To take you with us on our journey into some of this diverse literature, we will share with you a few of the intriguing insights we have gained.
First in this series will be the book “Japanese Agent in Tibet”, as told by Hisao Kimura to Scott Berry and published by Serindia in 1990.
Hisao Kimura came from a world that until the middle of the 19th century had been a feudal society. Like Tibet, under the Tokugawa Shogunate, Japan had tried to protect its way of life from the outside world, particularly the modernizing forces let loose by European colonialism that created the circumstances for revolutionary changes through Asia. Their resistance was swept aside with the Meiji Restoration following the forced opening of Japan to trade with the European powers when Commander Perry of the USA Navy, forced the Japanese to sign the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854. Similarly, in 1904 Francis Younghusband led a British expedition into Tibet in order to force the Tibetan government based in Lhasa to open up Tibet for trade with Britain, and in the process enable the British to pursue their political interests in containing Russian influence in Central Asia.
However, the outcomes were vastly different for these two societies steeped in their traditions and their sense of unique culture. The Japanese embraced modernity with a passion, deciding that the only way to preserve their culture was to match the Europeans in their military might and technology. By 1905, they shocked the Western world when they defeated the Russians, and in 1931 they invaded and colonised Manchuria. This was the beginning of their grand vision to become the dominant 'modernising' power in East Asia, which brought them into sharp conflict with both China and the West.
Through the interdependence of these great events, the young Kimura found himself in Manchuria learning the Mongolian language. And thus the stage for his great adventure as an undercover agent in Tibet was set.
During the 1940s, when Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö established himself as one of the most important Buddhist masters in East Tibet, other events unfolded across Tibet and its neighbouring countries that would soon plunge his world of spiritual pursuit into chaos, as Japan, Russia, China and Britain sought to secure their territorial interests in Central Asia.
From 1945 Hisao Kimura becomes caught up in these events, first as an undercover agent for the Japanese intelligence services in Mongolia, then on a mission for the British intelligence in Kham and finally providing information for US counter intelligence when he returns to Japan. Hisao Kimura gives an engrossing account of his many adventures that take him into Tibet via the northern border at Ningxia province, into the Qaidam, then to Kumbum Monastery and through Golok county across Qinghai to Ngakchuka and on to Lhasa. Later he travels to Kalimpong, Nepal and the Buddhist sites of the Ganges valley, before returning to the Tibetan border regions of Kham. He spends some time travelling back and forth between Kalimpong and Lhasa from where he is finally deported to India. He eventually makes his way to Calcutta where he surrenders to the Indian authorities. After a short time in jail, he is repatriated to Japan.
Kimura’s account is especially valuable for its acute observations on the trials and dangers in the daily life of pilgrims and other travellers between Mongolia, Tibet and India, his cunning takes on both the merits and the shortcomings of old Tibet, the rule of the Tibetan nobility in particular and finally his portrait of life in Kalimpong, the 'Casablanca of the East' in the last decade before the fall of Tibet.
In 1943, at the age of twenty-one, Kimura, assuming the identity of a Mongolian monk ‘Dawa Sangpo’, is dispatched to Xinjiang in order to collect intelligence on Chinese supply lines in central Asia. Kimura, with his two Mongolian companions, passes through a confusing maze of opposing armies, robbers, murderous tribes and forbidding deserts until they eventually reach Kumbum Monastery.
Kimura (center) with his two Mongolian companions Danzan and Tserentso in 1943 before setting off
Here they are witness as the six year old incarnation of the Panchen Lama receives his monastic vows. Their attempt to reach Xinjiang is foiled by Muslim warlord Babu Noyen who detains them for almost a year. Finally released in May 1945 they travel to Lhasa in a large caravan escorting Takster Rinpoche, the elder brother of the 14th Dalai Lama and one of the abbots of Kumbum. On the way they meet the regent Reting Rinpoche who invites Dawa Sangpo to become his disciple, but Kimura politely declines. Reting agrees to trade their camels for use of Reting’s own variant of the ‘ula’, the traditional government transport system by which horses and yaks could be requisitioned from the public by travelling officials.
