I am trying to write a fictional history novel.

Can someone tell me why a young man from a wealthy, samurai family from Japan would be in Northern India in the early 1900s (after WW1, before WWII).

Did former samurai travel for commerce?

Can you point me in the right direction?

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    Can you document any preliminary resources you've consulted?
    – MCW
    Commented Mar 5, 2020 at 18:38
  • 16
    from the wikipedia page on Samurai. "Younger Samurai often became exchange students because they were ambitious, literate and well-educated. On return some started private schools for higher educations, while many samurai took pens instead of guns and became reporters and writers, setting up newspaper companies.[16] Others entered governmental service.[17] In the 1880s, 23 percent of prominent Japanese businessmen were from the samurai class; by the 1920s 35% were."
    – ed.hank
    Commented Mar 5, 2020 at 18:50
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    Additionally religion could also be a reason. Japanese monks were known to visit Buddhist temples in Tibet, Nepal, and Northern India at the turn of the century. Look up the story of Ekai Kawaguchi, he was a Japanese monk that was in N. India during the exact time period you are interested in.
    – ed.hank
    Commented Mar 5, 2020 at 20:10
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    Wild guess: smuggling opium ?
    – Evargalo
    Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 7:24
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    @WGroleau you'll be interested in the story of Karukaya Doshin and Ishidomaru, though naturally that's not 1900s
    – ciamej
    Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 18:10

4 Answers 4


There would seem to be quite a number of possibilities, including:


Japanese business interests in India were extensive between the two world wars. Putting this together with "In the 1880s, 23 percent of prominent Japanese businessmen were from the samurai class; by the 1920s 35% were." (as cited by ed.hank from Wikipedia Samurai in his comment), it is probable that there would be "a young man from a wealthy, samurai family" in northern India. By the 1920s, India was the 5th largest export market for Japan. On Japanese economic interests in India (referring to Japanese merchants in the period 1914 to 1937):

...these businesses prospered and were supported by Japanese banking and commercial houses in the subcontinent....Japanese companies explored every aspect of India and its economy, and although major activity in cotton, banking, shipping and related activities was concentrated in Bombay and Calcutta, Japanese businessmen were also to be found in remote up-country corners of the subcontinent....Thus by the 1930s India had become a larger export market for Japan than China...

Source: Christopher Howe, 'The Origins of Japanese Trade Supremacy: Development and Technology in Asia from 1540 to the Pacific War' (1999)

Dentists (aka Spies)

Japanese espionage was highly active throughout Asia from before World War I and throughout the 1920s and 1930s across the Indian subcontinent and in South East Asia. Dentists, barbers and businessmen were among the suspects. For example, in India,

One British Indian Army officer noted: ‘There was a Japanese dentist in every garrison town in India looking after the teeth of the British Other Ranks and their families . . . They provided cheap and excellent treatment and no doubt learned much military information.

Buddhists and Political Activists

With specific reference to the 1930s and including Northern India (Rajasthan),

...a number of Japanese Pan-Asianist and Buddhist activists traveled to India to establish links with the Indian nationalist movement.... In 1933, Fujii Gyōshō (also known as Fujii Nichidatsu) and Ohkitsu Tadao, two Buddhist monks of the Nichiren sect, traveled to India to establish links with Indian nationalists. While Fujii was staying at Gandhi’s ashram in Wardha, Maharashtra, he sent Ohkitsu to attend the annual meeting of the Hindu Mahasabha in Ajmer, Rajasthan.

For background, Ekai Kawaguchi, a Japanese Buddhist monk, visited Nepal and Tibet several times between 1899 and 1915 and was "the first recorded Japanese citizen to travel in either country". In 1909, he wrote about some of his experiences in Three Years in Tibet (click the ink for the full text). Many others followed and, as three of the four "main pilgrimage sites listed by Buddha himself" are in India, it is highly likely that most of these pilgrims visited them.


There were also many Japanese artists who visited India from the late 19th century onwards (though whether any were from wealthy, samurai families is hard to tell):

Since the late 19th century, India and Japan have shown interests in each other, beginning with Swami Vivekananda’s visit in 1893. Continuing well into the 20th and 21st century, further visits by Japanese artists in particular, have ensued.

Among these visitors was Yoshida Hiroshi (1876–1950), "the most successful Japanese woodblock printer of the early twentieth century"

From November 1930, Yoshida spent over four months travelling in India and Southeast Asia, sketching and painting the sights.

