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A historical perspective of how the Japan- Bhutan friendship started

“In the year 2 of Taisho Era, I passed through Bhutan and reached Tibet.” Tokan Tada (1890-1967) writes in his book Tibet, published in 1942. The year 2 of Taisho corresponds to 1913 and makes Tada the first Japanese to ever step foot in Bhutan and describe the country to the Japanese.

Tsa-Tsa: A symbol of the Bhutan- Japan relationship

A historical perspective of how the Japan- Bhutan friendship started

“In the year 2 of Taisho Era, I passed through Bhutan and reached Tibet.” Tokan Tada (1890-1967) writes in his book Tibet, published in 1942. The year 2 of Taisho corresponds to 1913 and makes Tada the first Japanese to ever step foot in Bhutan and describe the country to the Japanese.

The 23-year-old Buddhist scholar was on his way to Tibet and stopped briefly in Bhutan. As he was disguised as a Tibetan monk he managed to stay under the radar. In Tibet, he enrolled in the Sera monastery and studied Buddhism under the patronage of the 13th Dalai Lama. Amongst Japanese Tibetologists, he is famously known for bringing sets of Kangyur and Tengyur scriptures to Japan.

Forty-five years elapsed until the arrival of the next Japanese to Bhutan. Dr Sasuke Nakao’s (1916-1993) interest was not in religion or politics but in flora like most of the early foreign visitors. Officially, the scientist is considered the first Japanese to visit Bhutan.

The Professor of Osaka Prefectural University came in 1958 and lived and travelled widely in the country. Back in the days, travelling in Bhutan was arduous. Without motor roads and the absence of hotels, everything had to be carried on horseback. The Professor’s visit was only possible because of Her Majesty Ashi Kesang Choeden Wangchuck’s assistance. Her Majesty personally took care of his logistics needs and even deputed one of her personal staff, Ramjam Nawa Thai on his duty for six months. The result of the Professor’s visit resulted into two books; Bhutan, Mysterious Kingdom (1959) and Flowers of Bhutan (1984), which introduced Bhutan to the Japanese in greater depth.

Subsequently, four years later, in 1962, the first Japanese diplomat visited Bhutan with his wife, making her the first Japanese woman to visit the country. In May 1962, Lyonchen Jigme Palden Dorji (1919-1964) invited Fumihiko Togo (1915-1985) and Ise Togo (1923-1997) to Bhutan.

Her Majesty, Ise Togo, Shigehiko and HRH Kesang Choden Wangchuck at Paro in 1987
Her Majesty, Ise Togo, Shigehiko and HRH Kesang Choden Wangchuck at Paro in 1987

Fumihiko was Japan’s Consul General (October 1961-November 1963) in Calcutta in India. Their odyssey created a deep impression that culminated in a book, published in 1965, called The Kingdom of Himalaya, Bhutan. Written in Japanese, the diplomat introduced Bhutanese culture and its Royal Family to Japan. In the book, he mentions his first encounter with Lyonchen and his wife Tessla Dorji in Calcutta at a social function hosted by the Governor General of West Bengal. “I saw a noble lady, unthinkable that she was not a Japanese and found out that she was Mrs Dorji.”

The Togos already knew about Bhutan. Interestingly, it was not from Tada or Professor Nakao’s writings but through Ronaldshay’s book titled, Lands of the Thunderbolt: Sikhim, Chumbi & Bhutan. Fumihiko writes in his book that when he and his wife met Bhutan’s Prime Minister and his wife in January 1962, they showed great interest in the country and expressed their desire to visit it.

At that time (1962) the first motor-road in the country was just being built. The Togos patiently waited for it to be completed and when the Phuntsholing – Thimphu highway was finally completed in May 1962, they travelled in a jeep to Paro as the Lyonchen’s chief guest.  The Consul General’s book has some interesting photos of their journey. According to it, after two days of driving through dense jungles and steep mountain sides, they were thrilled to reach the valley of Paro and were thoroughly impressed with Paro Dzong.

Ise’s German relative was the reputed architect Georg de Lalande, (1872-1914) who built several buildings in Japan and are still preserved for its high cultural value. Hence, it does not come as a surprise when the book praises the grandeur of the Paro Dzong. Their first impression of Bhutan is captured in Fumihiko’s quote, “I could not stop admiring it as Shangri-La, or the Earthly Paradise.”

In Paro, the Togos received an audience with His Majesty King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (1929-72) and Her Majesty Ashi Kesang Choeden Wangchuck. Fumihiko writes about Their Majesties with great affection and warmth.  Over the years, this warm personal relationship was nurtured and opened doors to a world beyond their imagination that eventually resulted into the Japan-Bhutan diplomatic relationship in 1986.

