日本のチュルク人 : A Look at Soviet Turkic Exile Politics in Japan

The cover of issue number 17 of Yangi Yapon Mokhbire.

A doctoral dissertation is rarely written along a linear trajectory. It involves diversions, false starts, restarts, and no end of rabbit holes that, while fun, burn up the few, precious days we give ourselves to clean up our final submissions. In the process of completing my own doctoral dissertation, Divergent Paths, I spent considerable time looking at historiographical trends among Soviet Turkic exiles in Europe and Japan. I eventually had to accept that this material would not make it into the final draft, but vowed to return to it once my viva was completed. Among the rarer source materials that attracted my attention on this particular topic was a small periodical, Yangi Yapon Mokhbire (ياڭى ياپون مخبرى), published in Tokyo between 1933-1938. The magazine is exceptionally rare, with holdings at the Diet Library in Tokyo, two American universities, and also the Hakkı Tarık Us Collection. The copies in this last collection were, luckily, digitised through a project between İstanbul Üniversitesi and TUFS, and are available in djvu format here. The publication speaks to a poorly known history of Turkic exile politics in Japan, as well as to broader Japanese attempts at instrumentalizing Turkic opposition to Soviet rule in the 1930s.

            To start, what do we know about Yangi Yapon Mokhbire? From the imprint of the 17th issue (1934), we can see that it was published by the Yapon Mokhbire Idarese, and was thus a self-contained venture not directly linked to a main Japanese-language outlet. The language of the magazine is especially interesting, as it blends Karluk, Qipchak and Oğuz elements. This is both unsurprising and relatively unique. Unsurprising, given that one could hardly expect anti-Soviet exiles to adopt and assimilate the immense linguistic changes imposed by the Soviet authorities throughout the 1920s and 30s. Unique, as it is part of a small yet important corpus of works that sought to continue the ideology of Turkic linguistic unification into the era of the Turkic nation-state. The text of some of the articles undoubtedly has a very Qipchak flavour (particularly with the use of post-positions such as berlen and the -gan past). It also contains nods to western Turkic features, which underscores a desire to make them accessible to those outside of the Tatar and Bashkir fold.

            The content of the articles, too, points to a much more global view than that of a local newsletter. There are, of course, pieces on the activities of Tatars and Bashkirs in Japan (including on the printing of the Qur’an in Tokyo), but these are complemented by items concerning war in Saudi Arabia, social organizations in Egypt, and an Orientalist conference in Rome.  A third group of writings falls into a broader category of Japan-themed contributions that straddle the fence between integration and propaganda. In these, readers learn about Japan’s foreign policy and trade; its major industries; and important Japanese cultural events, such as Tango no sekku (端午の節句; Boys’ Day, today known as Kodomo no Hi こどもの日 or Children’s Day). The editors sought to promote Japan’s role as a major and benevolent power in Asia (and especially Muslim Asia). But they also evidently felt it important to include articles that would assist their readers to navigate life in Japan, as well as pieces intended to preserve and promote Turkic and Muslim culture among the diaspora.

            Who were these editors? The imprint for No. 17 says that Kurubangarī was the individual responsible for the editorial staff. It is fairly safe to assume that this refers to Mökhămătghăbdelkhăĭ Qorbanghăliev (Мөхәмәтғәбделхәй Ҡорбанғәлиев), a Bashkir intellectual, anti-Soviet exile, and religious scholar. Qorbangăliev was a prominent figure in the Turkic community resident in Japan in the 1930s, to which he had fled in 1924. He was born in Mediak, near Orenburg, in 1889, the son of a Bashkir Imam Khatib. His education was heavily reliant on religious instruction, and he was preparing to take a prominent role in the Orenburg Muslim Spiritual Assembly when the 1917 Revolution altered his plans considerably. He became a leader of the nationalist and religiously-influenced Bashkir movement, at first siding with the famed Bashkir historian Zeki Velidi Togan, and then breaking with him when Togan threw his hat in with the Soviets in the name of preserving Bashkir autonomy. Qorbangăliev’s support of the Whites led to his exile to Manchuria in 1920, when the White Army supporting his organization surrendered to the Soviets. His ties to Manchuria were of key importance, given that he was responsible, at various points, for spearheading Japanese efforts to found sympathetic Muslim organizations there. Despite his close links to military and nationalist figures in Japan, his own activities created a fair amount of friction with those in Japan’s government seeking to establish a coherent Islamic policy. This motivated yet another exile, from Japan to Manchuria in 1938, where he was eventually captured by the Soviets in 1945. After his release from prison in 1955, he worked as a Mullah in Chelyabinsk until his death in 1972.

