Operation Chibetto


'Chibetto' was a Japanese unrealised concept for the seizure of Tibet as a logical successor to the end of their 'conquest' of China (1942/45).

The two protagonists of 'Chibetto' were Goshima Tokushiro, chief of the Buddhism bureau of Manchukuo (or Mengjiang, now Inner Mongolia), and Aoki Bunkyo, the Japanese priest who in 1902 had designed the flag (snow lion on a rising sun background) still used by the Tibetan exile movement. He also translated Japanese army field manuals into the Tibetan language. Aoki re-emerged three decades later as the chief Tibetan expert of the Japanese foreign ministry in World War II.

Their conquest of Manchuria and the eastern part of Inner Mongolia from September 1931, and the establishment there of the puppet state of Manchukuo, suggested to the Japanese the possible advantages of rallying the Buddhists of Buryatia in southern Siberia and Outer Mongolia to its support as elements of a 'Buddhist empire'. In 1933, Japan expanded Manchukuo by annexing Jehol (Chengde in Chinese) to the south. Jehol had been the summer capital of the Manchu rulers, who had attempted to make it the centre of Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism under the rule of their Qing dynasty.

Faced with communist oppression, many monks in Mongolia and Buryatia were happy to spread the Japanese propaganda among others Mongolian monks, who rebelled against the persecution and instigated the so-called Shambhala War (1930/32).

In 1937, Japan captured the rest of Inner Mongolia and northern China in the first phase of the 2nd Sino-Japanese War. To gain Mongol allegiance, the Japanese proposed to reinstate the Ninth Jebtsundampa, the traditional political and religious head of the Mongols, in Urga, with sanction from Lhasa in Tibet so that he could act as a rallying point for to establish a pan-Mongol movement and state that would include Inner Mongolia, Outer Mongolia and Buryatia with Tibet as their religious centre. It is believed the patron and protector of this proposed state was a regional power and, of course, a Buddhist country. In their effort to win the Mongols to their side, the Japanese even claimed that Japan was Shambhala.

The 13th Dalai Lama had already stressed in 1933 in his 'political will' that the Japanese 'are a Buddhist nation, more than the Chinese who are essentially materialists. In addition, they help Mongolia against the Bolsheviks…Buddhist co-religionists and skilful in war as in peace, [the Japanese] could help Tibet against the Chinese oppressor.'

Anti-Chinese feelings and sympathies for a Buddhist Japan were added to the 13th Dalai Lama’s virulent anti-communism. In his 'political testament', a significant passage warned the clergy and the aristocracy against 'red ideology' which could one day put an end to Tibetan theocratic feudalism: 'The holy lamas will be eliminated without let [and] their names will leave no trace; the properties of embodied lamas and monasteries will all be seized, as well as the endowment funds for religious services. In addition, our political system…will be just an empty word; my officials, deprived of their patrimony and their goods, will be enslaved by the enemy…and my people subjected to fear and misery, no longer [able] to bear day or night.'

Its anti-communism, its hostility toward China and its sympathies with the Japanese co-religionists led quite naturally to the government of Lhasa, which was still largely controlled by the British, to place its hopes in a Japanese victory and an approach to Germany, now Japan’s main ally: on 25 November 1936, Germany and Japan had signed the Anti-Comintern Pact directed against the USSR. On the basis of a common anti-Soviet sentiment, Adolf Hitler 'believed that [Japan] would join Germany in a future war against the USSR, either actively in an invasion of south-east Siberia, or passively in fixing large parts of the [Soviet] army, which fear an attack by the Japanese army of Manchukuo, which numbered 700,000 men at the end of the 1930s'.

On the battlefronts of Europe and Asia, not inconsiderable numbers of followers of the Dalai Lama’s Gelugpa ('Yellow Hat') sect were fighting. A cavalry corps of Kalmyks protected the German army’s supply lines and suppressed pro-Soviet partisans; and Mongol militiamen allied with Japan’s Kwantung Army maintained pressure on the Chinese forces in areas near Inner Mongolia.

In its search for military assistance and protection, Tibet arrived at the conclusion that the most reasonable alternative was Japan. A Tibetan minister recommended seeking Japanese military assistance to keep the Chinese at bay, but the Tibetan national assembly ignored the suggestion, at least for the time being. In 1938, therefore, the Tibetan government, which was now controlled solely by Reting Rinpoche, the regent, resumed contacts with Japan. Many Tibetans admired Japan as a Buddhist nation which had risen to be a world power and the new patron of Buddhism, especially in Inner Mongolia. Moreover, 20 years earlier the Japanese had helped to train the Tibetan army, whose manuals were translations from the Japanese.

