The Ancient Red Gates of Tokyo University

University Library, Tokyo University

Tokyo: March 2007

Yale's global outreach now includes important enhancements to the University's relations with universities and cultural institutions in Japan.  From March 13-16, 2007, Ellen Hammond, East Asia curator, and Ann Okerson, AUL for Collections and International Programs, visited Tokyo on behalf of Yale University and its Library.  The first signs of the season's cherry blossoms were in evidence.

The centerpiece of the trip was a series of meetings at the University Library and Tokyo University, with whom Yale is signing a significant memorandum of understanding for future cooperation.  Hammond and Okerson joined Assistant Secretary of the University D. George Joseph in meeting with President Hiroshi Komiyama of Tokyo University and his senior staff to discuss the reciprocal arrangements for student and faculty exchanges in the coming years.  Further detailed meetings were held with theUniversity Librarian and his staff.  A highlight of the visit was a seminar held on Wednesday, March 14, on the future of the humanities.  Joseph and Hammond were joined as speakers by Professors Christopher Hill (East Asian Languages and Literatures) and Aaron Gerow (Film Studies).  Hammond spoke about digital experiments and projects at Yale Library, Joseph gave an overview of the University's programs and directions, and Hill and Gerow spoke of the programs in their academic areas.  A prolonged and lively discussion with the audience ensued.

Later in the visit, Hammond and Okerson also visited the library of Waseda University to develop further library contacts.  While there, they toured the library, including its spectacular rare books and special collections, as well as the extensive and impressively managed digitization project for rare books (mainly Japanese) carried on in a state of the art laboratory there. 

The trip concluded with a visit to Kinokuniya Books, the major supplier of Japanese materials to the Yale Library, with whom the Library is conducting an extensive experiment in outsourced cataloging.  Staff of Kinokuniya demonstrated to their visitors a number of Japanese digital library projects, for which they are the primary vendor/supplier, and also the about-to-be-announced Japanese installation of OCLC's NetLibrary.  Hammond and Okerson were received and hosted by Kinokuniya's Vice-Chairman, Kimiyoshi Yoshioka, and other lead staff of the company.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Cambodia: 1996 and 1999

The following material derives from a visit to Cambodia in August 1996 in pursuit of a better working relationship that would bring us a supply of Cambodian publications to Yale. What I found was a country struggling to come back after a long and ghastly period of disorder: the 1970-75 civil war overlaid with American bombing, the 1975-79 Pol Pot interlude of unspeakable violence and social destruction, the 1979-1991 Vietnamese occupation: all this had ended, or so it seemed, with UN involvement in the early 1990s. By 1996, the UN had left in place a struggling, functioning government and society. The central market was open and bustling, the airport was managing a thin but steady stream of travelers, new gas stations were popping up along the main artery from the airport into town, and foreigners were finding lodging very satisfactorily at some quite small neighborhood hotels, as well as at the only large and ambitious hotel, the Sofitel Cambodiana.

In the time since my visit, there has been first some further progress (an Intercontinental Hotel opened, for example, and now in summer 1997 some real setbacks. A contest between the two "co-prime ministers" exploded in what is being described as a coup. One of the prime ministers is in exile, the other has consolidated power, and rumors abound about the numbers of dead and wounded and whether and how far military skirmishes are continuing outside Phnom Penh. The small community of foreigners has been substantially diminished by flight in the wake of these events, and all are holding their breaths. Subsidence back into a dismal and economically disastrous dictatorship is a real possibility. The atmosphere is well captured by an article from the 13 July 1997 London Sunday Times. A few weeks later, an American journalist filmed the show trial of Pol Pot in the remote jungle town of Anlong Veng, a scene as eerie as if Hitler himself had emerged from the bunker in 1963 for an hour before the cameras.

One should not idealize the state of affairs in 1996 in Cambodia. Moored outside the Sofitel hotel was a floating casino, which clearly attracted a clientele with too much cash and too little to do. Drug running was clearly rampant, and the city was in many respects a pathetic and dilapidated place. But at the same time, there was then some hope and some forward movement.

At the same time, one should not demonize the state of affairs after the coup. A westerner resident in Cambodia in late summer 1997 presented a nuanced portrait of the political strengths and weaknesses of the various parties and suggested that the events of this summer had made less substantive difference than the international media would suggest, but acknowledged that external perception is itself an important factor influencing the future.

All air traffic to Phnom Penh arrives at Pochentong Airport, smaller and less grand than New Haven's Tweed. Here one purchases a visa for $20 American (the American dollar was the currency of choice, and local banks had huge posters helping visitors identify bogus $100 bills). A driver from the hotel met us in the scrum outside immigration and drove us into the city to the riverside Sofitel Cambodiana hotel. A few hundred yards away towards the center of town, this photo shows the Mekong River, brown with silt washed down from as far away as Tibet, but still a site for doing laundry. A few feet away a handsome structure evokes the possibility of a more elegant riverfront life. A walk through the streets brought us to the 1930s vintage cruciform public market. There the only local products I could buy were a few of the checked "krama" scarves, but there was abundant merchandise, mostly cheap, ranging from clothing to jewelery. Early in the day a food market area was bustling, but by mid-afternoon it had shut down for the day; there were still abundant flowers for sale. The streets of the city are dilapidated from years of war, abandonment, neglect, and poverty, and so a typical streetscape, even when made more picturesque by passing monks, needs to be looked at closely to see the signs of life and returning social stability. A street vendor and her neighbor's stall are reminders of the fertility of some of the land.

