Symposium Shows Cambodian-Japanese Ties

As archaeologist Ek Buntha ex­plained at the International Sym­posium on Khmerology, which took place yesterday in Phnom Penh, relations between Cambodia and Japan are far from recent. Not only is there a 17th-century Ja­panese map of Angkor Wat, but a Japanese man by the name of Morimoto wrote on a pillar at the temple in 1632 that he had donated four sculptures of Buddha to local Cambodians.

Moreover, said Mr. Buntha, who is personnel deputy director at the Ministry of Culture, there was a Japanese village near Udong in the 17th-century. It was located off to­day’s National Road 5 about 25 km from Phnom Penh, but all traces of it have since disappeared, he said.

Organized by the Royal University of Fine Arts and Sophia University in Tokyo, the symposium attracted nearly 200 archaeologists, re­search­ers and students who provided the audience for Cambodian and Jap­anese experts such as Ly Vanna who spoke of prehistoric archaeology in Cambodia, and Yukitsugu Tabata who described ceramics and kilns in Angkorian times.

Ethnologist Ang Choulean said in his keynote speech that throughout history, most countries that have progressed are those that have known how to adapt foreign influences to their own contexts. For him, he said, Japan’s influence started with the noble-warrior sa­murai in the Japanese movies he watched in the 1960s, which in­spired him to do good deeds.

Today, Japanese influence has taken the form of the numerous Cambodians studying at master’s degree and PhD levels in Japan’s universities, Mr. Choulean said.

Japanese researchers have also specialized in Khmer studies. For instance, Sophia University’s in­volvement with Angkor goes back more than two decades, said Seung Kong, deputy general director of Apsara Authority, the government agency managing the Angkor Archae­o­logical Park.

In July 1980, while the UN was boycotting Cambodia because of the Vietnamese presence in the country, Sophia’s archaeologist Yoshiaki Ishi­zawa—who later became Sophia’s president—came to Cambodia to assess the state of Angkor monuments. Even though diplomatic relations had not been re-established between Tokyo and Phnom Penh, he set up a team of experts and would return once or twice a year in the 1980s to help launch Angkor’s restoration, Mr. Kong said.

After the Khmer Rouge regime, there were about three archaeologists left in the country, said RUFA rector Bong Sovath, himself an archaeologist. Mr. Ishizawa provided assistance to train Cambodian archaeologists at RUFA and in the field, making clear from the start that Sophia’s goal was for Cam­bodians to be in charge of their monuments’ preservation once they had acquired the expertise, Mr. Sovath said.

Today, Sophia’s programs include an education program for villagers in Angkor Park both to involve them in monument preservation and to make them understand the importance of their cultural heritage, Mr. Ishizawa said at the symposium.

Accomplishing Sophia’s goal of “transcending language barriers and cultural differences” has not always been easy. For instance, Cam­bodia and Japan’s divergent views regarding reports, timekeeping, safety and hygiene delayed restoration of Angkor Wat’s west­­ern causeway in the early 2000s, he noted in the text of his speech. Nevertheless the work was completed in 2007, he added.


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