But when I visited Krisher in Tokyo this fall, I found him much reduced: At age 86, he had experienced a stroke and contracted an antibiotic-resistant staph infection. He could scarcely see or hear, and his comprehension was foggy. He spent his days shuttling up and down the hallway between his bed and the living room, where his wife, Akiko, who has dementia, often sat motionless.
The last time I had been in contact with Krisher, I was the sick one. About a year after I’d gone to work for The Daily, I began to suffer from a mysterious illness. On my 24th birthday it was diagnosed as cancer, but the flimsy insurance Krisher granted his expat staffers would not, based on a technicality, cover treatment. I asked Krisher—who managed the paper from Tokyo, visiting semiannually—whether he could help somehow. He eventually contacted the insurance company; by then, though, I had begun chemotherapy, and my doctor and family had persuaded the insurance company to cover most of my expenses.*
But I had not come to Tokyo to confront Krisher over that long-ago incident. I had come because his legacy was in crisis, as were Cambodia’s hopes for democracy.
The government had forced a shutdown of The Daily, which, despite its tiny circulation of about 5,000, had been the paper of record for Cambodia’s civil society: Its courageous reporters had regularly broken news that the rest of the country’s media then followed. The closure was part of a broad crackdown on Cambodia’s independent press and institutions—one that would in short order see the opposition leader jailed and multiple watchdog groups shuttered. The bank accounts of Krisher’s charities had been frozen, and Debbie and her husband, who ran the charities day to day, had been threatened with arrest.
Krisher wanted to tackle the problem the way he had always tackled problems—by storming in and demanding to be heard. He had planned to fly to Cambodia the day I visited, but his doctors had talked him out of the trip. If the flight didn’t finish him off, they worried, the Cambodians might: His name was posted in every passport-control kiosk at the Phnom Penh airport.
To appease her father, Debbie had tried distracting him: The paper wasn’t ending, she said, just being reincarnated.
“What are we doing with The Cambodia Daily?” she yelled into his ear. “Opa, what are we going to do?”
“We’re taking it offshore,” he said.
Krisher was born in Frankfurt in 1931 to Polish Jewish parents. In 1937, the family fled Germany, eventually settling in Queens. After college and the Army, Krisher spent a year in Tokyo on a Ford Foundation grant. He fell in love with his interpreter and brought her back to New York, where they married. In 1962, the couple returned to Japan, and he got a job at Newsweek.
Krisher, who worked his way up to bureau chief, specialized in writing puffy Q&As; he was legendary for who he knew. Once, in a Tokyo bookstore, he buttonholed Sukarno, who called Krisher “crazy”—and invited him to Jakarta. In turn, Sukarno introduced him to the Cambodian leader Norodom Sihanouk, a former king who, following Cambodia’s independence from French rule in 1953, had refashioned himself as prime minister, albeit an autocratic one. Krisher’s proudest achievement was an exclusive interview with Hirohito, which he still boasts is the only one the Japanese emperor ever granted. In fact, this is typical Krisherian exaggeration: Hirohito gave many such interviews.