Julie Masis, 'Japan's Angkor art: Booty or fair exchange?', Asia Times Online, 22nd Dec 2013.
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.The Angkorian objects comprised 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. The exchange was arranged in the spring of 1941, when there were japanese troops in Hanoi, and the ancient Cambodian items arrived in Tokyo in 1944, when the Japanese occupied French Indochina. It seems that it was the result of an agreement made at Japanese-French Indochinese talks held in November 1940, that 'Friendly relations between Japan and French Indochina shall be further promoted through cultural exchange'. Questions remain about the terms of the exchange and the legitimacy of Japan's claim to these antiquities, neither is it clear what happened to the objects that Japan sent in exchange, there is certainly no Japanese art on display in any of Cambodia's museums.
Ricardo Elia, an archaeology professor at Boston University [...] recently unearthed information about the exchange in the US's National Archives [...] "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."Japan has 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.