Kuki Ryūichi: How to Collect Treasures of the Qing Dynasty during the War (1894)

Kuki Ryūichi (1850–1931), the first Director of the Imperial Museum in Tokyo (presently Tokyo National Museum), drew up a guideline for collecting antiquities in 1894, at a time when the first Sino-Japanese war (1894–95) broke out. This guideline lays out the benefits of collecting Chinese and Korean antiquities during Japanese military operations and thus provides important context for understanding the Japanese imperialist perspective on taking objects from China and Korea to Japan over the following decades.

commented by Ji Young Park

Original text    Translation    Biographical note    Commentary    Sources and literature


source: 齋藤實文書 (Saito Makoto documents) 齋藤實記念館 (Saito Makoto Memorial Hall) 第2期 (The 2nd term) 17-5.



第一 本邦文化ノ根底ハ支那朝鮮ニ密接ノ関係ヲ有シ我固有ノ性質ヲ明ニスルニ於テモ是等ト対照スルノ必要アリ故ニ大陸隣邦ノ遺存品ヲ蒐集スルハ学術上最大ノ要務ニ属セリ

第ニ 本邦ハ実ニ東亜ノ宝庫ト称スヘキモノニシテ支那朝鮮歴代ノ古物ニシテ本国ニ亡ヒ我ニ存スルモノ夥多ナリ今一層之ヲ充実スルニアラハ東洋ノ宝物ハ其粋ヲ本邦ニ鐘集完成スルニ至ルヘシ以テ国力ニ誇ルヘク以テ東洋学術ノ本拠タルヘク以テ国産ヲ雄進スヘシ是レ実ニ国光ヲ発揚スル所以ニシテ平時ハ勿論一切ノ好機会ヲ利用シテ其実行ヲ計ラサルヘカラス

第三 戦時蒐集ノ便ハ平時ニ於テ到底得ヘカラサル名品ヲ得ルニ在リ

第四 戦時蒐集ノ便ハ平時ニ比シテ極メテ低廉ノ価格ヲ以テ名品ヲ得ルニ在リ

第五 戦時蒐集ノ便ハ平時ニ比シテ重量ナル物品ヲ運搬スルノ方法アルニ在リ

第六 戦時蒐集の要ハ名品ノ滅亡ヲ防クニ在リ戦争ノ宝物ヲ破壊堙滅セシムルハ何レノ国ニ於テモ然リト雖モ古来支那ヨリ甚タシキハナシ名器ノ保存ハ世界ノ為メニモ必要ナレハ戦時蒐集ハ此点ニ於テモ最モ有益ナリ

第七 戦時蒐集ハ平時ニ於テ行フヘカラサル探検ノ便利アリ

第八 戦時ニ於テ名品ヲ蒐集スルハ戦勝ノ名誉ニ伴テ千歳ノ紀念ヲ存シ大ニ国威ヲ発揮スルニ足ル

第九 買収ノ取扱ヲ慎重ニスルニ於テハ戦時ノ蒐集ハ毫モ国際公法ノ通義ニ戻ル所ナシ

How to Collect Treasures of the Qing Dynasty during the War

translated by Ji Young Park

General idea

The outline of sending personnel to China during the war for collecting and purchasing the treasure is roughly as on the left [following].

1. As the foundations of Japanese culture are closely related to those of China and Korea, it is necessary, therefore, to compare our own culture with others in order to clarify the inherent nature of our own country. Thus, it is a most important scholarly responsibility to collect antiquities from neighboring countries.

2. Since Japan is indeed considered to be a repository of trust of East Asia, many Chinese and Korean antiquities lost in their countries are preserved in Japan. In order to reinforce the present situation, the acquisition of East Asian treasures will lead to completion of the collections in Japan, and expand national power, to form a base for East Asian studies and promote national production. Indeed, as it is true that this is the manner in which the glory of a nation culminates, we need to discuss how to realize this by taking advantage of any good opportunities [in wartime] as well as in ordinary times.

