IN 2008 he obtained a student visa and entered Bukkyo University in Kyoto, receiving his master’s degree in Buddhist studies four years later. In 2012 he applied for refugee status under Japanese law and, at this writing (summer 2013), is still waiting for official confirmation one way or the other as, he says, reportedly the first Tibetan to apply for refugee status in Japan. “Before I made the application, I already understood how hard it would be to get refugee status in Japan. However, under the Japanese constitution, basic human rights are guaranteed. Japan is a country that follows the United Nations treaties on refugees, so I think Japan wouldn’t go against its own laws.”
He has picked up some of the Japanese language in the meantime, lives on a small monthly stipend provided by the Japanese government, and has to check in every month with immigration officials in Osaka. “As I am under application, that means I am temporarily released [from custody]. It seems that the immigration office has been checking into whether my passport was forged or not, and that has taken a lot of time. My ability to work and other activities are limited in the meantime. Studying is the only thing I’m allowed to do by the immigration office until the final judgment is made on my application.”
“I hope the Japanese government will continue to follow their own laws and international law when it comes to granting refugee status — and to shorten the processing time. Of course, I understand that it depends on the situation of the applicant and there are difficulties with getting the refugee status. I believe the Japanese government will judge my case appropriately, and I appreciate the Japanese people for allowing me to live under the social welfare of this country.”
LIVING A LIFE in limbo in Japan, with restrictions on seeking work in the country or traveling outside the country, Kalsang Dorjee decided to make the best use of his time by helping Japanese people understand more about Tibet, its people and its history. He started giving a series of lectures at benkyo-kai study meetings in Kyoto, with a different theme selected each month. In one of his recent study meetings, resembling more a subdued Japanese university lecture than a fiery polemic, he shared with the audience some of the history and culture of Tibet. During the question-answer period, the Japanese audience brought up issues of religion and politics, human rights and the lack of democracy in China.
“I would like people in Japan and around the world to understand the Tibetan issue, because resolving the problems in Tibet can play an important role in bringing peace and stability not only to Asian countries but also to the world,” he says.
A blazing figure ravaged by flames A human pyre of supreme patriotism Half limping, half jumping Half dying, half exulting Straddling across the frantic stage of Now His hands joined over his head in supplication His cackling lips shouting one more time, one last time “Bhod Rangzen” “Free Tibet”
Topden Tsering — “Pyre of Patriotism”
Kalsang Dorjee received word that on the very day of one of his recent study meetings in Kyoto, yet another Tibetan back home had committed suicide by setting himself on fire. News reports here and there mention in passing the latest casualty of self-immolations in Tibet, a 30-year-old Tibetan mother of four children being just one of the more recent ones. The current wave of self-immolations, especially among young Tibetans — and young Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns in particular — rose sharply from 2009. That was when the government of China cracked down on Tibetan protests during the 50th anniversary year of the Dalai Lama’s flight into exile in 1959. The number of self-immolations in Tibet since 2009 stands today at around 115.
Especially shocking in the context of Buddhist doctrine, self-immolation was a potent symbolic action taken by monks during the Vietnam War, and has been used since the late fourth century CE as a form of protest by Buddhists in times of suppression of their religion within China.
Although Kalsang Dorjee wants Tibetans to stop killing themselves this way, he understands why they do it. “One reason is out of a sense of hopelessness.” Another reason is a lack of patience that the Dalai Lama is still not recognized by China and allowed to return to Tibet after all these years. “Setting themselves on fire sends a strong message to the world,” he says. “For me personally, I would like to see them stop doing it, but I think probably more and more Tibetans will follow them.” Like many Tibetans, he calls on the Chinese government to hold an official inquiry into how and why these suicides occur.
If violence of many kinds is now the order of the day in Tibet, Kalsang Dorjee thinks, then a peaceful resolution is the only answer for the future: “If the ends are peace, then the means have to be peaceful. It cannot be violent.” In 1989 the Dalai Lama outlined a five-point plan for a future Tibet after liberation: Tibet would become a “Zone of Peace” where respect for human rights and environmental protection would have top priority, and where military weapons and nuclear power would have no place. Kalsang Dorjee fully agrees.
“Also, the Tibetan language has to be been maintained,” he adds. “If the language dies out, Tibetan culture will die out. And in order to build up a stable economy, Tibet will need education about science, technology, economics, politics. Education is a key factor for the future of Tibet.” As a researcher himself who has specialized in Tibetan literature and Buddhism, the 37-year-old Kalsang Dorjee envisions the day coming when he will be able to bring everything he has learned, and all the hardships that he and his people have borne, to help pave the way for the Tibet of the future.
IN THE MEANTIME China remains the biggest trading partner of Japan, the country that Kalsang Dorjee calls home for now. But the Japanese government is known for treading lightly on Chinese feet, both politically and economically; what can Japan do for Tibet in the future? “The situation in Tibet may get worse,” he replies, being careful with his words, “and if the Chinese government commits some kind of genocide, Japan and other countries could take some steps in changing their political policies toward China.”
Unfortunately, he may be right that it would take even further catastrophe to rally effective world-scale political support for Tibet. The reality is that Kalsang Dorjee is just one of 140,000 Tibetans that the Central Tibetan Administration — Tibet’s government in exile in Dharamsala — estimates are living today as exiles around the world, and their voices and their calls for international solidarity often seem to go unheard and unheeded, even in the host countries in which they are living.
And while Kalsang Dorjee’s tale is unique, it is also painfully similar to tens of thousands of other Tibetan exiles like him who have felt forced to sever ties with the past in the hope of reaching a better day in the future. “Tibetans, over a thousand years, have sacrificed the nation to build up this culture,” Kalsang Dorjee says with pride. “Tibetan culture is so unique in the world.” Whatever happens, he says, it must never be lost.
In the distant days when you were only a child You used to dream of being a man of war Now after losing all the battles you have fought You still long to be a better soldier
And after years of escape and separation You still recollect those native hills Those prayer-flags, the echoes of the conches and highland dogs Disturbing the still night of the nomad valley
For long have you wandered over alien seas Singing alien songs; stoned in discotheques. But in your eyes I see the longing for the Cold Mountain songs and The long march back to our long lost home
You are a bridge to the future for the poets and patriots: You sing songs of sacrifice And you beat the drums of destiny
And who comes to you Must search for inspiration In the very few lines Of an injured poem
K. Dhondup — “A Poem of Separation”
_________________________________ UPDATE: After a long and patient wait, in late 2013 Kalsang Dorjee’s application for refugee status was officially approved. He says he is the first Tibetan exile ever to be granted such status in Japan. *All passages in italics are excerpted from the book Muses in Exile: An Anthology of Tibetan Poetry (Paljor Publications, 2004), a collection of poems originally written in English by exiled Tibetan writers living in various countries of the world.
BRIAN COVERT is a writer, editor and university lecturer based in Kawanishi, western Japan.