While in Lhasa, cut off from all contact with his homeland, Dawa Sangpo hears reports that Japan has been defeated in the war. Unable to believe the news he persuades his two Mongolian companions to accompany him on a pilgrimage that takes them to India and finally to Kalimpong where the rumours are confirmed. In a local cinema he watches a newsreel showing images of the Japanese Emperor’s unconditional surrender and the devastation wrought on Japan by the atomic bombs dropped by the Americans. Hsiao becomes a ‘spy without a country’.
In Kalimpong, at the Himalayan Hotel, Kimura meets its Sikkimese-Scottish owner, David McDonald, who many years earlier had acted as an interpreter for the Younghusband expedition into Tibet and who is now a key figure for any new arrivals into Kalimpong. He connects with Tharchin Babu, publisher of the only Tibetan newspaper, the Tibet Mirror.
Tarchin is fluent in Tibetan, Urdu, Hindi, Nepali and English, and although a convert to Christianity, remains committed to the welfare and independence of Tibet. He proves to have extensive contacts with the secret world of British intelligence who are preoccupied with the ‘Great Game’, the struggle for power and influence in Central Asia.
“Since Tharchin made it a habit to be helpful by printing leaflets and guide maps to the sacred places, as well as clearing out a warehouse across from the printing press for the pilgrims to use, he was often the first person they called on. This was extremely valuable to his position in the intelligence network.”
In the late 1940s, Kalimpong, excised by the British from Bhutan to become part of India, could be rightly described as a nest of political intrigue, involving British, Indian and Chinese spies, refugees from Tibet, China, India and Burma, with a sprinkling of Buddhist scholars, monks and lamas.
“Like the tree-clad slopes of a dormant volcano, the calm everyday surface of Kalimpong life disguised feverish underground activity. This was mostly Chinese-inspired, with agents sent via Tibet to ferret out what they could about events in India; but there were also anti-government Tibetan exiles and reformers, anti-Chinese Tibetans, White and Red Russians, and a whole medley of other agents working for a variety of causes in this cozy little town”.
By 1956, when Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö and his party reach Gangtok and later Kalimpong, India had already gained its independence from the British Empire. Still the north-east frontier remained a hotly contested zone, this time between India and the Communist Chinese, and the fleeing Tibetans caught in the middle.
modern day Kalimpong
Up until the late 1950’s Kalimpong had been a great centre of trade, the terminus of the mule caravans that carried goods between India and Tibet and thence western China. As a British hill station, it was also a jumping off point for many of the better known Western explorers and scholars of Tibet—people such as Marco Pallis, John Blofeld and Alexandra David-Neel. It was through Kalimpong to Darjeeling that the Thirteenth Dalai Lama had fled the Chinese in 1910 – with some help by David McDonald, then British Trade Agent in Gyantse.
The Himalayan Hotel, Kalimpong 734301, Darjeeling District, west Bengal, India Book a room!
Here he had been educated in the ways of the modern world by the Tibetan speaking British Political Officer, Colonel Charles Bell, from here he made his triumphal return to Lhasa where he formally declared the independence of all of Tibet, including Kham, on February 13th 1913.
After working for some time at Tarchin Babu’s printing press, Kimura, with his much improved conversational Tibetan, and some rudimentary knowledge of English, is recruited by the north-eastern frontier’s head of British Intelligence Eric Lambert. The British never even suspect he is Japanese!
In 1946 he is asked to travel into the troubled border regions of Kham to report on the activities of the Chinese nationalist and communist forces. To fulfil this mission he joins a caravan of over 100 mules returning to Tibet, led by a Khampa warrior monk. On the way he learns how to behave like a true Khampa. For, as he observes,
“It is not language and physical features alone that enable one to pass into another identity, but more subtle things like the way one moves and the jokes one tells.”His descriptions of his journey to Kham not only highlight its rugged terrain and the many challenges it poses to any traveler, but he also poignantly describes the mounting tensions between the Khampas and the administrators and soldiers of the Central Tibetan Government.
