Lamenting Japan from Cambodia

I am engaged in activities to remove landmines and unexploded ordnance buried in Cambodia.

By Ryoji Takayama


I am engaged in activities to remove landmines and unexploded ordnance buried in Cambodia.

The event that marked my beginning was the first time that the Japanese Self-Defense Forces participated in a UN peacekeeping operations (PKO) in 1992 and were dispatched to Cambodia. At that time, I belonged to Camp Okubo in Kyoto as a member of the Ground Self-Defense Forces, and I was in charge of personnel affairs for the JGSDF 4th Engineer Brigade, which consisted of about 4,000 members and was covered by the Chubu District Army (Headquarters: Itami City, Hyogo Prefecture).

The JGSDF 4th Engineer Brigade is the engineering unit in the old army building roads and bridges. In Cambodia, which was engulfed in civil war, elections were necessary to rebuild the country. Building roads, bridges, and other infrastructure was essential to the success of the election. That was why we were chosen for the job.

At the time, Japan was divided over the pros and cons of deploying the Self-Defense Forces. The atmosphere among the opposition parties and the media was that they would pursue the matter if anything happened. On the other hand, the government had to make the PKO a success at all costs, and there was no room for failure.

One day, I was called into the Commander’s office and suddenly ordered to compile a list of officers for the 600 troops to be sent to Cambodia by the following morning.

It was a sobering experience for me. This was the first time for the Self-Defense Forces to be active overseas. I couldn’t just write down the names of the troops and say, “Have a nice trip.” There were many complications that had to be dealt with on the ground before the project could be completed. It was obvious that it would be difficult to contact the families and coordinate with Tokyo.

At any rate, I knew that I had to make sure that every single one of the 600 people who had been dispatched would return to their families uninjured and in good health six months later. To accomplish this mission, I had no choice but to participate, and so I went to the site.

What I Witnessed in PKO

It was October, the end of the rainy season, when I set foot in Cambodia. I had heard that a ceasefire had been reached, but the atmosphere in the country was still tense. We had to use the Cambodian Army facility as a temporary camp and build the main camp on the site of an airfield three kilometers away.

The military is a self-contained organization. They prepare the bath, dining room, and toilet one after another, starting from the place where they sleep, and they secure water and electricity by themselves. But there is no road to go to the site of the airport. There are no dump trucks in Cambodia to make a roadbed.

In the end, it took us several months to build a camp facility for 600 people. During the period when there were no baths or laundry facilities, squalls were a blessing in disguise, and the troops, still wearing their combat uniforms, would go outside at once to wash their bodies and clothes. That’s how it was at first.

We set up a camp, built an outer fence, and set up patrols. At first, the guards were armed with wooden rifles shaped like bayonets.

The villagers must have detected the fake guns. One day, the outer fence was cut down, and people came in and stole various things. After that, we switched to defending by real guns, but everything was a series of trial and error.

One day, there was a loud bang near my house. When a child in an idyllic rice field adjacent to the camp tried to drive a stake, an unexploded bomb suddenly went off.

The unexploded ordnance originated from the Vietnam War that took place in the 1960s.

At the time, North Vietnamese troops were attacking South Vietnam through Cambodia and the United States was supporting South Vietnam. The U.S. dropped a large number of bombs in an attempt to stop the North Vietnamese. Later, when the civil war over the communization of Cambodia began, Cambodian government troops, Vietnamese troops who supported them, and Pol Pot’s troops supported by China engaged in a melee, and a large number of landmines were buried throughout the country.

Unexploded ordnance and landmines from that time remain intact even after the civil war. The number of landmines alone is said to be as high as 4 million or 6 million, and 800 to 900 Cambodians lost their lives every year.

I rushed to the site, but the ten-year-old boy was already dead. It was a very painful event. The Cambodian people are always forced to live with such tragedies. It was an event that made me actually perceive the situation.

After six months of “struggle,” our activities were transferred to the Hokkaido Unit. The SDF’s PKO is still going on because it ended without any major issues. It is often praised by the world. We have achieved our main goal, which is to have society recognize that the dispatch was a success.

However, for some reason, my own mood was never one of satisfaction. I wondered if I had really accomplished anything concrete for Cambodia. When two Cambodians were killed in a car accident caused by one of our members, I strived to deal with the accident. I visited their families and talked with them about various things. I was close to the teary-eyed parents and listened to their feelings. In the end, it was my job to put things in order, and I suppose it would have been easier if I had just let it go. But I was not in the mood to let go of my feelings.

