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'Asia's Nobel Prize' winner dedicated his professional life to Angkor Wat, Cambodians

Yoshiaki Ishizawa (Mainichi)

Sophia University professor Yoshiaki Ishizawa's connection to Angkor Wat and the Cambodian people has spread over half a century, earning him "Asia's Nobel Prize" earlier this month for his work in the country.

Pulled in by the wonder of the Cambodian World Heritage Site Angkor Wat, the 80-year-old Ishizawa has continued his work to promote "the restoration of the monument by the people of Cambodia for the people of Cambodia." It was the former Sophia University president's passion for the preservation and restoration of the site, as well as his promotion of personnel development in Cambodia after their civil war, which led to him being selected for the 2017 Ramon Magsaysay Award -- known as Asia's Nobel Prize -- on Sept. 1.

"I aimed for ethnic reconciliation, cultural restoration and laying the foundation for peace with Angkor Wat as the pillar of (Cambodian people's) identity," Ishizawa recalled with a soft smile.

Angkor Wat is one of the world's largest stone temples, built around the beginning of the 12th century. Drawn by the collection of stone structures at the site including 65-meter-high spires, Ishizawa, who was born in Obihiro, Hokkaido, went down the path of researching the ancient ruins. However, civil war put an abrupt end to his efforts.

After the fall of the government of Pol Pot, a leader in the Khmer Rouge, Ishizawa visited Angkor Wat again in 1980 to find the temple left in ruins. On top of that, of the 40 preservation specialists that he had previously worked with, he could only confirm that three had survived the violence.

"If I didn't offer a helping hand then, it would create problems in the future. So, I wholeheartedly began working in human resources development," he said. At the time, Cambodia was still isolated from the international community. Ishizawa founded a local human resources training center, and some of his students have gone on to hold important positions in Cambodian government agencies related to cultural affairs.

"The main characters of this tale are them," said Ishizawa. "Academic exchange will of course continue, but I would like to move toward filling a logistic support role from here on out."

The Magsaysay Award is given to people who have promoted peace and development in Asian regions. After the honor was decided, Ishizawa even received a message of gratitude from Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen for his contributions to the reconstruction of the nation.

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