Our local contact was Sr. Luise Ahrens, an American Maryknoll nun who has worked in Phnom Penh for several years on a variety of worthy projects. One of them is the revival of Phnom Penh University, where she jokingly described her function as "associate vice rector in charge of actually getting something done once in a while". At the campus of Phnom Penh University, visiting librarians and staff posed outside and inside the small library. A sign of corporate generosity over the door to one of the two computer rooms at the University. The main building, half a dozen stories high, was under active renovation. The occupants assured us that, when the University was violently closed and all but destroyed in Khmer Rouge days, the building had literally stabled pigs, the stench and sight of whose end product was ubiquitous when the University attempted to reopen.

All travelers to Cambodia are urged to visit the famous temples and sites of Angkor Wat. To go there, one flies on Royal Air Cambodge to an even more modest airport near Siem Reap in the northwest of the country. Livestock graze along the road, but the enlargement also shows a passing military vehicle. At Siem Reap, we were met by a driver and guide. The driver spoke only one or two words of English, but the guide was remarkably fluent. He told us that he had come as a child from a peasant family in the country somewhere to Siem Reap and there put himself to learning English so he could work as a guide. He was intelligent and friendly, and ended the day by thanking us for coming and making a very handsome little speech about how he hoped we would encourage others to follow. For his country (he had the wit to realize) is in dire economic straits that tourist dollars can help alleviate.

In reality, the Angkor Wat area is one of the richest and most astonishing areas in venerable ancient sites anywhere in the world. Even more remarkable, because of the depredations of war and genocide, the tourist traffic is but a tiny handful of what it might be. Unfortunately for our guide's hopes, by my best calculations [looking at the daily flights into and out of Siem Reap and guessing average plane size], only something like 300-500 people per day come into Siem Reap to see the Angkor sites. This makes for a memorable tourist experience while it lasts, for one is allowed to go anywhere in the temples, clamber at pleasure without let or hindrance, and see all there is to see. When, as our guide might hope, hordes of other tourists in search of the same sites follow, surely they will have to close off most of the inner sanctuaries, put up velvet ropes, and the experience will dwindle in power. (There are risks even now, of course. Temple sites stretch for miles around Siem Reap, but outsiders were urged to confine themselves to central areas to avoid violent banditry. And as recently as a year ago, I am told, there was a place in Bangkok where you could go, look at photos from Angkor, and point to the stonework you found most attractive: someone would be commissioned to go and hack it off the temple and smuggle it back to you.)

I have here only a sampling of the sights from that trip. Our guides took us through the entrance gate at Angkor Thom and up to Bayon temple, remarkable for the endlessly tranquil staring faces carved in stone. A visiting librarian paused for a snapshot with elephantine carvings.

From there we went on, stopping to admire a primitive irrigation mechanism, of interest both for showing the attempt to revive local peasant farming techniques, but also for the historical claims (now sometimes controverted) that Angkor had achieved its greatness by far vaster feats of irrigation and water-management nearly a thousand years ago. Then we came to the "temple of doom"-like Ta Proehm, where on the way in we were charmed by tiny children dancing to a simple tune. Fallen stones thrown down by the huge snarling roots of trees that have grown into the stone for hundreds of years testify to the state in which all these temples were found by modern travelers a hundred years ago. Ta Proehm has been left as it was found and is even quieter and less patrolled by visitors than its more famous neighbors. Deep in its courtyards we would come upon a woman and a child with a tiny table, selling a few mostly cold cans of welcome soda for one American dollar each.

Finally, one approaches Angkor Wat, with its fa├žade and distinctive pine-cone towers, flanked by a building they call the "library", penetrate to its inner sancta and climb desperately steep steps, to turn and gain a dramatic view of the way you have come in. All these monuments are covered with extraordinary sculpture, sometimes of great battle scenes, but very often of the sinuous female figure of the "apsara", seen repeatedly in every building.

I had a chance to revisit Cambodia in 1999 for two days on Yale business, and found much that was familiar. The 1997 coup had clearly been a major setback, but most of what was lost then seemed to have been restored, and even perhaps a little progress. The University of Phnom Penh had made considerable progress, including the construction of a new library, but on the other hand, a visit to the sadly decrepit and unvisited National Library left only the memory of a sobering motto displayed in the entryway. There were bustling pockets of commercial development, including an Informatics College, and signs of individual wealth (into whose sources we were encouraged not to enquire) in lavishly renovated individual homes. Street markets still offered cascades of flowers and refreshing beverages, while motor dependence on overloaded motor scooters continues heavy on the streets. In the Russian market, I found traditional Khmer charm combined with intelligence and enterprise.

Most somber of all, of course, was a visit to the Tuol Sleng prison/museum from the Khmer Rouge days -- not least because the site itself is so tranquil and even bucolic in appearance. And I did not know whether to be saddened or heartened by the approach of three small children at the Wat Phnom temple, selling hard-boiled eggs, posing happily for photographs, and exemplifying both the durability and the risks of a society that has suffered so much.

Ann Okerson 

For more on Cambodia, the Cambodia Information Center page is probably the best general site, though the Cambodian Embassy in Washington has a useful site as well. Finally, the Cambodian Genocide Project, founded by Yale History professor Ben Kiernan, maintains a home page of great power, offering a fraction of the documentation gathered by that project -- some of which we saw first-hand in Phnom Penh at the modest headquarters there of the CGP.

"Library" in Ankor Wat

Children at Wat Phnom temple

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