August 17, 2014 1:00 pm JST

Cultural properties at temples, shrines at high risk of theft

TOKYO -- Keepers of cultural assets such as Buddhist statues in Japan are struggling to guard their treasures from thieves, as professional burglars find easy pickings and collectors worldwide provide a ready market for the ancient artifacts.

     In 2010, a wooden sitting image of Buddha, known as the Dainichi Nyorai, a national important cultural property that dates back to the Heian Period (794-1185), was stolen from Konyoji temple in Nose, Osaka Prefecture. About 25 years ago, supporters and neighbors of the Buddhist temple, which had for years been without a priest, donated money to build the shed to house the image. A 69-year-old groundskeeper who lives in the neighborhood said regretfully that he had thought a concrete shed with two locks would be enough to discourage potential thieves. However, the locks on the door were found to have been forced open. Four years later, the statue is still missing. 

     According to data released by the Agency for Cultural Affairs in July, out of 109 missing fine arts and crafts designated as cultural properties by the national government, 33 were lost to thieves. Many of them were images of Buddha and Japanese "katana," or traditional swords.

     At the nationwide important cultural asset owners' league in Kyoto, a person familiar with stolen cultural properties said that Buddhist images and swords are likely to be targeted by thieves because lovers of such articles are willing to pay high prices to obtain them, legally or illegally. A fad for Buddhist statues in the last several years is also encouraging high bidders. Some of the properties are believed to have been smuggled to overseas collectors.

     A person responsible for security for temples and shrines at Security House Center in Kyoto noted that requests for estimates for security systems have been on the rise from owners of valuable cultural properties. He added that an individual person or organization would not be able to protect such articles from professional thieves, once they set their sights on them.