federation of Demanding Compensation from Japan (CFDC), recently delivered a letter to both the Japanese government and Yasukuni Shrine.

The pair of the lions belonged to the Sanxue Temple in Haicheng city, ­Liaoning Province. During the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), the Sanxue Temple was used as a temporary hospital for Japanese invaders. In June 1895, the pair of stone lions, decorated with exquisite patterns, were looted and moved to Japan.

The CFDC letter reads, "Such behavior is a blatant provocation to world peace as well as mercilessly trampling on China's precious cultural relics."

Tong told the Global Times that as early as 2021, Wang Jinsi, director of the Cultural Relics Recovery Department at CFDC, once asked the Yasukuni Shrine about returning the relics, but "no reply was ever received from them."

In addition, the China Cultural Relics Return Movement Association, a civil society founded by well-known Japanese lawyer Keiichiro Ichinose, also once called for Japanese scholars to request the return of the stone lions in 2022.

But they only received a response from the shrine saying it was difficult to handle the issue on its own.

Tong told the Global Times that he appreciated the efforts Ichinose has made, but that this issue also "requires strength from the Chinese side to move things further." The most recent letter marks the first time the CFDC has sent a letter directly to the Japanese government.

He said that nearly 80 years after the end of World War II, it's becoming a trend for the world to work toward "cultural justice" and "decolonization." In accordance with this trend, many countries are working to track down looted relics and bring them home. 

According to Huo Zhengxin, a professor of law at the China University of Political Science and Law, returning looted relics is more about "moral standards" than legislation. "No international written convention requires Japan to return them," he noted. 

However, in terms of ethics, following World War II, countries such as Germany and France openly developed specific procedures to restore looted antiquities to other countries. 

In the second half of 2022, countries including the UK and Germany returned or began planning to return looted artifacts to Nigeria. Egypt, home to a very ancient civilization that has seen thousands of relics looted in the past, is calling for the return of their artifacts, such as the well-known Rosetta Stone at the British Museum.

Tong told the Global Times that this "unstoppable worldwide trend toward the return of looted relics will also benefit us by providing experience on repatriating what belongs to us."

However, Japan, which has chosen to "hold on to those treasures that are clearly symbols of the looted assets of an empire," apparently is not ready to adhere to this trend, he said, adding that the decision will give Chinese people a negative impression as the country "refuses to reflect on its history of invasion."

According to research by the China Cultural Relics Return Movement Association, another Haicheng city stone lion was looted by Japan during the war. It is currently located inside the Yamagata Aritomo Memorial Hall.

In February 2022, the association contacted the memorial hall to ask for the stone lion's return, yet no reply was received.