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Book Review

Bangkok Post Saturday August 11, 2007 OUTLOOK page 03


Chris Baker


Is it good that I had this much fun?

A disarming memoir by the doyen of Thai studies in Japan

Kueng sattawat bon senthang thai seuksa (A half-century in Thai Studies)


By Yoneo Ishii


Published by Toyota Thailand Foundation and

the Foundation for the Promotion of Social Sciences and Humanities Textbooks Project. 2007. Baht 250.



Yoneo 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 Thongchais Winichakuls 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.

Ishii 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 Dantes 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 Saussures linguistics and the structure of language. Stepping into Kobayashis 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 in Thailand 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 in Thai. 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.


At 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 Japans 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 Japans 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 fear.


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.