5 South Koreans arrested in Japan over Buddha statue theft

TOKYO: Japanese police said on Wednesday that they have arrested five South Korean men in connection with the theft of an ancient Buddha statue on an island that serves as a stepping stone between the two neighbours.

The men, aged between 42 and 70, are suspected of taking the miniature statue on Monday from a temple on Tsushima, an island that lies between western Japan and the Korean peninsula, a local police official said.

"Because of Tsushima's history and close connection with Korea, we have had similar thefts of Buddha statues in the past," the official told AFP.

"When we learnt of the incident, we dispatched officers to ports. We found a group of five Korean men" who were about to return to South Korea on a high-speed ferry with the statue, the official said, without elaborating further citing an ongoing investigation.

A monk at Bairinji temple told local media that the copper statuette, which stands about 10 centimetres tall, was a ninth-century gift from the Korean kingdom.

The monk said treasured scriptures were also missing from his temple.

The police official said the South Korean men had been carrying scriptures but it was not clear where they got them from.

Tsushima, located 50 kilometres from the Korean peninsula, was historically the gateway between the two nations, and is dotted with temples and other relics that bear witness to centuries of interaction.

The island saw similar thefts of cultural and religious relics in 2012 by a Korean group. South Korean authorities arrested some members of the group and recovered the religious statues.