Stolen Art Returned to Japan

Posted by on Mar 28, 2024 in People and Culture, Stuff You Should Know

A surprising discovery was made in 2023 in the attic of a Massachusetts home. While sorting through their late father’s belongings, the children of a World War II veteran stumbled upon a collection of Japanese antiques. Astonishingly, there were 22 pieces hidden away. The oldest items dated back to the 1700s.   

photo of Gen. Douglas MacArthur signing the surrender documents that ended U.S. fighting with Japan during World War II on September 2, 1945.
The U.S. ended its fight with Japan on the USS Missouri in 1945. But some Japanese artwork was taken by a soldier on his way home.

The family reported their discovery, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) eventually took charge of the situation. An unsigned letter was found alongside the stolen artifacts. It claimed they were collected in Okinawa during the final days of World War II. The artifacts were returned to Japan on March 15, 2024. The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Asian Art in Washington, D.C., ensured that the items were properly handled and packaged for their journey back to Japan. 

Important Cultural Artifacts 

Among the returned items are portraits, hand-drawn maps, and ceramic pieces. Most of the returned items are culturally and historically significant. Geoffrey Kelly, an FBI special agent, emphasized the importance of returning such artifacts to their rightful origins. Items such as these artifacts represent a country’s culture and history.  

Japanese officials are appreciative that the items have been returned. They have thanked the U.S. government and the FBI for their role in returning the valuable items. Denny Tamaki, the governor of Okinawa Prefecture where most of the artifacts are from, has also expressed his gratitude. The Japanese government plans to hold a formal ceremony to mark the return of these artifacts. 

The National Stolen Art File 

The family that found these attic artifacts were surprised with their discovery, especially since their father had never served in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Through research, they learned that some of the items had been listed in the FBI’s National Stolen Art File about twenty years ago. The National Stolen Art File is a searchable database that helps the public and law enforcement identify stolen art. The database lists numerous artifacts from a variety of countries that are believed to be stolen. 

The history behind these attic artifacts dates to 1945 during the battle of Okinawa in World War II. At the end of this battle, many documents and treasures from the ancient Japanese kingdom of Ryukyu were stolen. The Ryukyu Kingdom ruled over the island of Okinawa from 1429 to 1879. While some items have been recovered over the years, including those recently found in Massachusetts, others remain missing. These include portraits and a royal crown belonging to the Sho Royal Family of the Ryukyu Kingdom.  

Since it began in 2004, the FBI Art Crime Program has successfully recovered over 20,000 items that are culturally significant. Despite the return of these valuable artifacts, the search for more missing artifacts continues, reflecting the importance of preserving cultural heritage and history for future generations. 

Dig Deeper Using the Internet, research the recent history of stolen cultural artifacts. Investigate other cases where such treasures have been discovered and returned to their rightful countries. Reflecting on your research, propose potential strategies or methods you believe could aid in the discovery of more of these stolen artifacts.