World War II-era Far East Cultural Property Losses: Research at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland

Today’s post is by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

Dealing with World War II-era looted assets can be a challenging endeavor. Prior to 1990 there were relatively few scholarly works or newspaper articles on the subject of World War II-era looted assets, in part because of the lack of interest in the subject matter. This all changed in the late 1990s. During the past 25 years almost a week does not go by without something being published. Most of what has been written has been about Europe, the Far East barely being an afterthought. This was the case during the 1940s; Europe first and the Far East second, both in terms of military strategy as well as the questions involved with restitution and reparations. 

In many respects the question of research involved records, and records, to some, if not a large, extent means the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). As we learned during the past 25 years, NARA’s holdings of Federal and captured records provide much information about the taking, looking for, finding, recovering, and returning looted cultural property. 

Rarely do NARA’s records tell the whole story for an individual item. Often they do, but in most instances they provide information about only part of the story, that is, perhaps, the taking and nothing more, or about the finding and returning. One has to look elsewhere to fill in the missing pieces of the story, and often a dead end results, for several reasons, including the simple fact the missing pieces do not exist.

Nevertheless, one has to start somewhere, and often NARA, primarily at the National Archives at College Park (Archives 2) is a good, if not the best, starting place. 

With respect to Far East cultural property losses, there are a substantial quantity of records at the National Archives College Park. But certainly not to the extent there are for European losses. In part this is because the Japanese did not loot on the same scale as their Axis partners. And this is because, to a large extent, the Japanese did not want to antagonize their conquered populations, of course with the major exception of China. The primary Japanese aim with conquered nations was economic cooperation and exploitation, not cultural property expropriation.

I thought I would briefly describe the categories of NARA holdings that anyone would find beneficial to obtaining information about the taking, looking for, finding, recovering, and returning looted cultural property. Rather than trying to match the records with the five elements of looted assets, I will simply lay out the most useful records for addressing cultural property losses in the Far East.

Remember, archival records are not like library books, arranged by subject. They are basically arranged by the agency that created or received them, and thereunder are arranged by organization hierarchy, and then by a series of records, arranged by some filing system, often by subject or by a decimal filing system.

For those interested in the policy and procedural aspects of the cultural property recovery and restitution, perhaps the best records to use are those of the Far Eastern Commission (Record Group 43, Records of International Conferences, Commissions, and Expositions), the Department of State, particularly the Central Files (Record Group 59, General Records of the Department of State), and the State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee (Record Group 353, Records of Interdepartmental and Intradepartmental Committees, State Department).

For general information about Far Eastern cultural property useful are reports and publications found in the Records of the Foreign Economic Administration (Record Group 169), the Army’s Foreign (Occupied) Areas Reports (Record Group 407, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1917–), and the Records of The American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, also known as the Roberts Commission (Record Group 239). Also useful for obtaining information about Far East cultural property are the so-called “Publication ‘P’ Files” of the Army Assistant Chief of Staff, Intelligence (G-2) in Record Group 165, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs and Record Group 319, Records of the Army Staff.

In terms of records documenting the theft of cultural property, again, the Central Files of the Department of State are most useful, as well as those of the American Embassies and Consulates and those of the U.S. Political Advisor for Japan (Record Group 84, Records of the Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State), and the intelligence files of the Research and Analysis Branch of the Office of Strategic Services, and its successor, the Strategic Services Unit of the War Department (Record Group 226).

Also useful for obtaining information about Far East cultural property and its theft are the military and naval attaché reports (Record Groups 38, Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, and 319), the Army G-2 Regional Files (Record Group 165) and Intelligence Document Files (Record Group 319). Also useful are the War Crimes evidence and exhibit files (Record Group 238, The National Archives Collection of World War II War Crimes Records).

A collection of records that serve many purposes are those records maintained by the Department of State’s Fine Arts and Monuments Adviser, Ardelia Hall (Record Group 59).

In terms of recovering and returning cultural property perhaps the best sources are the records of General Headquarters Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP). This is especially true of the Government Section, and the Policy Branch, the Looted Property Branch, and United Nations Property Unit of the Civil Property Custodian (Record Group 331, Records of the Allied Operational and Occupation Headquarters, World War II).

It should also be noted the records of the Army’s Civil Affairs Division, which oversaw the work of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Officers has substantial information about cultural property issues, particularly in Japan, Korea, and China (Record Group 165).

While the Japanese destroyed large quantities of records in August 1945 and the United States Government returned to Japan in the late 1950s large quantities of captured and seized records without them being microfilmed, there are, at NARA, countless tens of thousands of translations of Japanese records available for researchers. The largest microfilm collection of captured and seized Japanese records are held by the Library of Congress.

To assist researchers interested in World War II-era Far East Cultural Property Losses, I prepared a 1,700-page finding aid entitled “Japanese War Crimes and Related Records: A Guide to Records in the National Archives,” which is searchable and available online.

Researchers should, of course, use the online National Archives Catalog.