On the Japanese side, increased interest in Tibet can be explained, alongside its strategic location, by the fact that Lamaism was also the religion of the Mongolian peoples and that control of Lhasa, holy city and spiritual centre of the Lamaic world, would therefore be a major asset. The Japanese foreign ministry was aware of the sympathies of the Lhasa establishment for the Japanese empire, and it was determined to exploit Lamaism in the Japanese policy of expansion and domination, in a fashion essentially identical to that it had used with the Buddhist organisations and senior priests under its control in the occupied provinces of China.

The most important contact between the Japanese and Tibetan leaderships was Tenpa Taktra, the abbot of the Yonghe lamasery in Peking (now Beijing), who declared that 'The Japanese, the Manchus, the Mongols and the Tibetans belong to the same race. They have believed in Buddhism since ancient times. Japan, the current power in East Asia, can be considered the protector of all Buddhist countries, as well as the most reliable leader of the Buddhist alliance…Japan has just declared that it has the firm intention of putting the British and the Americans out of the door of Asia and establishing a new world order. Tibet hopes to participate in this future common prosperity.'

In June and July 1942, Tenpa Taktra visited Japan in the company of Aoki Bunkyo, a former monk who had become head of the Tibetan department of the Japanese foreign ministry and a representative of the highest Khutukhtu, the spiritual head in the province of China’s north-western Qinghai province. For five weeks, Tenpa held talks with the Japanese deputy foreign minister and members of the Japanese military staff, notably with Major General Seigo Okamoto, head of the military intelligence service.

Support for the independence of Tibetan Buddhist lands was a powerful motivating rationale for Japan’s interventions war with republican China. Thousands of Zen 'warrior monks', along with their co-believers from the Nichiren and Pure Land sects, volunteered as combat troops for the liberation of Manchuria, Mongolia and ultimately Tibet. In fierce fighting in 1942/43, the Japanese came close to taking Lhasa. Tsarong Shape, the Tibetan war minister and head of the progressive 'Young Tibet' faction, befriended Teramoto and spoke in support of Japanese overtures in the Kashjag (ruling council) over the next years. Tsarong Shape reputedly made a secret visit to Tokyo, probably with the 1942 delegation that helped plan the Japanese invasion of Tibet after Goshima and Aoki had ostensibly arranged a religious exchange with the Shingon, a Japanese Buddhist sect. The real purpose was the finalisation of the Japanese general staff’s plan for the march on Lhasa and the admission of an independent Tibet into the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Tsarong Shape was ready to welcome liberating Japanese troops, and the Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer, the Dalai Lama’s tutor in Lhasa, later recounted his great hope for a successful Japanese thrust toward Tibet so that he could go home to Germany. With the unexpected Allied victory in 1945, however, the young 14th Dalai Lama missed his only chance for a free Tibet and therefore ended in Dharamsala in former British India instead of a Japanese-liberated Lhasa.

In February 1942, the full planning of a Japanese 'Chibetto' operation was started with the the support of Aoki Bunkyo. As part of the initial consideration of 'Chibetto', during May 1939 the Japanese secret service sent to Tibet the agent Jinzo Nomoto to collect information, and he also recruited four Qinghai lamas. These were to travel to Tibet and win other religious leaders into collaboration. In October 1943, the Japanese military’s secret service despatched two other Japanese agents, Kimura Hisao and Nishikawa Kazumi, to Tibet after they had received extensive training. Two former students of Aoki Bunkyo were also selected and trained to carry out secret missions in Tibet.

Ultimately, the Japanese 'Chibetto' suffered the same fate as the German 'Tibet', and may rightly be characterised as a matter of 'too little and too late'. When Kimura Hisao arrived in Lhasa, he heard the news of the Japanese surrender.

For the Japanese high command, the strategic significance in the opening of a Tibetan theatre of operations was to create the opportunity for the Japanese army to attack the northern perimeter of British India. As it expanded its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, Japan saw Tibet as a useful and necessary buffer against British India, and an attack on British India’s northern perimeter would spread the available British forces too thinly to sustain a protracted defence, thereby aiding the Japanese-backed Indian National Army on the disease-infested border between Burma and the north-eastern Manipur state of India. The seizure of Tibet would, in short, crush British resistance and bring a victorious end to World War II. This intent accorded fully with the Tibetan wish to remain independent of China.

The main obstacle to the Japanese plan was the US-supported Chinese Nationalist force in the Chungking area of Sichuan province, the gateway to Tibet. In September 1942, the Japanese launched 'Operation 5' as a three-pronged 'pinning attack' against this Chinese Nationalist stronghold. From air bases inside central China, Japanese bombing missions softened the Chinese Nationalist positions in Chungking, and the memories of the resulting civilian casualties still provoke anti-Japanese anger among Sichuan residents.

