Kim Chan, right in the foreground, administrator of the Cultural Heritage Administration, inspects a container filled with some 1,200 books, including 167 about royal protocols called “Uigwe” looted during the Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula, at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, Tuesday. / Korea Times photo by Kim Ju-sung
By Park Si-soo
Royal books of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) were returned to Korea from Japan, Tuesday, marking the completion of a mission that kicked off in 2006 to retrieve cultural heritages looted during colonial rule.
A total of 1,200 books, including 167 about royal protocols called “Uigwe,” were retrieved in the second batch delivered.
Among them was a book written by Admiral Yi Sun-shin that was stolen 105 years ago, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
In October, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda handed over five volumes of Uigwe to President Lee Myung-bak during a summit in Seoul.
The Uigwe are a unique collection of rites and rituals, which describe through prose and illustration the major ceremonies of the royal family throughout the Joseon Kingdom’s 500-year history.
They were registered as a UNESCO Memory of the World in 2007 for their rarity and historical significance.
The neighboring country’s voluntary return of such valuable documents was made after former Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan promised to return them in a statement in August last year to mark the 100th anniversary of Japan’s coerced annexation of Korea.
Three months later, the governments of the two countries agreed to the return of 1,205 books. The deadline Japan set for the return was this Saturday.
Two planes carrying the 1,200 books touched down at Incheon International Airport at 3:35 p.m. and 4:35 p.m.
Upon arrival, First Vice Foreign Minister Park Suk-hwan and Japanese Ambassador to Korea Masatoshi Muto exchanged a written confirmation of their delivery.
The books were then sent to the National Palace Museum in Seoul to undergo restoration, the ministry said.
The issue of the royal protocols held by Japan was not discussed when Seoul signed a basic treaty with Tokyo in 1965 because it was not known that the books were stored at the Japanese Imperial Household Agency.
Their existence first came to light in 2001 when Chun Hye-bong, a private researcher, discovered that the documents were in Japan.
Since then, historians, Buddhists and civic groups joined forces to retrieve the historical treasures.
In 2006, Buddhists launched the Joseon Dynasty Uigwe Recovery Committee.
The books were produced in the early Joseon era but many were burned during the Japanese invasion in the 16th century.
Among the existing royal protocols, the Uigwe from King Seonjo in 1601 is the oldest, which describes the procedures for the funeral of Queen Uiin. Most of the royal texts remaining today are from the 19th century.
Documenting not only the records of all the procedures, formalities and requirements needed to conduct important ceremonies such as weddings, funerals, banquets and receiving foreign missions, the protocols also include details on the construction of royal buildings and tombs as well as other various cultural activities of the royal family.
The documents also include illustrations and paintings depicting the tools and buildings in various colors that were hard to describe in words.