“I was disturbed by the way in which the soldier and officials of the central government treated the local inhabitants. Time and time again we had met refugees fleeing from misrule, and bullying by Tibetan soldiers was carried on openly in the town. The province of Kham was governed directly from Lhasa and one of the four shapes [cabinet ministers] was placed here and rotated every 3 years. Soldiers and minor officials were rotated as well, and they tended to think of Kham not as a place to be well governed but as a source of wealth to be squeezed dry. Over and over again the Khampas had risen in rebellion, just as they had risen against the Chinese.”
The Tibet Mirror Press published its last issue in 1962.
One can download the entire paper as a pdf from Columbia University!
After accomplishing his mission at Jyekundo, Kimura and his companion return on a grueling journey to Lhasa. They are captured and tortured by suspicious Khampas and robbed multiple times by locals who are so desperately poor that there isn’t anything they would not consider stealing. Finally they return to Lhasa starving and more dead than alive. Again he is a spy without an employer as British India has ceased to exist and all posts formerly held by the British are now occupied by Indians.
After he recovers he starts up a business of trading goods between Kalimpong and Lhasa. He meets wealthy merchants but also a few Tibetan revolutionary intellectuals, such as Gendün Chöphel and Phuntsok Wangyal, who were keen to modernize Tibetan society, and therefore at odds with the conservative Tibetan Government.
Together with Phuntsok Wangyel, a young Khampa nationalist in Lhasa, he drafts a new constitution for Tibet, drawing in part on the Japanese constitution that was the result of the Meiji Restoration in 1867.
A Tibetan Revolutionary - the Life and Times of Papa Phuntsok Wangye
by Goldstein, Sherap and Siebenschuh
Tarchin Babu entrusts him with a letter for Gendün Chöphel, the famous scholar and radical who has just been released from prison in Lhasa, saying
“Men of genius often have fragile minds. I’d like you to take a letter to him for me: and to let me know how you find him. Crucial times are ahead for Tibet. The entire face of Asia is changing all around us, and we can’t afford to lose men like him.”Hsiao writes about Chöphel:
“He was known as one of the most learned and extraordinary contemporary Tibetans. [ ] In Kalimpong he had naturally gravitated to that group of dissidents which was ever-present, had issued revolutionary pamphlets calling for radical change in the Tibetan government and had been deported by the British in the last days of their rule as a result.”and
“[ ] Though he had definite leanings toward Communism and Socialism, he was too much of an individual to have been a good party member and too much of a Tibetan to be pro-Chinese. Like all the best Tibetan reformers of the time he believed simply that Tibet must put its own house in order before it was too late.Gendun Chöphel - the Angry Monk (click for movie website)
In 1950 Kimura is repatriated to Japan, where he is debriefed for almost a year by US counter-intelligence, eager to find out all they can about the Chinese and their newly acquired territories. He later takes up an academic position as professor of Central Asian Studies at Tokyo’s Asia University, and is able to provide support to Taktser Rinpoche, who arrives in Japan to attend the second World Buddhist Conference and remains stranded without a country when the Indian Embassy refuses to extend his travel papers.
In the epilogue Kimura shares his analysis of the events of the 1950’s and a few interesting pieces of trivia and among others describes how in 1965 Dr. Maruki, who ran a large hospital and nurse training school, started a program by which each year 5 Tibetan youths would receive scholarships to study in Japan. Among the first five was Pema Gyalpo who later became the representative of His Holiness’s government in exile for Japan and East Asia.
He concludes by decrying the shortcomings of modern affluent yet hedonistic Japanese society, calling for historic self reflection:
“The tragedy from the war was not that we lost, but that we learned so little from our defeat, and emerged with no real identity.”The book is available from Serindia publications or you can preview it at Google Books