Japanese Students Attracted to Khmer Language, Culture

tokyo – When Ide Naoko was a little girl, her father used to tell her a story about a land called Cambodia, where he stayed in a tent one summer near some beautiful ancient temples.

Though that was more than 30 years ago, before Cambodia’s brutal civil wars nearly destroyed the country, he still remembers the people of Siem Reap who were very kind to him.

Today Ide Naoko is 22 years old and a university graduate. When it came time to pick a field of study, she found herself drawn to the small country her father recalled so fondly.

Long before her university days, friends she met in private language classes told her that Cambodia was little understood by the outside world and offered a rich area for study.

“They said, if you study Khmer, you will have a better chance to research the culture of this nation,” she said.

So when, in 1992, Tokyo Uni­versity of Foreign Studies decided to offer a course of study in Khmer, she took the entrance examination. Despite intense competition—about 100 students jockeyed for only 10 slots—she won a seat in the class and today is fluent in Khmer.

Khmer is the newest language offered by the university, where 4,300 students from around the world study 25 languages, ac­cording to Sakutaro Takahashi, university vice president.

The Khmer course features lan­guage instruction by two Japanese teachers with the assis­tance of a Cambodian volunteer.

The course continues to be ex­tremely competitive. Of the 60 students who took the first of two recent entrance exams, only two of the 40 who tried were accepted; eight made it through a second test.

Sakutaro Takahashi said the effort is worth it for those who truly want to understand Khmer culture.

“The new graduate students of the Khmer language will be the tools to build a better Ja­pan-Cambodia relationship,” he said. “Nobody can know more about a foreign country than someone who has mastered its language and culture.”

These days, Ide Naoko is work­­ing on her master’s thesis in Khmer, which she says is very difficult.

“Studying the Khmer language is very complicated,” she said. “It is far different from my own Japanese language, especially in the way it is written.

The Japanese students’ task is also complicated by the 30 years of civil upheaval in Cam­bodia, which has left some in the older generation speaking and spelling a traditional form of Khmer while younger people use another.

The traditional form, based on the 16,000-word dictionary compiled by the Buddhist monk Chourn Nath in 1915, was the nat­­­ional standard until the 1960s, when the more modern “Khmer­ization” style began to take hold.

Khmerization, promoted by Keng Vansak, was essentially an attem­pt to simplify and standardize the language by dropping a handful of letters from the alphabet and minimizing Pali and Sanskrit words.

But not long after the Khmer­ization movement produced a new dictionary, the wars broke out and the language came under vicious assault.

Under the Khmer Rouge, most educated people were killed or fled the country. For ideological reasons, the country’s Maoist leaders cut the language back to its simplest elements. The 13 different ways to say “eat,” for example, became just one.

In recent months, scholars of traditional Khmer and adherents of Khmerization have been working together to create a new, unified version of the language that everyone can use and understand. They plan to compile a new official dictionary, which will contain as many as 30,000 words.

Meanwhile, students like Kazato Saeki will continue to study Khmer for a variety of reasons.

He said he wants to be­come fluent so he can work in Cam­bodia with Japanese non-governmental organizations, preferably with one that specializes in development projects.

Next year, he hopes to win a scholarship to study Khmer at the University of Phnom Penh. More than anything, he said, he wants to visit Cambodia.

(Addit­ional reporting by Kay Kimsong)

 

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