c.2013 New York Times News Service
TSUSHIMA, Japan — Over the centuries, this mountainous island in the strait separating Japan and Korea has seen some of the most violent episodes between those ancient Asian rivals, serving as a hide-out for pirates, a forward base for invaders and a desperate first line against attack. But in recent years that troubled history seemed hazily remote in Tsushima’s sleepy fishing hamlet of Kozuna, where villagers have gathered for generations in a tiny temple to pray before a statue of the Buddhist deity of compassion that is centuries old.
At least they did until October, when villagers discovered that someone had broken into the unguarded temple at night to steal the bronze statue, which is believed to have been made in Korea. Villagers breathed a sigh of relief in January, when it was safely recovered by the police in Daejeon, South Korea.
But then the case took an unexpected turn. A South Korean court prevented the statue’s repatriation on the grounds that it might have been stolen from Korea centuries ago by Japanese pirates. Outraged at what they called a baseless claim, the islanders retaliated by canceling a summer pageant that attracts South Korean tourists with a colorful re-enactment of a procession of Korean emissaries who visited the island during a rare era of peace.
The standoff over a single small statue (just a foot and a half high) offers a glimpse into how disagreements over history continue to divide Japan and South Korea, two nations that share more in common culturally than either would care to admit.
While minor, the spat exposes the feelings of resentment and anger that run through more prominent disputes in the wake of Japan’s brutal colonization of Korea in the 20th century. One of the controversies, over whether Korean and other women were coerced into providing sex to Japanese soldiers during World War II, flared again recently after the mayor of Osaka, Japan, suggested that the women had served a necessary role in providing relief for men who were risking their lives.
“It is amazing how some people can hold a grudge for so long, even centuries,” said Sekko Tanaka, the retired abbot of an ancient Zen temple that sits in the shadow of stone fortifications used by a Japanese warlord to invade the Korean Peninsula in the 16th century. “Now that the geopolitical situation is shifting, the former victims think it’s time for payback.”
Tsushima has time and again been caught up in that turbulent history. Known as Daemado in Korean, the long, thin island — slightly smaller in area than Cape Cod — lies 90 miles from Japan but just 30 miles from South Korea. Its 33,000 residents, most of them elderly, make their living off fishing, the lumber industry and, more recently, Korean tourists.
The island’s location has led some Korean leaders in the past to argue that it properly belongs to South Korea. But the current government in Seoul — which controls a separate chain of islets that Japan says belongs to it — does not make any official claim to Tsushima.
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The islanders keenly feel Tsushima’s history as a steppingstone for military forays in both directions. On one windswept beach, local residents say they have gathered annually for most of the last seven centuries to commemorate a battle in which a small band of samurai was wiped out trying to stop a Mongol-led invasion fleet from Korea that was bound for Japan proper. The invaders, many of them Korean soldiers, rounded up local women by stringing ropes through holes sliced into their palms, local historians say.
“We are an outpost island whose history always seems to be swinging back and forth between conflict and opening,” said Mamoru Nishi, a manager in the island’s tourism office. “Tsushima’s history is the history of all Japan’s relations with Korea.”
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But Tsushima also shows how nations in the region, while driven apart by history, are being drawn together by economic forces. Tsushima has become increasingly dependent on newly prosperous South Koreans, who travel here on a high-speed ferry from Busan, South Korea. The trip takes an hour.
This year, Tsushima expects about 200,000 South Korean tourists, surpassing for the first time the number of visitors from elsewhere in Japan. Korean-language signs have become as common a sight as the busloads of South Koreans in hiking boots who come for the island’s rugged landscape and the fresh sashimi.
Many islanders welcome the South Koreans as salvation from the dreary economic decline that has struck much of rural Japan, especially as Tokyo’s spending on public works has dried up. Yukihiro Yamada, a mackerel fisherman who converted the office of a struggling construction company into a restaurant, says he serves 160 Korean tourists per day, and double that on weekends.
“We used to look down on Koreans,” said Yamada, 50, “but without them, Tsushima would just wither.”
Like many of Tsushima’s residents, Yamada said that while he was angry at the refusal to return the Buddhist statue, he wanted to contain the dispute to protect tourism. He said that he and other business owners lobbied to ensure that the re-enactment of the Korean emissaries’ arrival — which involves 400 Japanese and South Korean participants dressed in period costumes and carrying flags and swords — would be revived next year.
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The pageant’s organizers say they took the drastic step of canceling this year’s celebration out of their own growing frustration over what they call South Korea’s unwillingness to let bygones be bygones. Acutely conscious of Japan’s declining position in the region, they say the Japanese are losing patience with being demonized for crimes committed decades or even centuries ago.
“We tried to welcome them, and they betrayed us by stealing our statue,” said Hiromi Yamamoto, who heads the organizing committee.
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To many South Koreans, the statue’s ownership is clear. They say it was taken by Japanese pirates who once used Tsushima as a stronghold in raiding the Korean coast — just one example, they say, of how Japan has repeatedly plundered Korea and its culture. They base their claim largely on a piece of paper found inside the hollow statue that says it was made in 1330 at Buseok temple in what is now South Korea, where the statue was to be “enshrined forever.”
“There is no doubt that Buseok temple owns the statue,” said the Venerable Wonwoo, a monk from the temple, in Seosan, South Korea.
But Tanaka, the retired abbot, whose temple oversees the smaller temple that housed the statue, says there is no evidence that pirates were involved, or that the artifact was stolen. He said the statue had probably been sold or given to traders from Kozuna centuries ago.
He said the villagers were unaware of the statue’s value until they heard that the five South Korean men who were arrested and accused of stealing it were trying to sell it and another statue stolen from a different Tsushima temple for more than $1 million each.
After the men’s arrests in January, monks from the Buseok temple filed a motion in court to block the statue’s return. In February, a Daejeon court issued a temporary order to prevent the statue from being returned to Tsushima until both the Korean and Japanese temples could present evidence at an unspecified date.
Tsushima’s mayor, Yasunari Takarabe, said retrieving the statue had become a new historical burden for the island.
“Our ancestors have faced the same ordeal between Japan and Korea for centuries,” Takarabe said. “I can feel them looking down now, and laughing at us.”