From the window of the plane that took off from Phnom Penh Airport, the expanse of palm trees became smaller and smaller. As I looked at it, I thought to myself, “I’ll come back here one day and do what I have left to do until I’m satisfied.” This feeling grew and grew.

It was an experience that changed my outlook on life, values, and even my view on life and death. You could say that the switch was flipped on for my life. After I returned to Japan, I also studied English. Cambodia is a Buddhist country, so I went to Todaiji Temple in Nara Prefecture to earn the qualifications for a monk. I thought that if I were a Buddhist monk, I would not be killed even if I encountered a dangerous situation there. After I retired from the Self-Defense Forces, I overcame my family’s opposition and moved to Cambodia.

Hard and Soft Support

What shall I do in Cambodia? I talked to various non-governmental organizations (NGOs). However, it was difficult to find an organization that was a good fit for me. This was because I had doubts about the activities of many NGOs in Japan.

I’m sure you’ve seen news stories about how local residents were helped by the goodwill of Japanese companies. For example, a well built with support in a region in Cambodia is reported as a heartwarming story.

But what happened to the well after it was built? It broke down within a few months, but no one can or will fix it. There are plenty of cases where things are left in disrepair. That is the reality. It’s a shame and a strange sight.

What is fundamentally important is the maintenance of the well that has been created. I believed that the philosophy of using the wells with care, while maintaining them in case of malfunction or disorder, was important, and that the support should be for the know-how to do so. If we only provide hardware, it will not truly lead to Cambodia’s independence and recovery. Wells can be built with support.  However, if Cambodia has to rely on aid for repairs when it breaks, it will be bound to the spell of aid dependence.

After much consideration, I accepted an invitation from a non-profit organization called the Japan Mine Action Service (JMAS), which is made up of retired members of the Self-Defense Forces and became the local vice president. I decided to work in cooperation with the Cambodian government organization, the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC).

However, I was troubled by the fact that my prospects there were not as bright as I would have liked. In particular, financial barriers prevented me from disposing of land mines, and I was forced to concentrate on disposing of unexploded ordnance, which requires less manpower.

I decided to fundamentally change my approach. The first thing I did was to teach the local people how to dispose of landmines. This was an unprecedented approach to landmine disposal that involved the participation of local residents.

One team member weeds an area of 150 cm x 40 cm, while another sweeps the area with a metal detector. If there is no metal reaction, they move forward another 40 cm. If the metal detector responds, they remove the soil bit by bit using a small shovel or a brush. The process is repeated.

It is a nerve-wracking task to keep the mines from being triggered, and it can take more than an hour to complete just 40 cm. This is hard labor at over 40 degrees centigrade under the scorching sun, in protective clothing, but I thought this was the safest, surest, and the shortest way.

When we recruited local people, about one hundred people gathered. CMAC introduced me to Tasaen, the last battleground of the civil war near the Thai border, and I was happy to start my activities because my hopes were fulfilled.

We were now able to dispose of mines, which I had always wanted to do, and our activities in Tasaen were off to a good start. However, six months later, a major accident occurred. During our work, we were unaware that a large number of mines were buried underground, and they accidentally exploded, killing seven members.

I was in Phnom Penh at the time, on my way back to Japan. When I received the news of the accident, I immediately cancelled my trip and drove back to the scene. By the time I arrived, I was feeling regretful. I regretted that I had gotten carried away with how well the project was going. Was I not too naïve to think having a specialist on-site was enough? I should not have left the site after six months or so. What the hell was I doing?

I arrived back at my lodgings in Tasaen Village at midnight, but I could not sleep that night. I also attended the funerals of the seven people. Our activities have stopped for two months. I went to the house of a volunteer who couldn’t sleep at night because of the trauma of the accident and talked about various things.

However, I did not receive any harsh words from the Cambodian people or the villagers. In fact, one of the bereaved families encouraged me by saying, “I respect my son. So don’t worry about him.”

I built a memorial tower for the seven men who died in the line of duty. At that time, however, I was warned by the Japanese representative not to overdo things. At this, I shouted so loudly in a row that I thought the phone would break. The representative seemed to want to avoid the Japanese side being held responsible.

However, it is petty and lacks sincerity. They forget how they should be and how they should behave, and focus only on getting through the situation, and the only criterion for their behavior is their own interests. They act cunningly, but they don’t even realize that they are acting so. I was very sad and wondered how far the Japanese people had fallen.

I decided to leave this organization, and set up my own certified NPO, International Mine Clearance and Community Development Supporters (IMCCD) for the activities, bearing the memory of the seven victims.

