Having been a representative of the Dalai Lama in Japan for 15 years, many might expect Tibetan-born Pema Gyalpo to be something of a Utopian dreamer. The reality is more complicated.
“I tell my students that I’m 60 percent realist and 40 percent idealist,” says Gyalpo, who combines media commentary and authoring books with a professorship at Yokohama’s Toin University.
His experience of fleeing the Chinese invasion of Tibet as a child in 1959, and the suffering his family endured, has clearly shaped his worldview. His two brothers were killed by the occupying Chinese forces, something he was unable to confirm until 1980, when he returned as an envoy of the Dalai Lama.
“When the Chinese came to Tibet, we had 250,000 monks chanting for peace from morning to night, but it didn’t help. China sent an armed force of only 20,000 people, and it was enough,” says Gyalpo, explaining his disillusionment with pacifism.
Having escaped with his parents over the border to India, Gyalpo was invited to study at an Australian-run missionary school in India, learning English in the process. Next came another opportunity that would alter the course of his life. A Japanese “agent” who had been working in Tibet before and during the Second World War, despite the mountain kingdom’s claim of neutral status, arranged scholarships for a small group of refugees to study in Japan.
While he found Tibet and Japan culturally similar, in part through the common ground of Buddhism, the modernity of post-Olympic Tokyo was a shock. Following his first time on an airplane, he recalls his first encounter with a large glass door resulted in him walking straight into it.
Sent to a junior high school in Moroyama, Saitama, Gyalpo remembers the locals as very welcoming, with teachers and students helping him by writing hiragana alongside the kanji in his textbooks.
In his second year, he was elected chair of the student council. He was the first foreign pupil to hold such a position in a Japanese public school, and the event attracted national media attention. He went on to high school and the Asia University of Japan, where he obtained his law degree in 1976, before entering graduate school at Sophia University.
Eventually, however, he dropped out of his course, worried that if he completed his studies, his visa would not be renewed. It was during his time at Sophia in 1976, that he began his work for the Dalai Lama in Japan, and eventually became responsible for the whole Asia-Pacific.
In the early years, Gyalpo says he found it easier in some ways to work for the Dalai Lama in countries such as South Korea, Taiwan and Malaysia, than in Japan, where academia had a strong streak of internationalism and socialism, leading to sympathy toward China. The Tiananmen Square incident was something of a watershed in perceptions of China, says Gyalpo. “When people saw how ruthless they were with their own people, they began to believe what we had been saying about Tibet.”
‘I FEEL JAPAN IS MISUNDERSTOOD AND I THINK IT’S MY DUTY TO TELL THE WORLD WHAT I’VE SEEN AND HEARD.’
It was as a representative of the Dalai Lama in the late 1980s that Gyalpo was contacted at his office by Aum Shinrikyo, when the cult’s founder Shoko Asahara came to visit.
“To be honest, I was quite impressed with him at first, when he talked about his level of meditation. And he was very polite in those days,” recalls Gyalpo. “That didn’t last long though, as he began to make claims about his enlightenment, levitation and that his followers should drink his blood.”
With Aum Shinrikyo claiming to be followers of Tibetan Buddhism, Gyalpo found himself at odds with the cult. “I told Asahara that in a free country, you can have your Asahara-ism, but what you’re teaching is not Tibetan Buddhism.”
Gyalpo eventually faced Asahara in a television debate, but says his responses were mostly drowned out by the cult leader’s followers shouting and banging on tables. However, following the sarin gas attack in 1995, Gyalpo says he was grateful for having fallen out with the cult so publically.
Gyalpo resigned as the Dalai Lama’s representative in 1990. Following the assassination in 1991 of Rajiv Gandhi, whom he had met, Gyalpo found himself in demand as a commentator on Japanese TV. He believes he was fortunate that it was a period when Japan was somewhat fixated on internationalism.
“Anything that had the word “international” in it had a special meaning to the Japanese, and I was called in to comment on it, along with a few other foreigners. It was the same with universities, which started having international departments and classes, leading to a permanent job at Gifu Women’s University.”
In addition to his media and academic careers, Gyalpo has written, co-authored and translated no fewer than 63 books, as well as trying his hand at politics. In 2007, he unsuccessfully stood for election to the House of Councillors with the conservative LDP-breakaway People’s New Party (Kokumin Shinto), on a platform that included reforming the pacifist Article 9 of the constitution and condemning a resolution passed by the U.S. Congress that year on the “comfort women” issue.
“Article 9 is a declaration from Japan; there is no obligation for anyone else to respect that, so it’s not practical. Under the present constitution, the Self-Defense Force is illegal. They receive the same training as an army, and have the same weapons.”
“In this way, I’m a little conservative; maybe not a little, quite conservative.”
The furor surrounding the comments of NHK’s new governor at his January press conference is mystifying to Gyalpo. “If I want to know what the Japanese government is thinking, I would watch NHK. It is supposed to be the national TV station, so I think it’s important that it gives the government’s views. Equally, I believe that the Asahi should give its own views, which should be different; otherwise what’s the point in having two different types of media?”
Looking to the future, one of Professor Gyalpo’s plans is to reach a wider audience with his writings. “All my books so far have been in Japanese, so my audience has been restricted to the Japanese. I’d like to write something in English. I feel Japan is misunderstood and I think it’s my duty to tell the world what I’ve seen and heard.”
Gavin Blair covers Japanese business, society and culture for publications in America, Asia and Europe.