The Togos first visit to Bhutan made such a lasting impression, resulting in their visit again in June 1963. Fumihiko was later posted to New York as the Consul General before he took up the prestigious post of the Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo. He was a career diplomat and educated in Harvard and was one of Japan’s America experts.

While in New York, the Togos learnt about the assassination of their close friend Lyonchen Jigme and deeply mourned his untimely death. Far from Bhutan, Fumihiko  could not do anything although he often thought of Bhutan.

Fumihiko was instrumental in sending the Japanese agriculturist Keiji Nishioka (1933- 1992 ) to Bhutan to teach and cultivate agriculture. Lyonchen Jigme was interested in developing modern agriculture in Bhutan and in hindsight, it seemed like it was Fumihiko’s way of paying tribute to his departed friend. It is likely that Dr Nakao influenced the diplomat to send his student Nishoka. Nishoka was bestowed the red scarf with the title of Dasho for his immense and noteworthy contribution to the development of modern agriculture. Dasho changed the landscape of the farmlands and the lives of the farmers.

Fumihiko’s career path gradually progressed. In 1970-72, he served as the ambassador to Vietnam. When the third king passed away in 1972, he was reassigned back in Tokyo as the Deputy Vice Minister and Vice Minister of MoFA until 1975.

The Togos came from a distinguished family. In Ise’s book, Fireworks Without Color, the Memory of “Showa Era” narrated by the daughter of Shigenori Togo, she talks about her father, who was Japan’s War Time Foreign Minister (1941,45). He tried his best to avert the war but failed in his endeavours.

He was arrested as a war criminal of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East and sentenced to 20 years of imprisonment, where he died in the prison hospital in 1950.  The silver lining in Ise’s book is clearly about her fond memories in Bhutan. She writes, “the physical resemblance of the Bhutanese people to the Japanese, the similarity of the Bhutanese national costume to that of the Japanese kimono, the mutual respect of justice and honour, the quiet and amiable scenery…, all indicated Japan at the time of the Meiji Restoration (1869).”

In June 1974, the Togos attended the coronation ceremony of His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck at the invitation of Her Majesty Ashi Kesang. Fumihiko later in his memoir mentions that it was rare for a vice minister of MoFA to leave Japan, but upon his insistence, an exception was made.

From 1976 to 1980 as expert on America, Fumihiko was posted back to the United States under the Ford Carter administration as the Japanese ambassador. In 1981, he retired and became the adviser to the Nippon Steel Corporation. In the same year, the Japan-Bhutan Friendship Association was formed and he became one of the six founding members.

Like him, the other founders had established deep connection with Bhutan and were the recipient of the warm hospitality of the Bhutanese royal family. The other five founders were Jiro Kawakida, Takeo Kuwabara, Sasuke Nakao, Chie Nakane and Eizabro Nishihori. Four years later, on April 9, 1985, Fumihiko passed away in a Tokyo hospital due to cancer. The following year, on March 28 1986, Japan and Bhutan officially established diplomatic ties.

Ise-san said, “My husband told me that he felt as if he once was born in Bhutan.” So it was a natural and easy decision for the family to bring his ashes to Bhutan. In September 1987, Ise and one of her twin sons, Shigehiko visited Bhutan with Ambassador Fumihiko’s ashes. Her Majesty Ashi Kesang received her old friends and helped them make the ashes into tsa tsa or moulds and kept them in a lhakhang. Tsa Tsa’s are usually made with clay and placed on altars, shrines and holy places. Traditionally, Buddhist’s make 108 moulds out of the ashes of their loved ones in their memory and as a token of gratitude.

Even after the death of Ambassador Fumihiko, the Togos and the Bhutanese royal family kept in touch with each other. In March 1989, Ise-san and several members of the family visited Bhutan. The following year, in March 1989, when His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck attended the funeral of Emperor Showa in Tokyo, His Majesty visited Ise at her house and also met members of the family.

Twelve years later, when Her Majesty Ashi Kesang visited Kyoto, Ise got a chance to meet her friend and say goodbye. Shortly after the audience, she passed away. In September 1999, her two sons returned to Bhutan with the ashes of their mother and Her Majesty again made tsa tsa and kept it near her husband’s in the monastery. In January 2003, Shigehiko rreceived the holy tsa tsa of Ise-san made lovingly by Her Majesty Ashi Kesang Choeden Wangchuck in Nagoya where he keeps it in the family altar next to his father’s. The tsa tsa has become the symbol of the sacred relationship between the Wangchuck dynasty and the Togo family.

It was only after 45 years after the visit of the first Japanese to Bhutan that few Japanese took personal interest in Bhutan. Within a span of 28 years, eminent individuals such as Professor, Professor Nakao, Professor Ashida, Dasho Nishokha and the Togos worked relentlessly to build the foundation of the relationship between Japan and Bhutan that eventually led to the establishment of formal diplomatic ties between the two countries.

Contributed by

Tshering Tashi

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