In the winter of 1909, a group of Tatars from Russia awaited permission from representatives of the Ottoman Empire in Bombay to perform the Hajj. This was a time when the western Indian city was a major departure point for Muslim pilgrims from the Russian Empire. There was even a Russian consul general in the city specially assigned to assist them. Among the group waiting for departure in November 1909 was a young Japanese man who spoke flawless Russian – Mitsutaro Yamaoka Kotaro.

The Tatars looked at Yamaoka with a degree of distrust, and not without reason. Yamaoka had the job of gathering intelligence in Manchuria in the run-up to the 1904-’05 Russo-Japanese War. More to the point, he had links with Black Dragon, an ultranationalist paramilitary group that was reaching out to Muslims around the world after Japan’s victory over Russia in the war. It is possible, then, that he wasn’t a genuine pilgrim at the time of his arrival in Bombay.

War had found Yamaoka early. Born in 1880 in Fukuyama, a city in the Hiroshima prefecture, Yamaoka had enrolled at the then newly-founded Department of Russian of the Tokyo School of Foreign Languages (now the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies). “In the year of his graduation...the Russo-Japanese Conflict broke out, so he registered as a volunteer soldier,” Japanese scholar Hirofumi Oki wrote in a 1998 thesis titled Umar Mitsutaro Yamaoka (1880-1959): A Study of His Thought and Contributions to Da’wah. “He departed for the front as an army interpreter with the Tenth Division.”

After the war, Yamaoka stayed back in Manchuria and taught Russian to officials working for the Japanese military administration. “After the withdrawal of the military government in 1907, he moved to the frontier of Korea, China and Russia, where he took an active part in Shinto propagation till his return to Japan in 1908,” Oki added. It was while he was still on the frontier that Yamaoka became a member of Black Dragon, or Heilong Jiang, the paramilitary named after the Chinese name for Amur River.

The Japanese victory in the 1904-’05 war served as an inspiration for colonised people around the world. “No event signalled Japan’s new status on the world stage more than the defeat of imperial Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5,” UCLA professor and historian Nile Green wrote in a 2013 paper titled Forgotten Futures: Indian Muslims in the Trans-Islamic Turn to Japan. “From Istanbul to Tehran, from Kabul to Singapore, Japan’s victory was greeted by Muslim anti-imperialists as proof of the vulnerability of Europe’s empires.”

The Japanese looked to capitalise on this advantage, with initial focus on China’s Muslims. In 1909, the Black Dragons reached out to Abdurreshid Ibrahim, a Volga Tatar exile and writer who was looking to organise Crimean Tatars and start a rebellion against the Russian tsar.

Path to conversion

Ibrahim, who made several attempts to live in what was then called Constantinople, first met members of the Japanese government during a visit to Tokyo before the Russo-Japanese War. On this trip, Ibrahim made critical public statements that did not endear him to the Russians. The Russians accused him of spreading propaganda and pressured the Ottoman Empire to force the Tatar rebel to leave Constantinople. By early 1909, Ibrahim found his way to China, where he came into contact with the Japanese once again.

An older Abdurreshid Ibrahim with his children. Credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

Under the guidance of the Black Dragons, Yamaoka met Ibrahim and decided to accompany him on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Before Yamaoka, no one from his country had performed the Hajj, although there were a couple of documented cases of Japanese people converting to Islam. For him and Ibrahim, the easiest way to get from Japan to Mecca was via the well-connected port of Bombay. In the early 20th century, passenger as well as freight vessels from Japan used to regularly call on the western Indian port.

Ibrahim was no stranger to Bombay, having visited the city in 1908 and written about Indian politics for Turkish newspapers. He had also managed to establish good relations with representatives of the Ottoman Empire in the city.

Yamaoka and Ibrahim arrived in Bombay in early November 1909. The Japanese spy’s initial plan was to visit the holiest Muslim sites without converting to Islam, but Ibrahim revealed his Japanese friend’s secret to the Tatar pilgrims. “This gave rise to such a commotion that he witnessed the Shahadah (the Muslim profession of faith) on the spot and was given an instant Islamic education by Ibrahim,” Japanese Islamic scholar Kojiro Nakamura wrote in the paper Early Japanese Pilgrims to Mecca. After converting to Islam, Yamaoka officially became Umar Mitsutaro Yamaoka Kotaro.

Thanks to Ibrahim’s good relations with the Turkish authorities, Yamaoka was not just given permission to visit Mecca and Medina, but also gifted a free ticket to Jeddah by the Ottoman consul-general in Bombay, according to Nakamura.

The pilgrims set sail from Bombay’s Yellow Gate in the third week of November 1909 and arrived in Jeddah after a rough three weeks. By this time, Yamaoka, who was once a proponent of the Shinto faith, became a practicing and devout Muslim.

Warm welcome

After surviving the rigours of the journey to Jeddah, Yamaoka was apprehensive about what awaited him in the Muslim holy lands. “Yamaoka, who just became a Muslim on his way, did not feel at ease, even though accompanied by Ibrahim and successfully admitted into Mecca, until he met Murad who was Ibrahim’s compatriot and comrade in the Tatar struggle for independence and had been staying in Mecca for a long time,” Nakamura wrote.

Thanks to Ibrahim, the Japanese pilgrim was warmly received in Mecca. “He was not only given a favour of special meeting and dining with the Hashemite Sherif Husain, but was privileged even to see inside the Kaaba,” Nakamura added.

After performing the Hajj, Yamaoka travelled to Beirut and Damascus and Constantinople, receiving tremendous attention and hospitality in every city he visited, since he was the first Japanese Hajji. His public calls for a great “Muslim awakening” were welcomed in the Ottoman Empire.

When going back home, Yamaoka did not take the same route via Bombay, instead choosing to travel though Russia, whose language he knew. The Russians were well aware of his friendship with Ibrahim and kept him under tight surveillance until he arrived in his native country. He was not able to visit Tatar-majority areas and was escorted by the police through his voyage beyond Siberia to the Russia’s Pacific Coast.

Explaining Islam

Yamaoka would dedicate the next five decades to helping his compatriots understand Islam. He wrote several articles and books about Islam in Japanese, describing the treatment he got in Mecca as his “greatest honour”.

Once his exploits became public, the former spy became a celebrity of sorts in Japan. Media houses sponsored his tours across the nation to talk about his travels and embrace of Islam. In 1912, he published the first Japanese book on the Hajj. He also translated parts of the Quran into Japanese.

Yamaoka’s most productive period as a writer came a few years after his return to Japan. “He started writing about his travels and experiences in 1920,” Hirofumi Oki wrote. “Most of his important books and essays were written and published during this period.” His works have not been translated in English, so any notes he took of Bombay are only accessible to Japanese speakers.

After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, a few thousand Muslims from the erstwhile Russian Empire took refuge in Japan. Yamaoka reached out to Tatars and Bashkirs (a Turkic ethnic group that hails from Russia) and helped them resettle in his country.

But neither his peace activism, nor his promotion of Islam pleased the Japanese authorities. “Despite the pressure of the military authorities, he continued to take an active part in Islamic activities in Japan and in the spring of 1938, he founded the Islamic Culture Association,” Oki wrote, adding that Yamaoka also approached the Russian-speaking community in Tokyo to help build the city’s first mosque. This project became a reality in 1938 and the first imam of the mosque was none other than Yamaoka’s friend Abdurreshid Ibrahim, who by then had become a subject of the Japanese Empire.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2022.