            Qorbangăliev, however, wasn’t the only important figure tied to Yangi Yapon Mokhbire. He was joined by the Siberian Tatar Ghabdrăshit Ibrahimov (Габдрәшит Ибраһимов), another religious scholar turned nationalist activist. Ibrahimov had a far rockier, and richer, history of involvement with various governments in the cause of pan-Islamism and Jadidism. Before the Russian Revolution, he bounced between the Russian, Ottoman and Japanese Empires, courting controversy and official approbation for his activities. He spent the First World War in Turkey, then returned to Russia in the hope that the Revolution and negotiation with the Bolsheviks would allow for the protection of Tatar-Bashkir rights and autonomy. After failing in this pursuit, he left the country, first for Turkey and then for Japan, where he arrived again 1933 after spending time in Berlin – where he founded Yanga Milli Yul – and Egypt. Ibrahimov was hardly a fan of Atatürk’s Turkey, having been stripped of his Turkish citizenship in 1935. He developed close interaction with Japanese officials and intellectuals in the interests of the Islamic community. He also eschewed politics to some degree, focusing more on the growth of Tatar and Islamic publishing and community in Japan. He was the Imam of the Tokyo Mosque, a particularly important post once the Japanese parliament recognized Islam as an official religion in 1939. Ibrahimov died in 1944 in Tokyo, never again seeing his homeland, or the defeat of Japan at the hands of the Allies. Nonetheless, his presence in Japan, as well as his sporadic work with Yangi Yapon Mokhbire, did ensure that East Asia would be an important point of Turkic nationalist agitation throughout the Second World War. A full account of these activities, for those who are interested, can be found in Ulrich Brandenburg’s 2018 piece in Die Welt des Islams.

In spite of this collaboration, Yangi Yapon Mokhbire was far from a lighthouse of Turkic unity. From outside research, we know that Ayaz İshaki, a prominent Mishar Bulgarian (a sub-group of the Tatar nation) intellectual with political leanings that were further to the left than those of Qorbangăliev, was occasionally a target of criticism in the journal. İshaki also fled the Soviet Union in 1920, but he first went west, residing primarily in Poland and Germany. There, he worked with organizations promoting Prometheism, and also contributed to the nationalist Yanga Milli Yul magazine. He arrived in Manchuria in 1934, and spent some time traveling between the Japanese puppet state, Korea (under Japanese occupation since 1910) and Japan itself. He founded the newspaper Milli Bayrak in Mukden in 1935, and also organized the Mukden Congress (sorry, Wikipedia article in Russian and Tatar only!) of Turco-Tatar peoples. This was largely a forum for activists from the Idel-Ural Movement in East Asia, and it continued to provide a form of limited political organization and welfare assistance to Tatars in the region until 1945. İshaki thus found himself in direct opposition to the global aspirations of Qorbangăliev and Ibrahimov, at least until the end of the War, at which point he returned to Turkey, where he died in 1954.

Given Ibrahimov’s early interest in Japanese support for Turkic cultural, religious and cultural aspirations, it’s only fair to ask if this was a short-lived and ill-fated affair between two blocks of power, or the high point of much longer trend. In fact, by the 1930s, intellectual linkages between Japan’s ascendant position in global politics and the articulation of Turkish, or Turkic, nationalism were far from uncommon. The Turkish academic Selçuk Esenbel has provided us with a fairly comprehensive overview of pre-1918 activities in her scholarship on the cultural, political and economic connections and similarities that arose between the late Ottoman Empire and Meiji Japan. Even in Ziya Gökalp’s Culture and Civilization (Hars ve Medeniyet) we can discern a certain degree of fascination for Japan. The Japanese victory over Russia encouraged nationalists across Eastern Europe and Asia alike, but it was Japan’s capacity for adopting and adapting Euro-American technological development, while retaining a unique and distinct sense of cultural identity, that impressed Gökalp most. This excitement or interest, however, seems to have dropped off in the Republican period.

Kobe Mosque, founded in 1935 and designed by Czech architect Jan Josef Švagr.