In the spring of 1942, once the Japanese invasions of South-East Asia had been largely completed, the general staff of the Imperial Japanese Army responded to demands from its armies in the China theatre by starting studies for a large-scale military operation in China. Early in April, General Hajime Sugiyama, the army chief-of-staff, ordered General Shunroku Hata, commander of the China Expeditionary Army, to look for an opportunity suitable for an attack on Sichuan.

Meanwhile, preparations were under way for an attack on Chungking. On 3 September, Sugiyama ordered the armies in China to prepare 'Operation 5', otherwise the 'Sichuan Operation', which was to create conditions in which men and matériel could be removed from the mainland of Asia for redeployment into areas where it was becoming necessary to withstand the anticipated Allied counter-offensive in the Pacific. Japan’s continued strained relationship with the USSR made it impossible to remove strength from Manchukuo , so China proper became the focus of the campaign, whose aim was to 'destroy the Chungking government’s ability to resist' in a classic three-pronged pinning attack against Chinese and Allied forces before a major reduction in Japanese military strength in the theatre.

Politically, it was hoped that bringing overwhelming military force to bear against the Chinese Nationalists' power base in Sichuan could force the Chinese Nationalist government to accept a humiliating peace, and this objective accorded nicely with the Tibetan wish to remain wholly independent of China.

If the 'Operation 5' was successful, the Japanese planned to put Wang Jing-wei’s Chinese puppet regime in power. The Japanese may also have hoped to persuade Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek to join Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and even to support any future Japanese offensive against the USSR in Siberia and/or central Asia. Another possibility was the installation of a Japanese civilian or military governor-general to administer the area as an Imperial Japanese Army fiefdom in mainland Asia, a fiefdom which could later be expanded to include Tibet and Shinjiang.

The plan was to send reinforcements of 60,000 men from the south, 120,000 men from Japan and 180,000 men from Manchukuo and Korea, after which the invasion of Sichuan would follow, with the main force coming from Xi’an, supported by forces from Wuhan.The invasion phase of the operation was to involve Japanese formations first occupying Wanxian, from where the Japanese could advance to Chungking. In order to cut off the routes by which the Chinese, both civilian and military, might escape, it was also planned to occupy northern Guizhou, a region which could be used to to launch an attack on Chengdu through Yibin.

The northern component of the Japanese army’s strength in China would have the option to advance toward southern Shaanxi in order to capture Xi’an, or toward Hanzhong to take Chengdu directly. Alternatively, the Japanese could have made use of their admittedly small airborne forces to cut the Chinese escape routes and take the Chungking metropolitan area directly.

The fierce fighting for Guadalcanal in the south-east Pacific after the US 'Watchtower' landing of August 1942 deprived 'Operation 5' of the forces and equipment it needed, however. The operation required more than 300,000 tons of shipping, and negotiations began on securing the necessary support, but the Imperial Japanese Navy, whose main priority was the Pacific, insisted that all available resources should be used to secure air supremacy in the South Pacific, and the navy’s losses were then considerably greater than had been expected. For this reason, early in November 1942, it was unofficially announced that for practical purposes 'Operation 5' would not take place in 1943. The reason given was 'a lack of sufficient shipping, mainly for transport.' This made it impossible to boost the strength of Japan’s land forces in China, and on 10 December 10 the undertaking was cancelled.

The Imperial Japanese Army’s south-eastern operations in the Burma theatre and against the north-east Indian state of Assam had a far greater scope, and this came to include Tibet: in bringing Japanese troops toward Tibet’s south-eastern border and in forcing the British political and military leadership in India to make decisions that affected the course of the war, one of the major Japanese objectives was the closure of the Burma Road, which was the main overland supply route to the Chinese Nationalist forces, the Burma Road. The 'U' (i) invasion of Burma included in its longer-term objectives an invasion of south-eastern Tibet through upper Burma: Japanese strategists planned in January 1942 for an entry into Tibet from upper Burma after Lieutenant General Shojiro Iida’s 15th Army had readied its strength for a push up the Salween river valley through Yunnan into the Kham region and thence Lhasa.

The Japanese government organised a Great Asian Bureau, and as its main adviser appointed at Aoki Bunkyo. The bureau prepared maps of Tibet, compiled Japanese/Tibetan dictionaries, and printed new Tibetan paper money for the soon-to-be-freed Tibet in anticipation of the inclusion of Tibet in the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. There are indications that after the Japanese forces had reached upper Burma, plans were made for air drops into Tibet by aircraft based at Bhamo and Myitkyina airfields. With Japan’s defeat in August 1945, however, the Japanese were never in any real position to implement their plans for the seizure of Tibet.