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    I especially love the Artists part!
    – Marium
    Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 11:52
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    Dentists = spies, that explains the Monty Python sketch! Commented Mar 8, 2020 at 19:36
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    I love the way this answer conjures up hints of so many stories one could write. Commented Mar 8, 2020 at 20:08

(Some) Indians, and (some) Japanese share a common religion, Buddhism. This religion was founded in India in the sixth century B. C.,spread over East Asia, and found its way to Japan in the sixth century C.E.

A young Japanese Buddhist, samurai or not, might be interested in visiting northern India in the 1920s in order to trace his religious "roots." That could be the basis/motivation for your novel.

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    This is very good information. Is it possible the Japanese Buddhist has a weakness for women (I'm writing a novel)
    – Marium
    Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 1:11
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    @Marium: Of course. In theory, a highly religious Buddhist is not supposed to be interested in women, but as we know from experiences with other highly religious groups, that is "more honored in the breach than the observance." In fact, that could be the conflict in your novel; his religious beliefs/journey versus his secular practices.St. Augustine reportedly prayed, "Oh, God, please make me chaste but not yet." I'm a novelist also. You can also find me on Writing SE.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 1:17
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    This is fantastic!
    – Marium
    Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 1:17
  • Well, a Japanese Buddhist in the early 1900s would be able to marry someone because of the Nikujiku Saitai Law during the Meiji Restoration. So religiosity might not be an issue
    – Ringil
    Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 17:54

Why would anyone from Japan be in Northern India in early 1900s?

Two thoughts:

  1. Japan has almost no natural resources. In 2001 Large oil reserves were found in Tibet. Perhaps your character was in Northern India exploring for natural resources?

  2. Perhaps as "honorary Aryans" your Japanese character was in Northern India for the same reason the Nazi's were bizarrely seeking evidence of the "cradle of Aryan civilization"?

Have you ever seen the movie Seven Years in Tibet, about Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer on his experiences in Tibet between 1939 and 1951. Basically Nazi Germany sponsored trips into the Himalaya's searching for evidence of pre historic civilizations which the Nazi's based their Aryan ideology on.....

Nazi ideology taught that the German Aryan race was based upon an older "tutanic" race who lived in Himalayas / Northern India and they sponsored trips to the region to gather evidence to support their ideologically driven version of history.


Anyway since Hitler named the Japanese as "honorary Aryans" maybe your Japanese character was their looking for his own evidence of the cradle of Aryan civilization?

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    The Nazis may have called them "honorary aryans", but my understanding is few Japanese did anything but play lip-service to it for political reasons. The Japanese of that period had an entirely different set of racial beliefs having to do with their own particular history
    – user15620
    Commented Mar 5, 2020 at 23:38
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    (Your first thought makes complete sense to me.)
    – user15620
    Commented Mar 5, 2020 at 23:46
  • Wow these are great resources. This may actually fit into the novel I am writing!
    – Marium
    Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 1:10
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    You should realy highlight that eg in Mein Kampf AH declared Japanese as among the 'inferior races'. It is quite unlikely that the Japanese used earlier European racism categories, which almost all told them to be 'racial rubbish' if not worse. They had their own superstitions about race, making them 'better than everyone else', or let's call it "special". An Asian using NS ideology 1:1 would be quite the invention (nationalism needs to have subtle differences, no matter the contradictions)? Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 10:04

I live in Japan and have lived here 35 years. The Samurai disappeared in the 1860-1870's (sword-bearing was banned in 1876). So while he was from a samurai family, that wouldn't have meant much between 1919 and 1939. In the late Edo period, many of the smarter samurai became bureaucrats, sending young (mostly men) people around the world to learn and acquire Western skills and technology.

In the early 1900's Japan became militaristic and this resulted in the Russo-Japanese war. In WWI Japan was on the side of the Allies (UK, US, etc.), so after WWI most Japanese abroad would have been involved in the military's expansion to Manchuria, or looking for natural resources to fuel the nation's industrial expansion. You don't say if the character is good or evil, but if the latter or working for an evil group, maybe he was a spy looking to extend the Manchuria/China expansion into India?

Alternatively, perhaps the British offered the Japanese a deal/reward relating to resources in India for the Japanese naval support during WWI, only to be double-crossed by the dastardly colonialists? This could set up an interesting alliance between Japan and local revolutionaries right after the War.

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