Photo/Illutration Sekko Tanaka, former chief priest of Kannonji temple, speaks to reporters in Tsushima, Nagasaki Prefecture, on Feb. 1, following the South Korean high court’s verdict. (Emika Terashima)

A South Korean high court on Feb. 1 ruled that a centuries-old Buddhist statue belongs to the Japanese temple that it was stolen from about 10 years ago and should be returned, overturning a lower court ruling.

The artifact in question, the seated statue of the Kanzeon Bodhisattva, was stolen from Kannonji temple in Tsushima, Nagasaki Prefecture, in 2012 by South Korean burglars. The statue is designated as a tangible cultural property of the prefecture.

The thieves were apprehended in 2013 and the statue was confiscated by the South Korean government.

Kannonji temple and the Japanese government then requested the statue’s return.

However, Buseoksa temple in South Chungcheong province, located in west-central South Korea, claimed the statue was “looted in the 14th century” by Japanese “wako” pirates.

Wako is a name given to groups of Japanese pirates, who were active along the Chinese and Korean coasts around the 13th to 16th centuries.

Buseoksa temple filed a lawsuit, demanding the statue's return from the South Korean government.

In 2017, a South Korean district court ruled in favor of Buseoksa temple, acknowledging its ownership. The ruling said, "It is reasonable to assume that the statue was brought to Kannonji temple through theft and looting.”

The South Korean government appealed the ruling.

The Daejeon High Court on Feb. 1 partially upheld the lower court ruling and acknowledged that the statue from Buseoksa temple was looted by wako and brought to Japan.

However, it rejected the temple’s ownership. Judges said there is no evidence that the plaintiff is the actual temple bearing the same name in the 14th century.

The high court recognized Kannonji temple’s ownership, saying it had obtained “acquisitive prescription” under both countries’ civil laws because it had possessed the statue for more than 20 years, the period prescribed needed to acquire ownership. 

The court added that returning the statue from South Korea to Japan should be handled while taking into account principles of international law.

The plaintiff intends to appeal to a higher court.

Sekko Tanaka, 76, the former chief priest of Kannonji temple, said at a news conference on Feb. 1, "The judicial authorities recognized the legitimacy (of our claim) for the first time. I'm pleased."

Setsuryo Tanaka, 47, the current chief priest, appeared in the court hearing last year.

He said legend has it that a Buddhist monk who built Kannonji temple in 1526 received the statue when he traveled to the Korean Peninsula.

(This article was compiled from reports by Takuya Suzuki in Daejeon and Emika Terashima in Tsushima.)