Japanese explorers in Tibet at the beginning of the 20th century

Japanese explorers in Tibet at the beginning of the 20th century

The Thirteenth Dalai Lama, later nicknamed “the Great Thirteen” was enthroned at the age of 3 in 1879 and remained until his death in 1933 the temporal and spiritual leader of Tibet. He anxiously tried to preserve the borders and independence of a land that was first commercially and strategically at stake for the British and the Manchus, and later, from 1912, for the young Republic of China. He thus put all his efforts into modernizing his country and endowing it with a proper army.

Map of the historical Tibet, before 1914
(© 2014 / Jean-Marc Eldin et L'Asiathèque, in Le Cavalier au miroir, L'Asiathèque), 

As it was ruled by a Buddhist oligarchy and closed to foreigners, Tibet attracted adventurers, spies, explorers, and missionaries, who recklessly tried and penetrated these forbidden lands. The Japanese — for whom it was easier to blend in physically than Westerners — were the first outsiders to enter Tibet, often with little preparation, and solely as individuals since the Meiji government was busy controlling Korea and invading Formosa (1895) and later with the war against Russia (1904-1905), and thus did not show much interest towards “the Roof of the World”. The British, on the other hand, were methodically drawing maps of Tibet, sending spies from the marches of the British Raj. They thus prepared the Younghusband expedition, which, after having massacred the small Tibetan army (in December 1903, over three decisive battles, where machineguns fought against ancient swords, 1,000 Tibetan soldiers died, a third of their troops, while the British casualties were slim) entered Lhasa in 1904, demanding commercial agreements and pushing the Dalai Lama into exile. This was the heavy-handed manners Manchus were soon to imitate in 1909.

The first Japanese visitors, Nômi Kan 能海寛 (1869-1903) and Kawaguchi Ekai 河口慧海 (1866-1945), had no military intents. Both had the same master, Nanjô Bunyû 南條文雄 (1849-1927), pioneer in Japanese Buddhist studies and a former student of the Orientalist Max Müller in England in the 1870’s. These two monks did not know each other but, spurred by their fervent faith, they embarked on a journey to forbidden Tibet as soon as 1899. One set off from China, the other one from Nepal, with the goal of bringing back ancient Tibetan sutras. These texts, Nanjô Bunyû had told them, were more faithful to the long lost original Sanskrit scriptures than the abstruse Chinese translations used in Japan.

Nômi Kan’s name has not remained in history since we lose track of him in the Eastern fringes of the country, plagued with bandits. Kawaguchi Ekai had better luck and the fascinating accounts he drew out of his three-year-long journey in Tibet were to decisively rub off on several generations of adventurers and researchers.

Ekai belongs to the Zen Ôbaku 黄檗 School, characterized by a strong imprint of Ming dynasty’s China. At the Manpukuji 萬福寺, the school’s main temple located near Kyôto (where we can still see the two beautiful cedars from the Himalayas planted by Ekai himself upon his return), Ekai studied Chinese, a knowledge that appeared to be very useful to enter incognito in Tibet. Three Years in Tibet was published in 1904, and translated into English as soon as 1906 by Ekai himself. In fact, besides Chinese, he mastered Nepali and English as well. Alexandra David-Neel (1868-1969), a famous explorer who widely contributed to making Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism known in France — My Journey to Lhasa (Voyage d’une parisienne à Lhassa) was a hit when it was published in 1927 — met Ekai in 1912 in Kalimpong, where the Thirteenth Dalai Lama was living in exile. They actually met in the antechamber of the sovereign to whom they had both asked for an audience. Alexandra David-Neel also visited Ekai in 1916 during a journey in Japan. It is safe to assume that the account of the ploy that permitted the Japanese man to arrive in Lhasa disguised as a Chinese mendicant monk might have influenced the French explorer since, a few years later, age 56, she managed as well to enter the Tibetan capital disguised as a beggar.

Alexandra David-Néel, Kawaguchi Ekai and Aphur Yongden in Japan in July 1917
(© 1917 / Alexandra David-Néel, Ville de Digne-les-Bains)

Yajima Yasujirô 矢島保治郎 (1882-1963) assured that reading 西蔵旅行記seizô-ryokôki, (Three Years in Tibet) was the source of his enthusiasm for Lhasa. Yajima was an avant-garde beatnik who travelled with a rucksack marked世界無銭旅行者Sekai musen ryokôsha, “Penniless World Traveller”. Driven by his yearn for adventure, Yajima first joined the army. He served under the command of General Nogi 乃木希典  during the Russo-Japanese War, and then feigned insanity in order to be reformed. Yajima then left for China, joined a caravan passing himself off as a Mongol soldier, and finally arrived in Lhasa in 1911.

