The day after Christmas 2019, a priest noticed a broken temple door. Inside the hall one of the Buddhist altar statues, Many Treasures Buddha, was missing. The temple is deep in the hills of the Boso peninsula, accessed by a single narrow private road with a locked chain at the entrance. “Only the locals know about the temple,” said the caretaker priest Rev. Gensho Baba who tends the temple and the small community of some 20 temple families on a part-time basis in addition to his temple in Tokyo Edogawa ward.
He called the local police who duly recorded the crime scene and started an investigation but to date (July 2022) they have yet to find any trace of the statue or any lead at all. It’s a difficult job you see, searching for an object with only a written description to go by as there was no picture or detailed measurements of the missing statue.
An isolated temple in a remote rural area, with no resident priest, with no regular visitors, and only the most rudimentary of door locks protecting the contents are the perfect conditions for the theft of Buddhist statues and other temple treasures according to Tomoyuki Ohkouchi, associate professor of Culture Property Studies at Nara University.
“The most important thing to remember is that an antique Buddhist statue is like leaving a diamond in the open. A diamond that can be exchanged for money.” Professor Ohkohchi outlined the challenges of protecting the culture property of temples without resident priests, in isolated areas with a shrinking population.
The biggest problem is the time it takes for a theft to be discovered and reported to the police. In remote rural areas is may be days or even weeks before a caretaker visits a temple or shrine for cleaning and discovers the theft. After the police are called there is the challenge of collecting evidence, the most important being what the object looks like. There is very little police can do when they don’t have pictures and measurements of a missing statue. Unfortunately this is often the case.
In 2008 local papers in Shizuoka reported a rash of 18 thefts in remote rural temple and shrines in the upper Oi river valley. There were more. Ohkohchi explains, “Prefectural police are poorly integrated when it comes to cultural theft. In that case there were similar thefts in neighboring prefectures but no coordinated effort to pursue the thieves.” There was a similar but much larger string of temple statue thefts in Wakayama prefecture in 2015, 60 in all. Fortunately the thief was caught and some of the treasures returned.
Because of this event Professor Ohkohchi works tirelessly with local communities in Wakayama promoting simple security measures to protect sacred objects. He explains, “Temple and shrine treasures represent the cultural history of these local communities, theft not only robs the temple of a state, it also robs communities of their history and identity.” The lack of coordination and sharing of information on a national level is a big problem. The Agency for Cultural Affairs made a small step in 2018 by setting up a web site that lists stolen religious items, but there is a long way to go.
Ohkohchi’s program is a simple one: the cataloging of cultural assets by photographing and measuring them, and setting up surveillance cameras of unattended temples. For important cultural objects that are hard to protect in open temples, he promotes creating accurate replicas using 3D printer technology for altar placement while keeping originals in a safe place.
But why is this happening now and why the relatively sudden increase? Ohkohchi thinks it is due to the rise of internet auction sites like Yahoo Japan Auction, “The internet makes it easy for anyone to steal and profit.”
“Basically you have a two year statue of limitations under the law (antique goods sales law of 1949)”, he explained. If returned in the first year the owner does not have to pay anything when recovering a stolen item back from a dealer, in the second year the owner pays some costs to cover dealer losses. After that the only choice is buying it back or taking the shop/dealer to court, which can take years at enormous cost because in a court trail dealers let themselves off the legal hook saying, “I didn’t know it was stolen.”
Even during the first year it’s sometimes faster to simply purchase the item. Indeed a recent high profile case was solved when the stolen statue was offered for sale on Yahoo Auction, quickly recognized and removed. Rev. Daiun Miki of Ryuhonji temple in Kyoto explained the chain of events.
The person who did it knew the area and planned it. The hall where the statue was enshrined was the only building in the temple compound without a surveillance camera, he also knew what time the gate was opened and when nobody would be around.
He seems to have kept it for a while then sold it to a local dealer who had it professionally cleaned. The local dealer in Kyoto then sold it to a dealer in Oita prefecture (Kyushu) who then put it for sale on Yahoo Auction.
Thank goodness we had given pictures of the statue to police. If it wasn’t for that, the police can’t really do much.
Rev. Miki explained that the Kyoto Prefecture police were very cooperative and have a section well versed investigating with stolen antiques. The statue is back in its rightful place with a security camera guarding the entrance.
Professor Ohkouchi continues to work with police, communities, temples and shrines to protect and preserve local religious cultural history for future generations. “Priests and temple members should never feel embarrassed or like it’s some kind of divine punishment when a statue is stolen. It’s all about money, so protect it like you protect your money. It’s that simple.”