Visit Tokyo’s National Museum and you’ll find a range of ancient Angkorian sculptures. Julie Masis went on a mission to find out more about their complicated origins.
In the winter of 1944, a shipment arrived in Tokyo from Japanese-occupied Indochina. Inside were 69 Angkorian masterpieces: 31 sculptures from the 9th to the 13th century, 13 ancient metal work objects – including a bell and a spittoon – and 25 ceramics of different glazes.
Almost 70 years later the objects are still on display at the Tokyo National Museum, making up Japan’s largest collection of Angkorian sculptures.
Angkorian art can be found in museums around the world: the temples have fallen victim to looters since the 14th century, and hundreds of statues were brought to France during the colonial era.
The story of how these artefacts came to be in Tokyo depends on who you ask.
The museum has added a simple note next to the objects stating that they were obtained through an exchange with l’École française d’Extrême-Orient. The year of this “exchange” is not included – and not many people realize that it took place in the middle of World War II.
David Miller, the international relations expert at the Tokyo National Museum, said the “cultural exchange” was an agreement between George Cœdès, the director of l’École française d’Extrême-Orient, and Japan’s Count Kuroda Kiyoshi who visited French Indochina in 1941.
This agreement, Miller wrote in an email, “was probably as a result of a policy confirmed at Japanese-French Indochinese talks held in November, 1940” which included “not only the exchange of antiquities, but also an exchange of contemporary art exhibitions as well as academic exchanges”.
The climate in which these talks took place, however, was a heated one. France was defeated by Nazi Germany in the summer of 1940 and by September of that year Japan had occupied French Indochina, which included Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.
“The Japanese could do anything they wanted to do at that time,” Dominique Soutif, the representative of l’École française d’Extrême-Orient in Siem Reap, said in an interview.
“Clearly, he [George Cœdès] didn’t have much choice in this matter.”
In exchange for the 69 Angkorian objects, the Japanese sent 31 works of art, including swords and textiles, to Saigon. This took place after some resistance from the staff at the Imperial Household Museum, which was the name of the Tokyo National Museum at the time, about removing the objects from the museum’s registry, according to Miller.
It is not clear what happened to these Japanese objects – whether they ended up in France or in Vietnam, or if they were lost along the way. In any case, they didn’t make it to Cambodia: there is no Japanese art on display anywhere in the country.
Miller – speaking on behalf of Koizumi Yoshihide, the curator of Southeast Asian art at the Tokyo National Museum, who does not know English well enough to answer emails on his own – acknowledged that Japanese soldiers may have stolen some antiquities from Cambodia during occupation.
“Such objects probably were taken to Japan by people returning to Japan, but there are no official records of these activities. It is therefore very difficult to say what objects were taken, when they were taken, and whether they were taken directly from Cambodia or from other places within Asia,” Miller wrote in an email.
What we do know, is that in addition to the 69 objects that were acquired from l’École française d’Extrême-Orient, Tokyo’s National Museum also has a remarkable collection of Angkorian ceramics in the shapes of animals – including a vessel in the shape of an elephant and a jar that looks like a bird.
According to Ea Darith, a Cambodian scholar who wrote his PhD on Angkorian stonewear ceramics, the bird-shaped jar is particularly special, because such jars have not been excavated in Cambodia yet, he wrote in an email. The brown-glazed bird-shaped jar from the 12th to the 13th century was donated to the Tokyo National Museum two years ago by a man named Kishino Kohei.
Japan is also home to the Kamratan Collection, a private collection by Hiroshi Fujiwara who accumulated 138 pieces of Khmer ceramics from the 9th to the 13th century. According to a book that was written on the subject, it is one of the finest collections of Khmer ceramics in the world.
Whether countries should be obligated to return art that was acquired in murky circumstances is a matter of debate. The highly-publicised case of two giant kneeling attendants that were returned to Cambodia from the Metropolitan Museum in New York this summer after it was determined that the statues were probably looted is just one example.
While Japan has never returned any artefacts to Cambodia, three years ago the Japanese agreed to give back more than 1,000 objects to South Korea, as an apology for colonial rule between 1910 and 1945.
Chuch Phoeurn, the secretary of state at Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, said that according to a UNESCO convention, the government has 75 years to make a claim on their national artefacts.
“If any newspaper or journal launches an appeal on this, we can follow up based on the UNESCO convention of 1995. We have the right to do this,” he said.
But other Cambodian officials said there isn’t much that can be done to bring the art back to Cambodia.
“The world has different powers, we cannot deny it,” said Kong Vireak, the director of Cambodia’s National Museum.
“If they have good will, they will return it. But we cannot claim it.”