When I was in Kham three years ago, I saw a Japanese knife for sale in a store in Ganzi (tib: དཀར་མཛེས།; ch: 甘孜). It was a tanto, the knife-sized little brother of Japan’s famous katana, or samurai sword. This particular knife had a nice hamon, the pattern that emerges along the edge of a hand-made blade. When I expressed interest in it, the shop keeper happily removed the ray-skin handle to show me the maker’s signature on the hilt. While I don’t know much about these things, this was clearly a real, hand-made Japanese knife blade, not something mass-produced for the tourist trade. Such knives are not common. Which leads to the obvious question, what on earth was it doing in a little shop in remote eastern Tibet?
A few days ago, I may have found the answer. I was reading A Tibetan Revolutionary, by Melvyn Goldstein, Dawei Sherap and William Siebenschuh. This book presents the memories of the Tibetan Phüntso Wangye (Phünwang), a devout communist who dedicated his life to establishing effective communism in Tibet. It’s a good book, and offers some valuable insight into the strategies and internal debates surrounding the Chinese Communist Party’s involvement in Tibet in the 1950s.
One of the tasks Phünwang undertook for the CCP was to travel to Central Tibet with some People’s Liberation Army Generals in an attempt to convince the Tibetan aristocracy to accept Chinese rule without a fight. Part of this effort involved distributing bribes. As he describes it, “Since Deng Xiaoping had stressed the importance of building good relationships with the Tibetan upper classes, I brought gifts – Japanese swords, radios, brocade silk, and so on – to be distributed when appropriate.”
While it seems unlikely that the particular tanto I saw in Ganzi was one of those brought to Tibet by Phünwang, the fact that such weapons could be effective presents for currying favor with the Tibetan elite does indicate that wealthy Tibetans knew about and valued Japanese swords. There must, therefore, have been some trade in these blades going on between China (where they had presumably been captured from Japanese soldiers during WWII) and Tibet. It seems reasonably likely that the knife I saw in Ganzi was part of this trade, and may have arrived in Kham during the period between the end of WWII and the upheavals of the 1950s. Or maybe not, but it’s a fun theory.
 Goldstein, Melvyn C., Dawei Sherap, and William R. Siebenschuh. A Tibetan Revolutionary: The Political Life and Times of Bapa Phüntso Wangye. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. p. 137.