In a bid to help repair strained bilateral ties, a Tokyo university that had for decades stored traditional attire worn by the last princess of Korea’s Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) donated the clothing to Korea’s Cultural Heritage Administration on Wednesday.
During a ceremony at the Korean Center in Tokyo, representatives of Bunka Gakuen University and the South Korean government signed a memorandum of understanding commemorating the donation.
“I hope this gift will serve as a symbol and will help improve ties,” said Sunao Onuma, president of Bunka Gakuen University. “The attire is an important cultural asset as it was made using techniques of the highest class.”
Rha Sun-hwa, head of Korea’s Cultural Heritage Administration, said that despite frosty political ties, the two countries have continued cultural exchanges.
“I believe that this event will open a new chapter in Japan and Korea’s relations,” Rha added.
The garment belonged to Princess Deokhye, daughter of Gojong, the first Korean Emperor.
In 1925, amid Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, the 12-year-old princess was sent to Japan as a show of amicable ties. She later married a Japanese aristocrat, Count Takeyuki So.
But her life took a turn for the worse after Japan’s defeat in World War II.
Suffering from depression and dementia, she was admitted to a Tokyo mental hospital in 1946. She returned to Korea in 1962 after divorcing the count and died in 1989.
While living in Japan, the princess attended the Gakushuin School in Tokyo.
Since it was first established in 1923 as a girls’ vocational school for sewing and cultural education, the school has played a leading role in fashion and design education.
The seven garments donated include ceremonial clothing for children — a wrap-around skirt, a short jacket and windmill pants with a hole for babies — as well as attire for adults. The collection was part of the clothes the princess had brought with her to Japan.
Crown Prince Youngchin, a half-brother of Deokhye’s, who was also sent to Japan, held on to her garments and later donated them to Marquis Yoshichika Tokugawa, a descendent of the Tokugawa Shogunate who headed Bunka Women’s Junior College, a predecessor to Bunka Gakuen University.
The clothing had been stored at the university-affiliated Bunka Gakuen Costume Museum. The museum’s collection comprises about 20,000 pieces of traditional royal attire from a variety of countries, including China and Mongolia.
“For years we were not aware that the garment belonged to the princess,” museum official Masaaki Sato said.
The attire will be added to the collection at the National Palace Museum of Korea in Seoul.