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Restoring Angkor Wat: An Interview with Japanese Scholar Ishizawa Yoshiaki
[2018.04.06]

Award-winning Japanese scholar Ishizawa Yoshiaki is one of the world’s leading authorities on Khmer inscriptions of the Angkor period (802–1431). His honors include the Ramon Magsaysay Award, sometimes described as the “Asian Nobel,” for his contributions over the course of half a century in restoring to the Cambodian people a sense of pride in their cultural heritage. We spoke to him about his long career working on the monuments at Angkor and his efforts to train a new generation of Cambodian conservators.

Ishizawa Yoshiaki

Ishizawa YoshiakiBorn in 1937. Graduated from Sophia University with a degree in French. Specializes in the history of Southeast Asia, with a focus on Cambodian inscriptions of the Angkor period. Studied at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales de Paris. Holds a PhD in Oriental History from Chūō University. Taught at Kagoshima University before accepting a position at Sophia University in 1982. Was appointed university president of the school in 2005 and President of the Council for the Agency of Cultural Affairs in 2007. Currently serves as Director of the Sophia Asia Center for Research and Human Development and Chief of the Sophia University Angkor International Mission. Publications include Ankōru ō-tachi no monogatari (A History of the Angkor Kings) and Shin Kodai Kanbojia-shi kenkyū (New Research into the History of Ancient Cambodia).

A Fateful Letter

INTERVIEWER   You’ve been involved with Angkor Wat for nearly 60 years. What made you decide to devote your life to preserving the heritage of Cambodia?

ISHIZAWA YOSHIAKI  It started with a letter I received in 1980. At that time the monuments at Angkor had been badly affected by war and were engulfed by dense jungle. The letter was from Professor Pich Keo, a conservator I had worked with at the Ministry of Culture and Information’s Angkor Conservation Office under the Heng Samrin government. Civil war broke out in Cambodia in 1970, and the Pol Pot regime took power in 1975. The next three and a half years were a nightmare in which 1.5 million people were murdered by the Khmer Rouge and another 1.2 million left the country as refugees. In the letter, which reached me via a newspaper company, I learned that only three of the thirty six conservators who had been at the conservation office had survived the genocide.

I had spent time at the conservation office after I graduated from university in 1961 working on the inscriptions at Angkor and had made friends with the conservation workers there. I had lost contact with them during the civil war, though, and learned from the letter that the office had been closed and its activities at a standstill for more than ten years. Owing to neglect, the monuments had deteriorated seriously and there was a real risk that all the restoration work would be lost. In his letter, Professor Keo implored me to do anything I could to help.

In response to the letter I entered Cambodia, which was still smoldering from the ravages of war, becoming the first outside specialist to do so. I arrived with a television crew, but the ongoing political chaos kept us from starting survey work right away. In 1989 Sophia University dispatched an international survey, although full-fledged preservation work didn’t get underway again until peace was finally reached in 1991. Our aim was to prepare conservators to carry out archeological surveys and direct preservation and restoration efforts as well as train workers and stonemasons for restoration work. The project continues to this day.

Angkor Wat, the best-known temple of the Angkor complex, is famous for its outstanding artistic value. The site, the largest complex of ancient monuments in Asia, is situated some 240 kilometers northwest of the capital of Phnom Penh. (Photograph courtesy of Sophia University)

Restoring Pride

INTERVIEWER  How did you get restoration work underway again after the war?

ISHIZAWA  The first thing we did was set up the Banteay Kdei Temple(*1) as our training site. We strongly felt that local people should carry out restoration work, and by training conservators at on an actual site we aimed to give Cambodians the skills to carry out autonomous excavations and restoration work. “By Cambodians, for Cambodians” remains our motto to this day.

Trainees work on an archeological dig at Banteay Kdei Temple. (Photo courtesy of Sophia University)

That was why we opened the Sophia Asia Center for Research and Human Development in Siem Reap, the closest town to Angkor Wat, in 1996. Conservators are obviously indispensable for preserving the monuments, and the ideal is for them to come from the local populace as they best understand Cambodia’s traditions and culture and can convey the meaning and significance of these to the world. Angkor Wat is a symbol of national unity and having Cambodians work on restoring the monuments is highly significant in terms of rebuilding the nation as a whole.

Since 1997 we have been inviting Cambodian students to Sophia to learn the skills and knowledge needed to carry out preservation and restoration work as well as conduct surveys on the monuments. The techniques can be learned in a year, but we want the students to understand the social and historical background of the monuments and the religious perspectives of the original builders as well as develop a more sophisticated awareness of the issues they face in their restoration work. So far seven students have earned PhDs and eleven master’s degrees from Sophia. They now play a central role in restoration work at Angkor Wat. Several have even taken such important positions as vice-dean of the Royal University of Phnom Penh, division heads at the authority for the protection of the site and management of the region of Angkor/Siem Reap, and director general of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.

We have tried as much as possible to use the same traditional techniques and materials as when the monuments were first built, even if this slowed our progress. We also carried out surveys in tandem with preservation work, studying and double-checking everything as we go. It is a long-term project.

The first phase of restoration work on the western approach to the temple. (Photo courtesy of Sophia University)

(*1) ^ A twelfth-century temple located seven kilometers northwest of Angkor Wat.

  • [2018.04.06]
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