Everything shines in the right place
In both Eastern and Western countries, cultural properties and artifacts are valuable assets representative of the human spirit.
The “Mona Lisa” by Leonardo da Vinci as well as the “Madonna and Child’ by Michelangelo are great works of art that transcend time and space.
Elegant Goryeo celadon and Joseon white porcelain in Korea are considered to be part of the world’s great cultural heritage. Many cultural properties and artifacts are damaged and sometimes lost during wars and political turmoil.
A lot of Korean cultural properties were destroyed and sent to Japan illegally during the 1910-45 Japanese colonial rule as well as the 1592-98 Japanese invasion.
Jeon Hyeong-pil (1906-62) was a famous art collector who inherited a large amount of property in his 20s. He used his wealth to buy cultural properties. He founded the Kansong Art Museum in Seoul, named after his penname. Now the museum keeps many valuable Korean cultural assets on display.
During the Japanese invasion, scholars protected the Annals of the Joseon Kingdom at the Odaesan archive from Japanese troops. Nowadays, Buddhist monk Hyemoon takes the lead in the protection of Korean cultural property. He played a crucial role in bringing back the Annals of the Joseon Kingdom from Japan after they were taken there in 1914. If he hadn't discovered the annals in the library at the University of Tokyo or tried to bring them back to Korea, they would probably still be there, unnoticed and covered with dust.
Hyemoon, who started the campaign of recovering Korean cultural properties from abroad in 2004, believes that historical artifacts such as the annals in Japan and other royal Korean books in France should be where they originally belonged.
A Japanese grave robber, Okura, illegally sent many Korean cultural properties to Japan during the 35 years of Japanese rule, to form what is called the Okura collection. Hyemoon wants the items back in Korea, but it is not easy because the collection is a private one.
However, Hyemoon will not give up, because he is fascinated by the Yongbongmoon helmet housed in the Tokyo National Museum. The helmet is a special one for a royal dignitary. The helmet, which is plated with gold, has a dragon and a phoenix on both sides.
Last November, he solved the mystery of the helmet, finding a list of the Okura collection in Tokyo. Okura's handwriting reveals that the Yongbongmoon helmet originated from the royal family of the Joseon Kingdom. Due to his efforts, the director of the Tokyo National Museum announced for the first time that it owns not only a king's armor and helmet but also a crown of the Joseon Kingdom named "Ikseongwan."
Even if a king's helmet is known to have existed during the Joseon Kingdom period, we have no idea what it would look like, because there are none in existence in Korea. However, the Okura collection shows that the king's helmet has wings on both sides, different from other Yongbongmoon helmets for generals and admirals, which would be an important find in the art history of Korea.
It is noted that a crown from the Joseon Kingdom (collection number TI-446) 190 millimeters high is also included in the Okura collection. It was an official headpiece usually worn with official royal robes for political activities, a symbol representing absolute political power.
It is very sad that the king's helmet and the crown, which were symbols of supreme military and political power, still sit neglected in the Japanese museum. The list of the Okura collection is evidence proving that the collection consists of artifacts illegally acquired from a tomb robbery. This evidence gives Korea a chance to reclaim the pieces.
Hyemoon once said, “Everything shines in the right place." We all need to be interested in the return of the Okura collection to Korea. Then the Joseon royal family can heal deep scars left in their minds from the Japanese rule.”
There are many Korean cultural properties scattered in foreign countries. Four Japanese national museums in Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara and Kyushu have 4,422 items that originate from the Korean Peninsula.
By putting invaluable cultural inheritances passed down by our ancestors in the right place, we can appreciate their value and be proud of them. Moreover, we can pass the spirit and precious legacy of Korea on to our descendants.
Lee Eun-jeong is a second-year student at Daewon Foreign Language High School in Seoul. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.