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Bangkok Post Saturday August 11, 2007 OUTLOOK page 03
Is it good that I had this much fun?
A disarming memoir by the doyen of Thai studies in Japan
bon senthang thai
seuksa (A half-century in Thai Studies)
By Yoneo Ishii
Published by Toyota Thailand
the Foundation for the
Promotion of Social Sciences and Humanities Textbooks Project. 2007. Baht 250.
Ishii has been the doyen of Thai studies in Japan for a quarter-century. His
works cover an astonishing range – agriculture, Buddhism, language, law, and
trade. Several of them are classics. Recently when we all thought he had
retired at least three times, he broached a new career as a translator, winning
a prize for his Japanese version of Thongchai’s Winichakul’s Siam Mapped. Around the same time, he
wrote his own life story which has now been translated from Japanese into Thai.
Academic biography is a sparse genre, and probably rightly so. Few
in the profession could hope to get away with it. But this book is a charmer.
tells his life story as if he enjoys the protection of some very benign gods.
As the Second World War ends, he joins Waseda Upper
High School which transmutes into Waseda
University. Based on a
fascination with radio, he lays plans to become an electrical engineer. But he
soon discovers he has a great talent for languages, and a great fascination
with the worlds which they open up. He learns French, German, Spanish, and
Italian. From nothing to reading Dante’s Inferno takes him a mere six
months. He drifts away from his engineering courses into the coterie of
Professor Hideo Kobayashi who sparks his interest in Saussure’s linguistics and
the structure of language. Stepping into Kobayashi’s book-crammed study was
like “entering the innermost sacred place in a temple.” He learns Greek, Latin
and Anglo-Saxon to get a better grasp on the roots of words. He transfers to
the Tokyo University of Foreign Languages but after ten years he still has no
degree. When Kobayashi suggests he should learn an Asian language for
comparative purposes, he chooses Thai on grounds “it had a script I could not
read.” This haphazard decision determines the rest of his life.
These were the days before travel scholarships and research
grants. The only way he can find to study Thai
is to join the foreign service. He crams for the exam and wins one of fifteen
places sought by 1500 applicants. He slaves as a bag-carrier at the ministry
desk for a year before the gods (in the shape of a benign boss) give him the
Thai posting. He describes the flight from Tokyo to Don Muang
in April 1957 as a journey into wonderland.
The gods are waiting for him and arrange for him to lodge with the
Mangkorn family in their sprawling family compound in
Samsen. The family draws him in, and cements his
attachment to his second homeland. Kanitha Wichiancharoen, one of the daughters, agrees to tutor him
After hearing him pronounce a single word, she decrees
he must go back to the basic alphabet and start again. He swallows this advice
with some shock, but knuckles down.
Chula he attends lectures by Phya Anuman
Rajadhon, and adds Sanskrit to his quiver of
languages. He enters the monkhood for three months at
Wat Boworniwet where the king had occupied the
next-door kuti two years earlier. Wearing the robe
gives him sympathy for Japanese women in the kimono. He enjoys the almsround but loses three kilos.
After his stint as a language student ends, he is drafted into a
post at the Japanese Embassy which extends his stay in Bangkok up to seven years. He serves as
interpreter in a delicate meeting between the Japanese foreign minister and
Prime Minister Sarit over Japan’s
wartime debt to Thailand.
Sarit is so pleased with the result, he personally
arranges for Ishii to receive a Thai decoration.
By the early 1960s, Japan
is starting to appreciate the importance of Thailand
and Southeast Asia. Ishii is asked to join two
pioneering Japanese expeditions by road through Isan, Cambodia,
Vietnam, and Laos. The
experience gives him a broader view of the society, and a taste for travel.
Ishii also spends his spare time browsing the secondhand booksellers in Sanam
Luang, and amasses a huge collection of cremation volumes. When he hears that a
justice official, Charat Phikun,
is selling a unique collection of 6,000, Ishii to the Education Ministry for a
budget and secures the collection for Kyoto University.
In 1963 he returns to Japan and a desk in the Foreign
Ministry. But the gods realize his language skills, his fascination with books,
and his growing interest in research destine him for other things. Kyoto University
is founding a new centre to spearhead Japan’s
knowledge about Southeast Asia, and Ishii is
hired among the first four staff. Though he has no university degree of any
kind, he becomes an associate professor, and is promoted to full professor
three years later.
For the first time, he has the chance to engage in academic
research. The specialty of the Kyoto Centre of Southeast Asian Studies is
interdisciplinary research involving both natural scientists and social
scientists. Ishii pilots the project published as Thailand: A Rice-Growing Society which puts the Kyoto centre on the intellectual map. He
returns to Bangkok
to study manpower control in history, but finds that deciphering old provincial
records in the National Archives is fascinating but too slow. He notices that
nobody has ever traced the relationship between the Thai state and Buddhism,
and so researches Sangha and State
which becomes another classic and finally endows him with a doctorate. He
scoots off next in the direction of law and masterminds the extraordinary
computer indexing of the Three Seals Law for which Princess Sirindhorn contributes a preface. He concludes that the
secret of successful interdisciplinary research is for the team to spend enough
time eating and drinking together.
In 1973 he goes to SOAS in London where he gets down Burmese (6
months), Khmer (4 months) and Ceylonese while still finding time to study in
the British Museum, browse the bookshops of Bloomsbury, and take his family on
a European tour.
On retiring from Kyoto University in 1990, he moves first to Sophia University
and then to the Rectorship at Kanda University of
International Studies. Though he is overwhelmed by administrative duties, he
opens up a new interest in Tai language and society, and joins two research
expeditions to the Shan regions. He also studies trade during the Ayutthaya period and pens
a book and several classic articles, though this sideline fails to win a
mention in the autobiography.
At the climax to this extraordinary story, Ishii asks himself and
his readers, “Is it good that I had so much fun?”
Few people, he admits, think of academic work as “fun,” but he has
been pulled along through his extraordinary career by the sheer fun of
continually discovering something new. For him, the doors to knowledge have
been languages, books and travel. In the closing section of the book, he
advises prospective researchers to discover what they are good at and what they
enjoy, then pursue that without too much respect for
convention. He insists that the secret of learning languages is simply
motivation leading to application. He is, of course, underplaying his unusual
talent as few truly master a second language while Ishii is well into double
figures and not finished yet. But still, this book should be read by every
fledgling Thai researcher, not because it teaches anything about technique, but
because it urges researches to set their own “programme” and pursue it without
This Thai version was launched a few days ago when Yoneo Ishii received an honorary doctorate from Chulalongkorn University in the same building where he
had first come to study fifty years earlier. Ishii notes he is haunted by the
worry he will never finish even half of what he wants to achieve. We can only
thank him for this delightful book, and wish him a thousand lives to achieve
just a little bit more.