In 1957, during a reception at the Japanese Embassy in Phnom Penh, a young Yukio Imagawa was the last of the embassy staff to be introduced to King Norodom Sihanouk, to whom he was described as a newly arrived trainee eager to study Cambodian economy and culture.
Upon hearing this, Sihanouk, who then held the title of prince, became excited, hugged and kissed Yukio Imagawa on both cheeks in the French way, and said how wonderful it was to have a young Japanese man so interested in Cambodia.
“This is when I decided to devote my life to maintaining good relations between Cambodia and Japan,” Yukio Imagawa said.
Thirty-five years later, Imagawa presented his credentials to King Sihanouk as the first Japanese ambassador to serve in post-war Cambodia. The official link between Japan and Cambodia, which had been severed during the Khmer Rouge regime, was then re-established.
To mark the 10th anniversary of Japan’s re-establishing diplomatic ties with Cambodia, Yukio Imagawa has returned to Phnom Penh and will help the Japanese Embassy officially inaugurate its new building today. The event will be followed by two weeks of Japanese cultural activities.
Yukio Imagawa was the first representative from a non-communist country to return to Cambodia after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords. He recalls arriving on Nov 10, 1991, followed the next day by representatives from the United Kingdom and the US and, a few days afterwards, those from France and Australia.
“Prince Sihanouk came back on Nov 14, riding in an open car with Prime Minister Hun Sen, from Pochentong International Airport to the Royal Palace,” Yukio Imagawa said. Untac, which was to oversee the country until general elections could be held, was established in March the following year.
The Phnom Penh Yukio Imagawa came back to in 1991—very much destroyed and devoid of essential services—was vastly different from the one he had known in 1957, he said.
“Japan, as a country that had lost a war, was very poor. Phnom Penh was much more beautiful.” In the provinces, roads were good and it was safe to live and travel throughout Cambodia, he said of the country he first came to in 1957. “The country was developing slowly but steadily.”
The enthusiastic young trainee immersed himself in all things Cambodian—economy, language and culture. He attended Cambodia’s Faculty of Law for two years. Of the group of 15 students in his class, only two survived the Khmer Rouge years.
In 1961, Yukio Imagawa was the third secretary to the Japanese Embassy.
He returned to Japan for two months to get married and brought his new wife to Cambodia. Within a few years, his wife gave birth to a daughter at Calmette Hospital.
With the war in Vietnam escalating next door, Yukio Imagawa felt that Prince Sihanouk’s policy of neutrality “was the best way for a small country to remain at peace.”
In 1973, Yukio Imagawa was handling Asian affairs for the Japanese Embassy in France when the US and Vietnam signed an agreement in Paris that ended their fighting. He started negotiating to set up diplomatic relations between Japan and the Vietnamese communists.
This took two years, and by the early 1980s, Yukio Imagawa was director of the Refugees Affairs Division for the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, dealing with Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians who had fled their countries and for the first time were knocking on Japan’s door in large numbers, he said.
Yukio Imagawa was minister for the Japanese Embassy in France when the International Conference on Cambodia took place in Paris in July 1989. He was named co-president of the committee on repatriation and reconstruction at the meeting, which brought to the table Cambodia’s four major political factions.
Representatives of Prince Sihanouk and Prime Minister Hun Sen were willing to cooperate, Imagawa said.
“But the Khmer Rouge were the worst to deal with, very hostile to a peace agreement,” he said.
The committee managed to have two documents signed which became part of the Paris Agreement that was concluded on Oct 23, 1991.
Japan’s first major aid project in the country was to rebuild the Chroy Changva bridge that had been originally constructed with Japanese funding in the 1960s but was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. In recent years, Japan has been Cambodia’s biggest country donor.
Imagawa remained Japanese ambassador to Cambodia until his retirement in January 1996. He now teaches international relations at two universities in Japan, and is president of Japan’s Khmerology Association.