Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Hisao Kimura : Japanese Agent in Tibet

A nice complement to "7 Years in Tibet" written 35 years later by a Japanese scholar who entered Tibet from the northeast at the same time that Heinrich Harrer was hiking toward Lhasa from the southwest.

But this is clearly the voice of an older man who is reflecting upon his life and times, and lacks the detail, immediacy and excitement of Harrer's account.

And Kimura never got to visit Potala palace and meet the Dalai Lama.

Instead, he moves about in the netherworld of expatriots living in Tibet or right across the border.

His general picture of the poverty and lawless chaos of the countryside is the same as Harrer's- and he recounts the motto of migrant Khapas as "Murder men or starve" - along with an injunction to go on religious pilgrimage.

Curiously, his introduction to this world was through something like a Japanese "Peace Corps" that put young Japanese men into peripheral, tribal areas in the hopes that eventually they would help the empire - and Hisao turned out to have a gift for learning languages to the point where he could pass as Mongolian. (it was only his Japanese body language that would later allow someone to see through his disguise)

And just like Heinrich, he had zero interest in Buddhism, even though he was immersed in that culture, was required to chant some sutras as part of his disguise, his Mongolian traveling companion had been trained as a monk, and his only Japanese contact, N. , was a serious novice.

Mostly, you would have to call him an opportunist - but that seems quite appropriate - given his situation as a draft-age young man in 1940 Japan. Most of his generation expected to die - and he certainly came close enough wandering through the mountains and deserts of southwestern China - where all of the various factions: Moslem, Chinese nationalist, bandits etc had one thing in common: hatred for the Japanese.

It's no wonder that when this talented polyglot finally had the opportunity to speak Japanese 9 years later, he couldn't, and had to communicate by writing.

One unusual feature of his story is that includes so many names that can be found on Wikipedia -- i.e. people who got a reputation as teachers or scholars of Tibetan Buddhism or Himalayan affairs, who would later publish books and often end up in America. He sold a pistol to Heinrich Harrer, and coincidentally ran into Lowell Thomas while hiking just over the border, and got described in "Out of this World" as a Chinese trader who spoke fluent English.

His discussion of important teachers whom he met has made this book of some importance to the history of Buddhism, and this website gives a much better summary of his travels than I do.

Perhaps Kimura is just name-dropping, since he would eventually become a scholar of Central Asian culture - but it also might honestly indicate just how small this international community of Tibetan-philes was back in the 1940's. And as a multi-linguist, mastering Tibetan as well as English and Mongolian, he would have fit right in.

Especially since, like Harrer, he had no family or career to distract him.

It's also interesting how he made a living over that time period - eventually becoming an importer/exporter/smuggler carrying things back and forth between northern India and Lhasa. The only requirement for such a job was good health and lack of fear. (On time he and his companion were waylaid by two bandits, but managed to escape since one bandit had the rifle, but the other was carrying the cartridges.)

Another charming episode was when he was introduced to an old Tibetan monk with whom he had to share a cabin - and who soon asked, with a smile, "Do you want it from the front or the back?"

And it's also charming how many people offer to help this complete stranger.

Kimura repeatedly asks "why don't Tibetans do more to protect their independance?"

But presumably, like himself, everyone else is just trying to survive.


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