Photo/IllutrationAkira Endo with his Certificate of Appreciation from Cambodia's Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports (Tetsuo Tsunematsu)

IZUNOKUNI, Shizuoka Prefecture--If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the many hundreds of photos Akira Endo has taken of children in Cambodia would help fill a library.

The photo enthusiast and retiree from central Japan here has devoted much of the past 15 years trying to enrich children's lives in Cambodia by giving them copies of class photos.

For many kids in the developing country, such a memento is still very much a luxury.

For his efforts, Endo was presented with a Certificate of Appreciation in Phnom Penh by Cambodia’s Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports in January.

He first visited Cambodia in 2002 as a part of a tour organized by the Association of Aid for Cambodia in the 21st Century, a charitable Japanese NGO. The tour advertised a stop at the famed Angkor Wat temple and a visit to the countryside.

Endo first became interested in the Southeast Asian country after he attended a lecture given by Yasuko Naito and read her memoirs of living there as the wife of a Cambodian diplomat during the reign of terror whipped up by the civil war and the genocide under the Pol Pot regime (1975-1979), which was responsible for the deaths of 1.7 million people.

Naito returned to Japan in June 1979, and wrote about her experiences.

Naito's husband was detained and his family in Cambodia suffered terribly. She and her children were trucked to the countryside for forced labor. She died in Japan in 1982.

Naito’s story sparked an abiding interest in Cambodia for Endo. He wondered what a country that had experienced such bloodshed looked like.

Seeing an advertisement for the tour, Endo decided it was the right time as he had retired a year previously.

Today, Cambodia has a fast-growing economy. But when Endo visited for the first time in 2002, there was still widespread poverty. Electricity was unreliable even in Phnom Penh, and hotels provided candles in case of power blackouts. Roads in the countryside were still dirt surfaces.

During that trip, Endo met a Japanese man with a Cambodian wife who ran a shop in Cambodia. He told Endo that Cambodians by and large are so poor that few parents can afford to have snapshots of themselves or their children.

The man blamed the country's dire financial straits on the civil war and the Pol Pot regime that held sway between 1975 and 1979.

Endo, recalling the encounter, was deeply saddened by what he heard. When he went traveling, he made a point of offering to take photos of local children with his instant camera and give them the snapshots. Invariably, they asked for more.

The look of joy on the children's faces made Endo realize the power of photography. Living in Japan, he had not given much thought to this notion.

“A photograph allows people to remember family members, friends and extended family members even after 10 or 20 years,” Endo enthused.

A year after his inaugural visit, Endo joined the association that delivers stationery supplies and snacks to elementary schools in Cambodia. Each time he visited a school, Endo took group class photos and posted the prints, a copy for each student, after his return to Japan.

Today, he also take photos of children at kindergartens and junior high schools, asking for referrals from locals he befriends.

On one occasion, a girl came up to him and showed him a photo he had taken on his previous visit.

“That really touched me,” Endo said. “That experience made me want to keep going.”

Endo is not sure how many children he has photographed over the years, but reckons it is well in excess of 10,000.

“I kept doing this because I wanted to make children happy,” he said, referring to the government's recognition of his endeavors. “I'm just pleased that Cambodians understood what I've been trying to do.”

In 2017, Endo visited Cambodia in June, July and November to take more photos and bring more smiles to young faces.