Hisao Kimura went to Mongolia in 1940 as an idealistic nineteen year old zealot for the Japanese colonization of mainland Asia. Ten years later, when he finally returned home with the fascist ideology that had once been such a big part of him completely stripped away, he found that the question of exactly who he was had no easy answer.

After ten years spent completely immersed in the culture and language of the Mongols and Tibetans, most who met him, and increasingly Hisao himself, believed that he was a Mongolian and a Buddhist monk of the yellow hat school.

Through a series of accidents, his amazing gift for languages and his ability to bridge cultural divides with patience and good humour, during his decade of wandering in Central Asia Hisao had come closer to truly becoming part of the secretive world of the Tibetan Buddhist priesthood than any outsider before or since.

Born on the island of Kyushu in the south of Japan in 1921, Hisao credited his independence and willingness to journey far from home on growing up without his mother, who had left the family home when he was still very young.

On finishing school he volunteered for service in the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo (which contained most of what is today the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia) as part of the euphemistically named ‘good neighbour association’. He found himself posted out to the steppe of Mongolia, where, while vainly trying to introduce the locals to methods of raising larger and woollier sheep, he quickly became absorbed by their unique culture.

Quickly realising that the project he was working on, just like the larger Japanese colonial project in Asia, had nothing to do neighbourliness and everything to do with exploiting the weak for all they were worth Hisao began to doubt everything he’d been taught about his place in the world.

Living with the Mongolians, learning about their faith of Tibetan Buddhism and speaking their language, he began to see things from their point of view.

Although Japan and China had been fighting a messy on and off war since the early 1930s, with the outbreak of conflict with the western powers in late 1941 the Japanese intelligence service, impressed by Hisao’s language ability, recruited him to travel across the wilds of central Asia and collect information about what was going on there.

Along with two Mongolian travelling companions Hisao, now almost fluent in Mongolian, was instructed to assume the disguise of a Mongolian Buddhist monk making the epic pilgrimage from Mongolia to the holy city of Lhasa.

These days you can buy a train ticket in Beijing and be in Lhasa in two days, but back then the whole region was still more or less in the middle-ages and transportation usually meant walking, or, for the better off, riding a horse or camel. Such things as electricity or motorized transport were almost completely unheard of.

On his journey south across the steppe floods, sand-storms, sickness, stays in prison, attacks by bandits, near starvation and time spent both learning about practicing his adopted faith were all things that slowed him down. In a way that is hard to understand today Hisao and his companions were completely at the mercy of the elements. When and how quickly they could move was dictated by the weather, and when the winter arrived there was nothing they could do for months except to hunker down and wait for the worst of it to blow over.

At any time on his journey being uncovered for who he really was would have meant certain death. The warlords who controlled the territory they were travelling through hated the Japanese with a passion, but somehow, as the years went on, this became less and less of a problem for him. Never anything but totally ineffective as a spy, through the hardships he shared with his Mongolian friends as they inched along the road to Lhasa, Hisao felt his old self slipping away and his identity as a monk becoming the true representation of how he thought and felt.

It was only in September 1945, having at least travelled through Lhasa after three years of being almost completely out of contact with the outside world, that Hisao descended into British India and discovered that Japan had lost the war.

In Darjeeling, when he happened to run into another Japanese he found that he was no longer capable of stringing a coherent sentence together in his native language.

After once again being employed as a spy, this time by the British who, completely unaware that he was actually Japanese and not an exiled monk from Mongolia, sent him back into Tibet, Hisao gave himself up to the Indian police in Calcutta in 1950 and was shipped back to Japan.

For the rest of his life he worked as a teacher of the Tibetan and Mongolian languages at Asia University in Tokyo. A proponent of the idea that the new Japan should be both open and apologetic about the crimes of the 30s and 40s he was a frequent visitor to China and active in fostering academic and cultural exchanges between the two old enemies (all the while being quietly supportive of the idea of Tibetan independence)

Hisao Kimura died in 1989, but not before he had arranged for an English edition of his adventures to be published.

I think it’s a wonderful tale, and even in translation beautifully told.

My only criticism is of the title, ‘Japanese Agent in Tibet’. I can’t help but feel this name sort of misses the point- for me the main thing about the life of Hisao Kimura is not so much that he was a secret agent but that he was a person who lived through the very darkest epoch history has yet seen and came out of it with a story that’s mostly about the value of listening, the kindness of strangers and the unity of human kind.


Japanese agent in Tibet/ Hisao Kimura, Serindia, 1990

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