Saving Angkor: Yoshiaki Ishizawa’s work in reviving Cambodian heritage

Although it did not gravely damage Angkor Wat, the war killed Cambodian conservationists whom Ishizawa worked closely with. 

“I have many Cambodian friends and so I used to go to Cambodia very often to meet them… I call them about [problems of Angkor Wat]. But unfortunately due to the long civil war, many of these experts were killed only 3 of them managed to come back,” he said. 

“That's how [I] had the idea of saving Angkor Wat,” he said. 

Right after the war, in 1980, Ishizawa continued to work with Cambodian agencies and international organizations to campaign for awareness and support for the heritage site’s conservation.

As a historian and an educator, Ishizawa’s approach to conserving Angkor Wat was educating the Cambodians so they themselves can participate in the preservation process. 

Culture and conservation 

He led the the Sophia University Angkor International Mission (Sophia Mission) in 1989. The mission conducted research, training and conservation work.  

Ishizawa brought in Japanese masons to work with their Cambodian counterparts to learn the proper conservation techniques. He also encouraged young Cambodians to study conservation-related degrees in Sophia University where he served as President from 2005 to 2011.  

“I want the young people to take and develop an interest in the monument of Angkor so I bring them over to the site of the monument and excavate the place along with them,” he said. 

“By the work that they are doing there, they will learn their own history and their own culture.  The youngsters would take interest in order to understand their own identity – who they are, what they are,” he said. 

He viewed the continuing conservation project as not just rebuilding Angkor Wat but also rebuilding Cambodian identity itself. 

Unlike the Japanese who have a strong affiliation with their culture, Ishizawa said Cambodians did not have this opportunity because of colonization, describing it as a “great loss” for them.

He believes that exposing the young ones in the preservation would make them reconnect with their roots. 

Inside Angkor Wat. Photo by Patty Pasion/Rappler

Inside Angkor Wat.

Photo by Patty Pasion/Rappler

Each portion of the whole Angkor Wat complex tells a story of how the original Khmer inhabitants lived – their agriculture, art, urban planning, among others. 

“The monument is extremenly large and within the monument there are so many things that we can learn hidden [there],” he said. 

Cultural preservation

The Sophia mission did not only focused on training young conservationists, it also campaigned to raise awareness among Cambodian children through the establishment of the Center for Education on Angkor Cultural Heritage in 2009.  The Preah Norodom Sihanouk Angkor Museum, which houses Khmer artifacts was also constructed. 

They also founded the training center and hostel, Sophia Asia Center for Research and Human Development in Siem Reap, for Cambodian and international scholars. (READ: Top 5 tourist destinations in Cambodia

Ishizawa never expected to gain an award for the efforts he led. “I didn’t think it was anything at all, I was only doing the work I’d like to do… both preservation and history.” 

There’s much more work to do in the Angkor Wat as they try to limit the weathering by mitigating mold, replacing old stones, and removing vegetation. Along with the physical work on the structure, he wanted young Cambodians to continue learning and discovering their culture and identity.

“How much progress people [may have economically], the feeling of happiness and peace of mind and heart is [what’s] very important. Studying your history and your culture, learning about your identity – that provides you the peace of mind and serenity of heart,” he said. – 


Patty Pasion

Patty leads the Rappler+ membership program. She used to be a Rappler multimedia reporter who covered politics, labor, and development issues of vulnerable sectors.