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Saving Angkor Wat: Japanese historian honored for work

Yoshiaki Ishizawa
 

2017 Ramon Magsaysay Awards

MANILA, Philippines -  A Japanese historian who devoted more than half of his life to helping Cambodians save Angkor Wat is one of this year’s Ramon Magsaysay awardees.

Prof. Yoshiaki Ishizawa, former president of Sophia University, director of the Sophia Asia Center for Research and Human Development and chief of the Sophia Angkor International Mission, has been lauded for his enormous contribution to the restoration and conservation of the 7th Wonder of the World, a source of immense cultural pride and a “symbol of unity” for the Cambodian people. 

The 79-year-old Ishizawa’s fascination with Cambodia started when, as a 23-year-old French language student, he met a French scholar who introduced him to Cambodian archeology.

His academic career would eventually find itself involved in the active safeguarding of the Angkor monuments, guided by his personal philosophy that the “preservation and restoration of Cambodian cultural heritage should be carried out by the Cambodians, for the Cambodians.” 

He would lead the Sophia International Angkor Mission that did independent excavations, restorations and research even at the height of the civil war that tore the country apart in the ‘80s.

According to a feature on NHK, he first visited Angkor Wat as a student in 1961. When he returned to the country in the early 1980s, “he was devastated to find that almost all his Cambodian archaeologist colleagues had been killed by the Khmer Rouge regime. Over 1.5 million Cambodians, mostly intellectuals, died as a result of the genocide.”

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“Our reason for insisting on rescuing Angkor Wat is because this would signify a call to the people to return to the peace that once characterized the Angkor period, as well as a call for them to rebuild their nation once more,” he said in his speech at the Ramon Magsaysay recognition rites last Thursday. 

For Ishizawa, “Angkor Wat was a symbol of unity for the people, and besides, it appeared on the national flag. It is Angkor Wat alone that can provide the Cambodians with the courage and hope they need, for it is the very basis on which their spirit rests.”

The efforts to restore Angkor Wat yielded the unprecedented discovery of 74 Buddhist statues that date back to the 10th to 13th centuries, the centerpiece of the Preah Norodom Sihanouk Angkor Museum.

But the professor’s commitment to help Cambodians went beyond the physical restoration of the Angkor temple complexes, but also extended to the development of human resources, its Cambodian caretakers.  

“There are several scholars and intellectuals who insist that the Cambodians are incapable of doing such work, but I refuse to subscribe to such an opinion,” he said. 

In 1991, he established the Asia Center for Research and Human Development in Siem Reap to train and mentor Cambodian conservators.

Then in 1996, the Sophia Asia Center for Research Development was built, a training center where conservators acquired academic degrees. To date, seven have earned their doctorate degrees while 11 have acquired their master’s degrees, all of whom have returned to Cambodia and served as senior government officials. 

For his work, the Cambodian government awarded him the Royal Order of Sahametrei (Grand Officer) by His Majesty King Norodom Sihanouk in 1998, and the Royal Order of Sahametrei (Grand Croix) by His Majesty King Norodom Sihamoni and Royal Order of Sahametrei (Grade de Commandeur de la Médaille) in 2007. 

 

 

 

 

 

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