Photo/IllutrationMembers of a group dispatched by the Shinshu Otani-ha Buddhist branch to Southeast Asia in 1942 stand before the Angkor Wat complex in Cambodia. (Provided by Masaharu Asada)

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  • Photo/Illustraion
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  • Photo/Illustraion
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  • Photo/Illustraion

A Tokyo-based collector has come across a trove of photographic plates taken during World War II in Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple complex that experts praised as a historically valuable find.

The photos were apparently taken between 1942-43 by a team of artists and scholars dispatched to Southeast Asia by the Higashi-Honganji temple, the Kyoto-based main temple of the Shinshu Otani-ha branch of the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist sect.

Experts said the photos are important because they show the structures and bas-reliefs at the Angkor Wat complex in a better preserved state than today.

Dry plates were used for photography between the Meiji and Showa eras (1868-1989) before the spread of photographic film.

The latest find includes 52 plates measuring 12 centimeters by 16.5 cm.

The plates were acquired by Masaharu Asada, 65, through an Internet auction site late last year. Asada said the plates were placed on the website after an antique dealer acquired them from a Kyoto company handling the dismantling of buildings.

The photos depict the outer structure of Angkor Wat as well as details of bas-reliefs that illustrate heaven and hell and the goddess Devata.

There are also photos of the large smiling stone statues found at the Bayon temple in nearby Angkor Thom, which once served as the capital of the Khmer Empire. There are also photos of other temple ruins in the area, such as Preah Khan and Banteay Kdei.

Cambodia was part of the French colony of Indochina from the late 19th century. The Japanese military advanced into Indochina from 1940.

Koji Osawa is a specialist working in the Religious Affairs Division of the Cultural Affairs Agency knowledgeable about activities in Southeast Asia by Japanese Buddhist organizations. He said the Shinshu Otani-ha organized a group of 12 members that included artists, specialists in Buddhist art and history, photographers and priests. Led by Tetsuro Sugimoto, a painter of Buddhist art, the group was dispatched in October 1942 to Southeast Asia. The group reached Angkor Wat in early December 1942 and remained in the area until mid-January 1943.

The group brought back to Japan 30 copies of paintings, 150 rubbings and 1,000 photographs.

After returning to Japan, the group organized exhibitions in Kyoto and other locations and published a report of its findings from the trip. The documents brought back to Japan were donated to scholars and individuals in the art sector, but their whereabouts were unknown until now.

The box in which the photographic plates were found was labeled with the family name of "Nomura," indicating the photos were among those taken by Naotaro Nomura, who belonged to the photography team dispatched with the group.

Osawa said the photos provide evidence of "the efforts made by a Japanese Buddhist group to move into Asia through scholarly research at a time when there were limits on proselytizing."

Another expert said the photos are extremely valuable because they show parts of Angkor Wat that were in a better state of preservation than today.

Takeshi Nakagawa, a professor emeritus of architectural history at Tokyo's Waseda University, has been active in preserving and restoring the Angkor Wat complex.

He said the photos of the stone statues at the Bayon temple ruin, the Angkor Wat complex and the bas-relief of Naga, a deity taking the form of a large snake, at Angkor Thom are all extremely valuable as they show the objects in a better state than can be found today.