            Turkic communities originating from further north-east, however, were a different matter. Similar to Qorbangăliev, Ibrahimov and İshaki, no small number of exiles originating from these groups found themselves among political refugees from the Soviet Union. Some went to Istanbul, while others congregated in Warsaw, building up around the Prometheus Movement that included such notables as the first President of an independent Azerbaijan, Mǝmmǝd Əmin Rǝsulzadǝ. A third cohort fled east, going through China and eventually ending up in Manchuria (a Japanese puppet state after 1931) and Japan proper. It is the broader story of this Tatar-Bashkir diaspora in Japan (which is partially encapsulated in Yangi Yapon Mokhbire), that is largely missing from English-language histories of 20th-century Turkic nationalism. Perhaps the best guide to the community and its historical and contemporary attributes is provided by the Tatar scholar Larisa Usmanova. Her The Türk-Tatar Diaspora in North-East Asia is an invaluable study of Tatar and Bashkir groups in the region, their connections to official bodies, and their attempts at reorganizing and reinventing themselves following capitulation and occupation in 1945. Beyond the importance of this diaspora for Japanese efforts at undermining Soviet hegemony in Asia, Usmanova elaborates on the human side of transnational Turkic communities, filling her study with anecdotes and analysis of personal relationships within and outside of the Tatar and Bashkir groups.

            In Turkey, too, the academy has shown its interest in the activities of various Turkic communities in Japan and elsewhere in East Asia. Ali Merthan Dündar is one particularly productive researcher on the topic, having made use of Yangi Yapon Mokhbire as a springboard for exploring Turkic publishing activities in Japan. Beyond this, however, Dündar has also sought to contextualize the exploitation of Turkic causes and grievances within Japanese approaches to pan-Asianism and imperial expansion. His Pan-İslamizm’den Büyük Asyacılığa (From Pan-Islamism to Great Asianism) is a detailed exploration of these themes, providing a comparative approach to the activities of both the Ottoman and Japanese Empires, while also laying bare Japanese imperialist and propagandistic enterprises.  

            Among other researchers looking at Turkic communities in East Asia as well, Yangi Yapon Mokhbire has been a fruitful source upon which to base their research. Hanife Alkan Ataman has explored opinions about the adoption of the Latin alphabet through it. Cemal Aydın, meanwhile, has sought to place the magazine within the broader, long-term context of Japanese instrumentalizations of pan-Islamism prior to the Second World War. And, of course, less scholarly approaches have been employed, especially when questions of nationalism, Turanism and popular movements have been explored in journalistic outlets. This article, calling for the unification of Turkic nationalist movements with those focused around the Tungusic peoples, the Koreans and the Japanese, is just one such example.

An image of the leader of Chinese Turkestan, Gazi Xoja Niyaz Haji.

            Such calls are disingenuous, even for the Turkish far-right. Yangi Yapon Mokhbire might have been a clear conduit for Japan engagement with the disgruntled and downtrodden Muslim Turkic peoples of the Soviet Union, but it didn’t exactly express a desire on the part of the Japanese to realize an ethno-nationalist union. On the part of the Republic of Turkey, too, interest was hardly forthcoming. Late Ottoman thinkers expressed their admiration for Japanese modernization successes, and historians were also keen, on occasion, to explore the connections between the Turks, Mongols, Manchus and Japanese, thanks to European historiographical sources. But within the first decade of the Republic’s existence, things began to change. As nominal Europeanization became the goal of the establishment, European racial anthropology and racist history had a profound impact on Republican institutions. There was a clear pivot away from the supra-linguistic union towards an emphasis on the whiteness of the Turkic race. With it came, as expected, a disparaging of people of colour, including the Japanese. If the Japanese Imperial government was being opportunistic, then the Turkish Republic was downright frosty in its acceptance of Pan-Asianist narratives.

            All of this left the Tatars and Bashkirs of Japan, as well as Yangi Yapon Mokhbire, in a sticky situation. The magazine was not merely a collection of translations or propaganda pieces dictated by Japan’s government. It was written, edited and collated by prominent members of the community and thus expressed, to some degree, the community’s desire for visibility and unity. The publication, and ones similar to it, can help us to understand the social implications of diaspora, as well as the pressures, strain, and opportunities presented by highly politicized exile communities. It is thus up to the historian to approach Yangi Yapon Mokhbire empathetically, and to understand it as more than just another pawn in the political and diplomatic games played by the Great Powers of the period.

Published by Michael James Erdman

I'm overly curious about languages, historiography and the way we represent and reflect notions of culture. I also have a problem with verbosity. This blog is a product of the two coming together.

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