Visitors to Japan’s most renowned museum are often impressed by its extensive collection of Angkor art from Cambodia. The Tokyo National Museum has the largest collection of ancient Angkor sculptures in Japan, as well as ceramics that experts say are generally of a higher quality than most of those on display in Cambodia’s own museums.
A curious sign next to some of the 69 displayed items says that they were acquired through an “exchange” with France, Cambodia’s colonial ruler. More specifically, the exchange was supposedly made with the l’Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient (EFEO), the still existent French institute dedicated to the study of Asian societies.
In exchange for the 69 Angkor era objects, Japan reciprocally sent 31 of its own precious items, including ancient swords, textiles, lacquer ware, and sculptures, to the French.
David Miller, an international relations expert at the Tokyo National Museum, said the exchange was arranged during a meeting between Japanese Count Kuroda Kiyoshi and George Coedes, the then director of l’Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient in Hanoi, in the spring of 1941. The Japanese had troops in Hanoi at that time. The ancient Cambodian items arrived in Tokyo in 1944, when the Japanese occupied French Indochina.
“This [exchange] was probably as a result of a policy confirmed at Japanese-French Indochinese talks held in November 1940, a policy that stated, ‘Friendly relations between Japan and French Indochina shall be further promoted through cultural exchange’,” Miller wrote, noting that the policy also promoted academic exchanges.
Dominique Soutif, the current representative of l’Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient (EFEO) in Cambodia, says the supposed “exchange” was most likely imposed on France, which was not in a position to refuse. He notes that Japanese occupiers tortured and murdered the then French founder and first director of Cambodia’s National Museum, George Groslier.
“The Japanese could do anything they wanted to do at that time,” Soutif said. “Clearly, he [George Coedes] didn’t have much choice in this matter.”
In Cambodia, the terms of the exchange are shrouded in mystery. Cambodian officials interviewed for this story said they did not have any additional information beyond what Miller outlined about the exchange. Most were unaware that it took place during World War II.
“When I visited the [Tokyo National] museum, I saw these objects, with the label that said donation from EFEO – and I myself had the question about how the EFEO could donate these objects to Japan,” said the director of Cambodia’s National Museum, Kong Vireak.
After the end of World War II, the American military authority that occupied Japan conducted an investigation into the exchange, since any movement of cultural artifacts during wartime was considered suspicious, says Ricardo Elia, an archaeology professor at Boston University who recently unearthed information about the exchange in the US’s National Archives.
In the course of the US investigation, officials from the Imperial Household Museum (the previous name of the Tokyo National Museum) submitted documents showing that the exchange was entered into willingly by the EFEO, Elia says. The Americans then dropped the case, in part because the French didn’t claim the artifacts until after the end of the war.
Questions remain about the terms of the exchange and the legitimacy of Japan’s claim to the antiquities. According to World War II era documents, the value of the Angkorian objects – which included 31 sculptures from the 9th to the 13th century, 13 metalwork objects from the 12th to the 14th century and 25 ceramics from the 9th to the 17th century – was 42,400 yen.
The 39 Japanese objects that were supposed to be sent in return were valued at more than 50,000 yen. (In the end, Japan sent only 31 of its artifacts.)
Elia suspects that the Cambodian art was intentionally undervalued. How, he asks, could 69 artifacts – some of which were more than a thousand years old – be worth less than 31 pieces of Japanese art? And were the French, in the middle of a debilitating war, really desperate for Japanese arts and crafts, including masks, kimonos, and ethnographic materials from Japanese minority groups, Elia asks.
Elia reckons that some of the objects the Japanese sent were genuinely ancient while others barely qualified as antiquities – “like 50 or 100 years old, but not really ancient”. He believes that France probably did not claim the artifacts after the war because Paris was embarrassed to admit how extensively they had cooperated with Japan.
“My impression is that the French school is not very eager to have this story come out,” he said. “You have to remember this was not a complete military occupation by the Japanese. The French were collaborators with the Japanese … The French were desperate to retain that colony, so they made the deal with the Japanese.”
It is not clear what happened to the objects that Japan sent in exchange. According to documents they arrived safely in Saigon’s Musee Blanchard de La Brosse in 1943, which later became the Museum of Vietnamese History. In any case, the Japanese treasures apparently never reached Cambodia; there is certainly no Japanese art on display in any of Cambodia’s museums.
In addition to the 69 Angkor objects, artifacts may have been taken by Japanese soldiers from Cambodia during the occupation, admits Miller. These items may have ended up in other Japanese museums or in private collections. The Kamratan Collection, a collection owned Hiroshi Fujiwara that includes 138 pieces of Khmer ceramics spanning the 9th to 13th centuries, is considered one of the finest collections of ancient Cambodian ceramics in the world, according to a book on the topic.
“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.
Whether the Japanese looted during the occupation of Indochina is unclear, according to Elia. “Everyone tends to assume that they looted as much as the Nazis. But there is a lot of documentation for the Nazis – and there isn’t for the Japanese,” he said.
The exchange with EFEO, which took place almost 70 years ago, did not include an expiration date. But questions are rising about whether Japan should return the Angkor art because it was received during wartime.
Last year, the Metropolitan Museum in New York returned two giant Angkor statues to Phnom Penh after determining that they had been looted. The fate of a third statue from the same temple complex, valued between US$2 million and $3 million, is currently being debated in an American court.
Japan recently agreed to return to South Korea more than 1,000 works of art it had seized during its occupation of what was then a unified Korea from 1910 to 1945. However, Tokyo has not yet mentioned returning any of the Cambodian antiquities held in its museums.
Unlike China and South Korea, Cambodian officials say they hold no ill-will against Japan for their World War II aggression. More recently, Japan has invested heavily in Cambodia, helping to build bridges, water treatment facilities, roads and finance the clearance of land mines. Japan has also been involved in restoring some of the Angkor temples, now a major global tourist attraction and government revenue-spinner.
Whether the ancient objects are returned will depend on the good will of the Japanese, Cambodian officials said. “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,” said Chuch Phoeurn, Secretary of State at Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. “If Japan wants to return these objects to Cambodia by [their own] will, Cambodia will open its hand to receive.”
At the same time, he said there is a positive aspect to Cambodian art being on display abroad. It is like “free advertising” for Cambodia, Phoeurn said. “We are very pleased that Khmer artifacts are exhibited in France, in Washington, or in Japan. I’m very pleased [because] it opens the door for tourists visiting Cambodia,” he said. “Before we had 3,000 tourists, and now we have three million tourists. Through what? Through the knowledge of Khmer culture abroad.”