Japanese family continues Cambodian school in son's memory

NEA KAREACH, Cambodia - A wooden monument with a tin roof rests among the mahogany trees in a small village underneath a tropical sky. It was built to honour Haruyuki Takata, who was killed 20 years ago during an attack by an armed group.

Takata, 33, was in Nea Kareach, a small village in northwestern Cambodia, as part of UN peacekeeping operations.

On May 4, 1993, a motorcade heading for a village near the Thai border was attacked by an armed group. Among the passengers were five Japanese civilian police officers, who were assigned to protect electoral observers. Of the five, Takata was killed and the four others were injured.

At the end of June, I visited a school about 20 meters from the monument. The school was built in Takata's memory, as he had taught baseball and sumo to local children during his spare time. It was once known as "Haru School," after part of Takata's first name.

The 48 children I met at the school wore bright expressions that were as sunny as the weather there. However, the school building is simply built--a wooden frame thatched only with dried waterweed--and had several holes in the roof and large gaps in the walls. When it rains, lessons are cancelled.

Takata's mother Yukiko, 80, and sister Kazuko Ko, 58, have been promoting a project to have the school rebuilt as a brick building.

The two visited Nea Kareach village for the first time two years ago, and felt distressed upon seeing the rundown school building.

On May 4, the 20th anniversary of Takata's death, they set up a fund aimed at rebuilding the school in the hopes of carrying on Takata's legacy, as he had laid down his life for Cambodia's restoration and peace.

Thanks to the efforts of Takata's classmates from Kurashiki-Minami High School in Okayama Prefecture and an incorporated nonprofit organisation, they were able to collect nearly 6 million yen, about two-thirds of their target, in two months.

The local children are looking forward to studying at the new school.

"[When the new school is built] we'll be able to study without having to worry about the rain. I'd like to study Japanese so that I can thank Japanese people someday. I think Takata is like a Japanese god to me," said a 17-year-old girl who was unable to afford an education and is now studying primary school level subjects at the school.

A 53-year-old woman with a grandchild in the fifth grade said: "I can't thank them enough. They're trying to renovate the school without harbouring any hatred toward Cambodia, where their relative was killed."

During the attack, Takata reportedly asked after others before worrying about himself, despite being critically injured. This brave and considerate man still lives on in people's minds in Cambodia.

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