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Tending the memory of a legend

A Japanese tourist visits the grave
A Japanese tourist visits the grave Thik Kaliyann

Tending the memory of a legend

In the field where the remains of a Japanese war photographer presumed killed by the Khmer Rouge were found, a villager keeps his story alive

When the rains come, Taizo Ichinose’s memorial becomes hard to reach. The dirt road turns to slush and the tyres skid, but still the tourists come to lay flowers at the site, a white speck in a lush green field, and listen to the story of the man who became a hero in this quiet corner of Siem Reap province.

A Japanese war photographer, Ichinose arrived in Siem Reap in 1973 during the civil war. He disappeared the same year, believed killed by Khmer Rouge soldiers at the age of 26 after trying to take pictures of Angkor Wat while the temple was controlled by their forces.

Some of Ichinose’s photographs
Some of Ichinose’s photographs Thik Kaliyann

More than 40 years have passed since the photographer’s death, but the place where his body was found, near Banteay Srei temple, continues to attract a steady flow of visitors, most of them Japanese, thanks to the efforts of a local man, Kong Thoun.

“More than 40 tourists come here every day,” said Thoun. The 38-year-old from Tnal Toteung village, who speaks fluent Japanese, has cared for the site for more than 13 years, since he saved some money and constructed the tribute in 2001.

“I am always here, telling the tourists about Taizo, cleaning his grave and praying for his soul to rest in peace,” he said.

In a wooden house near the burial site, pictures of – and by – the photographer are pinned on the walls along with tidbits about his background and ill-fated enterprise. Thoun points to them as he tells visitors the story.

As an adventurous photographer in his twenties, Ichinose travelled from his home town in Japan to Southeast Asia where he first covered the Vietnam War and later moved to Cambodia, with the intention of capturing images of Pol Pot’s forces inhabiting Angkor Wat.

In a biopic released in 1999 titled One Step on a Mine, It’s All Over, Ichinose is depicted as an ambitious snapper desperate to make the front page of The New York Times who believes nothing but these images would make the cut.

“It was very dangerous, but Taizo really wanted to take photographs of Angkor Wat and no one dared to do it, even his journalist friends,” Thoun said.

A painting of Taizo Ichinose
A painting of Taizo Ichinose Thik Kaliyann

Mystery surrounds the exact circumstances of his death, but his skull and bones were recovered in Banteay Srei district, where Thoun lives today, by Ichinose’s parents, who flew from Japan in search of their son in 1982.

At first, the couple wanted to bring the photographer’s remains to Japan, but could not take them aboard the airplane as staff believed the body would bring bad luck to the flight.

Instead, they decided to hold a funeral ceremony in a pagoda in Siem Reap and buried Ichinose’s bones under a tree near Angkor Wat temple – the place he lost his life trying to photograph.

“They just fulfilled his desire,” said Thoun, adding that although the photographer’s bones no longer rest on his land, he wanted to commemorate the site where they were found.

“I am just a villager who owns the land where his bones were, but, I think I am lucky to look after the grave of a person who sacrificed everything, even his life, to reach his goal,” he said.

He’s not the only one in the village who is spreading the word about Ichinose. A little way down the road, some images by the photographer hang on the walls of Banteay Srei restaurant on National Road 6A.

Kong Thoun, who cares for the site
Kong Thoun, who cares for the site Thik Kaliyann

Chhim Lok, 79, the mother of the restaurant owner, remembers cooking for Ichinose when he stayed in the city. “My mother was his cook when I was nine,” explained her daughter, Chan Lavy.

“Some foreigners, especially Japanese, come here to have a look at those photos, read the descriptions, and we also tell them about the grave so they can go if they wish to,” she added.​

More will discover the story, if Thoun has his way. He intends to build a school near the grave site, both to educate the young children who live nearby, and to tell the story.

“And another reason, I just don’t want him to feel lonely,” he added with a smile.

But for now, there are plenty of visitors. In addition to Japanese, French and Thai tourists also come, according to Thoun. Battling the rain on a recent afternoon a Japanese tourist knelt by the grave and explained that he had watched the film about Ichinose’s life and wanted to pay his respects.

“If I have a chance to visit here again, I would bring my parents, as they would like to see the grave as well,” he said, placing incense sticks by the white stone.

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