In 1913, as he returned from his second exile, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama was inclined to warmly welcome the scarce Japanese visitors who reached out to him. He indeed admired the fast-paced modernization of Japan, a small but powerful nation, which was a Buddhist country as well, and had also long lived under a feudal system. He thus — rather naively — hoped to be able to tie bonds with Japan and benefit from its help. The Tibetan army was then undergoing a large-scale reform and the Dalai Lama entrusted Yajima with the training of a battalion, as well as the construction of the Kusung-magar, a building reserved to the monarch’s bodyguards. Yajima established the plans by remembering the barracks of the Japanese army. (the edifice, located inside the Norbulingka, the summer palace of the Dalai Lamas, was to later be entirely torn down by the 1959 Chinese bombing repressing the Tibetan uprising in Lhasa). Yajima left Lhasa in 1918 and returned to Japan with his Tibetan wife who poorly adjusted to Japan and died of disease in 1923. Their only son was to be killed in action during the Pacific War.

Two monks from the Nishi Honganji 西本願寺, an influent temple in Kyôto, stayed in Lhasa at the same time as Yajima. The Dalai Lama had met them in Darjeeling during his second exile in India, and invited them to visit him. One of them, Tada Tôkan 多田等観 (1880-1967) was to stay ten years, from 1913 to 1923, at the Sera monastery, one of the most important monasteries in Lhasa, where he practiced and studied Tibetan Buddhism. Upon his return to Japan he brought back a number of precious manuscripts the Dalai Lama had entrusted him with, and was to set the basis of Japanese tibetology.

The other monk, Aoki Bunkyô 青木文教 (1886-1956), stayed in Lhasa for four years and he as well collaborated to the reform of the Tibetan army by translating Japanese military textbooks used for training. It is not certain who between him and Yajima had the idea of adding the symbol of a sun to the design of the old Tibetan army flag and thus producing the Tibetan national flag. The fact remains that this sun beaming with six rays –each symbolizing one of the six original tribes of Tibet— and the one on the Japanese imperial army’s flag look oddly alike.

The Tibetan flag and the flag of the Imperial Japanese Army 

富国強兵Fûkoku kyôhei, “wealthy state, strong army” was the watchword that presided over the Japanese development of the Meiji era. This model was to inspire the Thirteenth Dalai Lama and his close counselor, Tsarong Dzasa, who also greatly admired Japan. After their endeavor to lead the country towards progress, not only on a military level, but also economically and on an educational level, they had to renounce their reforms during the mid-1920’s under the pressure of the conservative monastic aristocracy who saw a threat to its privileges. Although Yajima and Aoki were very fond of Tibet and its people, and driven by a sincere desire to support them, in no way were they mandated by their country to do so, which severely limited the impact of their efforts. Nevertheless, the presence of these two Japanese and a few others of their fellow countrymen in Lhasa at the beginning of the twentieth century shows that Japanese people may be prone to undertake personal initiative, contrarily to their follow-the-leader reputation, and are sometimes endowed with a remarkable spirit of adventure, in defiance of the inclination towards insularity that one so often credits them with.

More importantly, their continuous efforts to help Tibet to modernize and protect its independence contribute to proving that Tibet truly once was a nation in its own right. History, however, sadly repeated itself: after the British and the Manchus, Mao Zedong’s army — and its oh so greater striking force — was to invade Tibet in 1951. The Fourteenth Dalai Lama was forced into exile in 1959 at the age of 24 only. He fled Lhasa taking the exact same route as his predecessor, and, just like him, was to find refuge in the foothills of the Himalayas. International disregard upon the fate of Tibet remained identical as well, today onwards.

It has now been six decades that the Tibetan people live under China’s rule of terror. Systematic destruction of Tibetan culture and religion, daily surveillance and violence are exerted on every aspects of their lives and have yet been toughen since the repression of the 2008 uprisings, during the Beijing Olympics. Foreign journalists being denied entry, silence has fallen down upon the growing number of Tibetans who, since 2009, set themselves on fire in sign of protest and despair. To this day, 148 Tibetans — not only monks but also laymen and women — have set themselves on fire. And yet, in the Western or Japanese worldviews still infused with the tales of the first explorers, the “Land of the Snows” remains a mythical place, inhabited with ever smiling monks in garnet-colored robes.

Corinne Atlan
Japanese literature translator (novels, poetry, theatre),
novelist, essay writer and speaker
Corinne Atlan has spent many years in Asia (Japan and Nepal).


Corinne Atlan, Le Cavalier au miroir, Paris, L’Asiathèque, 2014.

Scott Berry, The Rising Sun in the Land of Snows, Japanese involvement in Tibet in the early 20th century, New Delhi, Adarsh Book, 2005.

Ekai Kawaguchi, Trois ans d’aventures au Tibet, Paris, Kailash, 2004.

Tsering Woesern Immolations au Tibet, La Honte du monde, Montpellier, Indigène, 2013.

Bronze statue of Kawaguchi Ekai commemorating his journey to Tibet,
in front of the Shichidô train station of the town of Sakai, his birthplace, in the suburbs of Osaka.
(© 2007 / Taei,released in the public domain)