On the other hand, there was one thing that was truly encouraging at this time. Almost all of the nearly 100 people who had applied for the mine-clearing team did not say that they would quit. They wanted to continue to earn their living through landmine disposal. Of course, I think they had circumstances for their living.

However, as they saw the homeland being cleared, safe living conditions, and more and more children playing freely in the fields, they realized the significance of their “work” and felt a sense of accomplishment. The villagers respected the members of the group who worked hard to clear mines.

After seventeen years of activities, the area cleared of landmines has now grown to about 56 times the size of the Tokyo Dome. Of course, the mines have not completely disappeared, but almost no one has been injured. We plant cassava, a kind of potato, on the cleared land. The land that had been devastated is now green and revived as farmland, and it is spreading. When I see this, I feel truly rewarded.

When I saw how cheaply the cassava was being bought, I decided to make the distilled spirit shochu from it. The shochu was exported to Japan, which was a big step for the village. The villagers learned the importance of adding value to the agricultural products they grew, rather than just selling them. They began to come up with various ideas.

In addition, I negotiated with four paper processing companies in Shikokuchuo City, Ehime Prefecture, my hometown, and invited them to set up a factory in the area around Tasaen, where about 260 people are engaged in paper processing. In Cambodia, there are several NGOs that are devoted to mine clearance, but none of them have expanded their activities to include village revitalization and are working to improve the lives of local residents. Our activities are totally unique.

Thinking of Japan

Cambodians, for better or worse, are very easy-going. They rarely blame others for trivial things about time, money, or even promises. I can’t say how many times I felt refreshed, soothed, and saved by their laid-back style.

However, because they are also easy on themselves, in some situations they can be seen as careless about rules, money, and time, which can be a serious obstacle to building trust with others. I sometimes think that indifference to details is also a problem. They are good people and thoughtful. They can unite. However, I sometimes feel that they are not good at managing in many ways.

Yet, when I see the peaceful scene where they cherish their community and quickly get to know each other, it reminds me of the Japanese communities of the past. This is what I love about them. In Japan, it is not uncommon for siblings to push each other over who will take care of their aging parents. In Cambodia, it is rare to see such a scene. As I listened to their stories, I began to feel envy. I can’t say how many times that has happened to me.

Often, I am struck with awe when I mingle with them. In fact, it is the Japanese who often make me wonder if the current situation will do. In particular, Cambodians all have a strong desire to make their homeland a better country. I really admire this.

For example, in the mine-clearing team, there are people who used to belong to the Pol Pot faction, and those on the side of resistance to Pol Pot. They work together, weeding the minefield. In the beginning, when we formed the teams, we worried that there must be ill feelings against each other.

But our concern was completely unnecessary. Whenever we asked, either side of them said, “We want to improve our country from now on.” They want to move forward, overcoming the unpleasant past. This is what they are really thinking.

The other day, heavy rains caused the local river to overflow, flooding the region. I was looking around the area to see what damage had been done, and when children as young as 15 saw me, they would often say things like, “Thank you, Ta (my nickname). I thank you on behalf of the Cambodian people,” in casual conversation.

It is rare to hear such words from a Japanese person. Unless every Cambodian has a sense that they are carrying the future of Cambodia on their shoulders, I don’t think such words would come out easily.

Cambodia is not a wealthy country today. There are many obstacles and difficulties, and it may take some time. However, I am sure that they will be able to build a “good country” while remaining rooted in this reality. I am convinced of this as I have faced the Cambodian people.

What worries me is the Japanese people. Japanese people used to share these values. However, as I mentioned above, they do not sweat, they just focus on living aimlessly, run away at the last moment, and avoid their responsibilities. More and more Japanese just claim their rights.

This is the contradiction that Japan is facing. The military has become a taboo subject because we have accepted a history that has been distorted, and we think of a fantasized peace. Many Japanese people are now unable to even think of a way to achieve peace that is rooted in reality.

They just focus on their economic activities and believe that it is enough. Japanese society, which does not consider contradictions as contradictions, has brought about the bad behavior of the Japanese people.

I hope that we will once again regain the pride and values of the Japanese people that we have inherited from our predecessors. I hope that we can rebuild our identity. This is what I hope for while I am in Cambodia.

Ryoji Takayama
Demining specialist. Born in Ehime Prefecture in 1947. Joined the Japan Ground Self-Defense Forces in 1966. Participated in PKO in Cambodia in 1992, and after leaving the military, continued to work for the reconstruction of Cambodia. Resident Representative for Certified NPO International Mine Clearance and Community Development Supporters (IMCCD). Author of the book “The Work of Mine Disposal” (from Chikuma Primer Shinsho, in Japanese).

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