3. The benefit of wartime collection would be to acquire masterpieces which are hard to obtain in ordinary times.

4. The benefit of wartime collection would be to acquire masterpieces at a very low price compared to ordinary times.

5. The benefit of wartime collection would be a means of transportation to move heavier objects compared to ordinary times.

6. The essential point of wartime collection is to prevent the destruction of masterpieces. Even though treasures are always destroyed during wartime in any country, there has never been a country with a history like China’s from ancient times to date. Thus, the necessity of masterpiece preservation for the world is the most beneficial point of wartime collection compared to ordinary times.

7. Wartime collection is more convenient for exploring than in ordinary times.

8. In time of war, part of the honor of victory is the collection of masterpieces, which will sufficiently demonstrate national prestige, to command respect forever.

9. In order to handle the acquired items carefully, collecting during wartime must be strictly in compliance with international law.

Biographical note

Kuki Ryūichi (1852–1931) was a Japanese bureaucrat during the Meiji period of Japan (1868–1912). He was born into a warrior class family in the Harima province in western Japan. After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, he studied Western thinking under Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835–1901) at Keio Gijuku and worked in the Ministry of Education. In 1873, he was sent to Europe to study and visited the World Fair in Paris, where he became familiar with Western art as well as Western cultural policy. From 1888, he worked at the Imperial Household Ministry and led the Japanese national survey of cultural properties. In 1897, he was appointed as the first Director of the Imperial Museum (presently Tokyo National Museum) and he worked on establishing the Law for the Preservation of Ancient Shrines and Temples – the first law, which defines cultural properties in Japan. In his later years, he spent his time collecting artworks, with which he opened the first private museum in Japan, the Mita Museum (1914–1931) in his hometown, Mita.

Commentary – Anti-civilizational guideline for a civilized nation

This text is a guideline written in 1894 by Kuki Ryūichi, an officer at the Ministry of the Imperial household whose responsibility was the promotion of industry and manufacturing and the protection of art. It was delivered to the Government, as well as Army and Navy’s senior officers in secret (Nakatsuka, 1968). Today, many books related to Japanese loot in East Asia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Arai, Chŏng and Kong) mention this document as an important proof that Japan plundered China and Korea systematically as national project during the Sino-Japanese war. In this guideline, which consists of nine articles, Kuki argues for the appropriateness of collecting Chinese and Korean antiquities and outlines the benefits of collecting during Japanese military operations in China and Korea.

In the late 19th century, Japan set itself the urgent task of adapting to West European and North American concepts of civilization. Achievements in culture and science were considered to be significant markers for a civilized nation. Therefore, an agenda of conserving Japanese cultural assets by law, institutionalizing art through writing Japanese art history, and establishing museums with antiques was taken forward as a civilizing project (see Katarani and Sato). It was in this atmosphere that the Japanese adopted a new approach to the collection of cultural assets during wartime at a national level.

The First Sino-Japanese war in 1894 ushered in the period of imperialism in this region. China and Japan were competing over control of the East Asia area – and particularly of the Korean peninsula. Tensions increased in 1894, when the Qing dynasty sent troops to Korea in order to aid the Korean government to suppress a rebellion by peasants and followers of the Tonghak, a pantheistic religion. As Japan claimed that the Qing government had violated the Tientsin Convention between China and Japan, which stated in article 3 that neither nation would send troops to Joseon without prior notification to the other, Japan also sent troops to Korea. After 6 months of battles in mostly Korean territory, China lost Korea as a tributary state, and regional dominance shifted from China to Japan for the first time. This war was seen as a demonstration of the success of Japan’s modernization (Paine, 2003).

