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My Memory of Japan

Pou Sothirak, former Cambodian Ambassador, attends a cu ltural event held in Tokyo, Japan. Supplied

After Emperor Akihito abdicated on 30 April 2019, Emperor Naruhito formally proclaimed his ascension to the Chry­santhemum throne on 1 May 2019. The usher­ing of the new Japanese ruler marked the end of “Heisei” (peace every­where) to “Reiwa” (beau­tiful peace) and opened a new era for Japan where everyone’s aspiration for the auspicious future can bloom.

Peace is everything for Japan, a coun­try that blatantly renounces war due to the unprecedented destruc­tion of World War II 75 years ago. Japan is a peaceful country and wishes for a harmonious coexistence with all oth­er nations in the world. Japan is already a sen­ior member of the com­munity of advanced na­tions and is one of Asia’s oldest democratic gov­ernments. Having lived for nearly four years’ in Japan, I witnessed four elections and had met five Japanese Prime Ministers. I can see that democracy is not easy. The British Statesman Clement Atlee once said: “Democracy is govern­ment by discussion, but it is only effective if you can stop people talking.” During late March 2005, His Majesty Norodom Sihanouk, then-King and head of State of Cambo­dia, sent me to serve as a Cambodian Ambassador to Japan. I had the great­est honour to present the Letter of Credence to His Majesty Akihito, Emperor of Japan on 11 April 2005 at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. I returned back to Cambodia in November 2008 after my term end­ed. I have kept wonder­ful memories of my stay in Japan and the follow­ing paragraphs are the essence of this reminis­cence.

Japan was among the first foreign countries to recognise Cambodia’s in­dependence and has es­tablished diplomatic rela­tions with Cambodia soon after the country regained sovereignty from France in 1953. Because the two countries have never had neither cultural or territo­rial disputes, deep bond of friendship and cordial cooperation between the two countries developed and strengthened over the years in all fields of Cambodia’s national re­construction and rehabili­tation which is strongly supported by Japan. De­spite the distance be­tween the two countries, Cambodia and Japan have never experienced any animosity. On the contra­ry, both have become in­creasingly close with each other because of so many things that bind them his­torically and the numer­ous values they share.

As a new country re­bounding from years of isolation and war-induced devastation, Cambodia has had excellent rela­tions with Japan. During my diplomatic mission, I had the honour to join the Japanese government in warmly welcoming Sam­dech Hun Sen, Prime Min­ister of the Royal Govern­ment of Cambodia, who paid an official visit to Japan from 13 to 16 June 2007. On June 14, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Samdech Hun Sen, signed the “Agreement between Japan and the Kingdom of Cambodia for the Lib­eralisation, Promotion and Protection of Invest­ment” to promote invest­ment between Japan and Cambodia and strength­en bilateral economic relations. From 15 to 20 October 2007, I had the privilege to join the Diet of Japan in welcoming Samdech Heng Samrin, President of the National Assembly of the Kingdom of Cambodia, who paid an official visit to Japan as an official guest of the House of Representatives of Japan.For Cambodia, Japan has always been a great friend. All Cambodi­ans know that Japan has assumed a meaningful role in bringing peace and development to Cambo­dia. Since the signing of the Paris Peace Agree­ments on Cambodia in October 1991, Japan has continued to mobilise the much-needed assistance to rehabilitate and help reconstruct Cambodian national economy and the much-need physi­cal infrastructures. Japan has provided substantial financial and technical assistances to Cambo­dia especially for repairs and rehabilitation of in­frastructure in the coun­try. Since 1993 Japan has helped build and re­habilitate schools, hospi­tals, roads, ports, bridges, electrical systems and water treatment facilities across the country.These projects are durable, quality constructions that promote further devel­opment of the country. Japan’s openhanded aid programme has brought some considerable bene­fits to Cambodia and had uplifted the wellbeing of the common people over the past three dec­ades. Japan’s assistance to Cambodia has been instrumental in helping the Kingdom rebuild itself and reestablish its image and prestige as member of the international com­munity. Their assistance has greatly contributed to peace, stability, and development in Cambo­dia, a country of vital im­portance to Japan’s diplo­macy.