What led Kuki and others to a desire to collect objects at state level? An influential role must be attributed to the ideas of Okakura Kakuzō (1862-1913), an art critic who played a leading part in establishing official Japanese art history and aesthetics. Okakura considered Japanese art as »the essence of Asian art« and Japan as »the repository of the trust of Asiatic thought and culture« (Okakura, 1903). An innovative element of this approach to East Asian artistic tradition was that Okakura considered Japan to be the center of East Asian culture. Previously, Japan had been considered as one of the peripheries in a Sino-centrist world view. Hence, what can be observed in Kuki’s guidelines are first steps toward a reorganization of the East Asian art world within a new paradigm. Kuki established a link between Japan’s hegemonic ambitions and Asian artistic heritage: cultural assets from Korea and China were to be brought to Japanese museums. From 1889, Kuki managed the Imperial museum of Japan in Tokyo as director. It seems that Kuki’s stay in Europe had long-term repercussions. Based on Western museums he had visited during his time in Europe and America, he regarded the museum as an important element for building a nation state. The idea of seizing enemy antiquities to enhance national glory and the logic behind a nation’s role in the preservation of cultural properties would be linked to the plundering of masterpieces during wartime as well as transporting objects from colonies.

It is interesting to note that Kuki’s guidelines include a reference to legal norms and standards generally regarded and accepted in international relations, which represented a world order new to East Asia. Even though he was eager to loot enemy property, Kuki was clearly aware of the standards and conventions of Western countries where looting had been regulated even before the first Hague Convention of 1954, which explicitly prohibited plunder and destruction of an enemy’s artworks as well as of historical monuments (Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict with Regulations for the Execution of the Convention 1954). Further research on the relations between Japanese and Western regulations on this topic would be worthwhile.

Kuki’s guideline was prepared for the use of government and military senior officers when the first Sino-Japanese war broke out in 1894 and is preserved today as part of the personal documents of Saitō Makoto (1858-1936), captain of the Navy during the war. We know very little about how the mission was actually conducted or what objects were brought to Japan from China and Korea after the war. However, this guide on collecting antiquities in China and Korea lived on in Japanese imperialist archeology when Japan colonized Korea as well as a part of China in the first half of the 20th century (Arai, 2012). Not only would art collecting during wartime serve to demonstrate the honor of victory and national power, but field surveys and the transfer of objects would make Japan the headquarters of Asian studies and promote the industrial productions of Japan as well. As the Empire expanded, this national project, in which military and government operated together, was conducted continually and systematically in newly subjugated areas: site investigations were carried out and objects brought to museums in strategic key cities, such as Tokyo, Taipei, Lushun and Seoul, that were founded and managed by the Empire (Morimoto and Arai).

Dr. Ji Young Park is a PostDoc Fellow in the translocations research cluster at Technische Universität Berlin.

Sources and literature

Arai Shinich [荒井信一 ], コロニアリズムと文化財 [Colonialism and Cultural Property], Tōkyō, 2012.

Chŏng Kyu-hong [정규홍], 우리문화재 수난사 [History of Ordeals of Our Cultural Assets], Seoul 2005.

Kojin Katarani, »Japan as Art Museum; Okakura Tenshin and Fenollosa«, in Michael Marrd [dir], A history of Modern Japanese Aesthetics, Honolulu 2003, pp.43- 59.

Kong Myŏng-sŏng [공명성], 일제의 조선 문화재 략탈사 [History of Chosŏn Cultural Property Looted by the Empire of Japan], P’yŏngyang 2009.

Matsumoto Tsuyoshi [松本剛], 略奪した文化 [Looted culture], Tōkyō 1992.

Morimoto Kazuo [森本和男], 文化財の社 [Social History of Cultural Assets], Tōkyō 2010.

Kakuzō Okakura, The ideals of the East, London 1903.

Dōshin Satō, Modern Japanese Art and the Meiji State: The Politics of Beauty, Los Angeles 2011.

S.C.M Paine, The Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895: Perceptions, Power, and Primacy, Cambridge 2003.

Recommended citation:
Kuki Ryūichi: How to Collect Treasures of the Qing Dynasty during the War (1894), commented by Ji Young Park, in: Translocations. Anthologie: Eine Sammlung kommentierter Quellentexte zu Kulturgutverlagerungen seit der Antike, https://translanth.hypotheses.org/ueber/kuki, published 25.11.2019.


Eine veränderte Version dieses Blogeintrages in deutscher Übersetzung findet sich in: Isabelle Dolezalek, Bénédicte Savoy, Robert Skwirblies (Hg.): Beute. Eine Anthologie zu Kunstraub und Kulturerbe, Berlin (Matthes & Seitz) 2021.

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