Japanese ODA ac­counts for as much as 20 percent of the total ODA inflow received by Cam­bodia, making Japan one of the biggest donors in the country. In an effort to help Cambodia meet its development goals, the Japanese government keeps close consultation with its Cambodian coun­terpart, and provides grants, technical coop­eration and yen loans in support, primarily in the following priority areas: (1) good governance, (2) creation of an environ­ment conducive to eco­nomic growth, (3) consol­idation of the economic and social infrastructure, (4) strengthening of the health and medical care framework, (5) strength­ening of the education system, (6) agriculture and rural development, (7) clearing of antiper­sonnel mines and aid for the disabled, (8) manage­ment of environmental resources, and (9) human resources development.

I should not neglect to mention the impor­tant efforts and generous humanitarian activities undertaken by many Japa­nese non-governmental or­ganisations and individual Japanese citizens in Cam­bodia, which are keenly implemented and conform with the Cambodian gov­ernment’s policies focused on health care and edu­cation as well as on pov­erty reduction, which are highly appreciated and re­ally beneficial to the poor Cambodian people.

Pou Sothirak, Executive Director of the Cambodian Institute for
Cooperation and Peace, Former Cambodian Ambassador to Japan,
and Recipient of the Japan’s Order of the Rising Sun, Goal and
Silver Star April 2020

During my time as an Ambassador, Japanese vis­itors ranked First in tour­ist foot traffic. There has been an increase in people to people exchange be­tween our two countries from year-on-year, as can be seen by an increasing number of Japanese tour­ists visiting Cambodia and its famous temples, like Angkor. These people-to-people exchange has con­tributed enormously to strengthening mutual un­derstanding between the two nations and peoples.

On a personal note and during my diplomatic ten­ure, I discovered the many attractions and sophisti­cations in the Japanese culture affluence and its profound soft power, as well as a new pillar of Ja­pan’s Foreign Policy. The Japanese tradition and their way of life strongly intrigued me, as it does to most foreign visitors to Japan. I have been im­pressed and enchanted with the delicious and healthy sushi and sashimi as well as other mouth-wa­tering Japanese culinary, the Japanese Manga, tea ceremony, flower arrange­ment, the spectacular nat­ural sceneries, the comfort of life, the magnificent temples and shrines with their Buddhist and Shinto influences, other countless old tradition and customs that date back to the Meiji era, and the cutting-edge technology. Equally fasci­nating to me was Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s new concept of promoting uni­versal values and building closer relations with like-minded countries. What had transpired in 2006 was a nationalistic shift toward engaging more.

This captivating new foreign policy of Japan, known as “the Arc of Free­dom and Prosperity and Values-Oriented Diplo­macy”, was heralded as a rare example of a strate­gic approach that could be used as a tool to bolster relations with various part­ners and extending Japan’s diplomatic reach to further regions.

In conclusion, I have had the opportunity to meet and talk with many Japa­nese officials, members of Diet, universities, NGOs, and common citizens of Ja­pan and I have been struck by their willingness to help Cambodia. I had always been awed by the industri­al and economic might of Japan; however, it humbles me to know that a small country like Cambodia can be the recipient of such support and kindness. This has made me realise that there is so much more to Japan than economic pro­duction and GNP. It is its profound culture and value that makes it great. It is the hard work, commitment, discipline, warm, and peace-loving citizens that drive this great nation.

If we look at Cambo­dia today, we see how the generosity of Japan has lightened our burdens and empowered so many of our citizens. From smooth roads to new schools, from the restoration of Angkor temples to new business opportunities, Japan has touched our lives in special ways.

Cambodians do not for­get that it was a citizen of Japan, Yashushi Akashi, head of the 1992 – 1993 UN Mission in Cambodia, who helped guide our country out of the mire of civil war and foreign interventions towards an era of democracy, peace and development. I cannot put into words my respect and admiration for Japan and her people. I can only say, quite simply, from my heart: “Doomo Arigato Go­zaimasu”.

I also would like to take this opportunity to express my sincere appreciation to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the government of Ja­pan for conferring me with a prestigious recognition, the “Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star”, on 7 November 2017 at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo and in the presence of His Majesty Emperor of Japan.

Nine years later, I left my post as Cambodian Am­bassador to Japan but I feel honoured and privileged to understand that the distinguished award was conferred to me in recog­nition of my contribution to the promotion of aca­demic relations and mutu­al understanding between Japan and Cambodia.


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