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Empires of the sun

Brazil is celebrating 100 years of Japanese immigration. Just don't mention the war

It seemed to me, as I landed in São Paulo, that I might have taken the wrong plane and ended up in Japan instead. Every newspaper or magazine I opened, every television programme I watched, was filled with beaming Japanese faces. The exhibitions at the city's museums were all of Japanese art; thousands of amateur singers were taking to the microphone in karaoke competitions; and a sizeable part of the Japanese navy seemed to be anchored at Santos and Rio, while Crown Prince Naruhito appeared everywhere, bowing and smiling.

This tidal wave of warm feelings towards "our Japanese", as one newspaper has called them, is due to the centenary of Japanese immigration to Brazil. Tolerance and integration are being celebrated, sometimes in surprising ways - at the Rio Carnival this year, samba-dancing geishas twirled their fans - and the influence of the largest Japanese colony outside Japan, numbering a million and a half people, is evident in Brazil's architecture, design, agriculture and cuisine. There are judges, ministers and politicians with Japanese names (though not footballers). It is an immigration success story.

Today, it is hard to believe that at the end of the Second World War there were 31,000 Japanese immigrants in prison, many of them threatened with deportation, or that anti-Japanese feeling was running so high that a congressional amendment was tabled banning all future immigration from Japan. How had things gone so disastrously wrong since 1908, when the first 165 Japanese families made the six-week sea journey to work on Brazil's coffee farms?

While thousands more families followed, looking for a better life, most of the immigrants who arrived in Brazil up to the outbreak of war in 1939 came with the idea of making money and returning to Japan. They were not interested in integration; their children learned the language and way of life of Japan. Brazilians, in turn, called the Japanese women "monkeys" because they carried their babies on their backs, and the men "goats" because of their facial hair.

During the war, when Brazil joined the Allies and sent troops to fight in Italy, the country's large German and Japanese colonies were seen as a potential fifth column. German- and Japanese-language newspapers, radio programmes and school lessons were banned, and when Brazilian ships were torpedoed, thousands of immigrants suspected of spying were moved inland. Some were dumped in the Amazon. In reality, deprived of information by the ban on radios and newspapers, most immigrants had no idea what was happening in the outside world. When rumours circulated that Japan had lost the war, the majority refused to believe it - in the 2,600 years of its existence Japan had never experienced military defeat.

A secret society led by Junji Kikawa, an ex-colonel of the Japanese Imperial Army, was formed to defend the idea of Japan's victory. Shindo Renmei ("the League of the Subjects' Path") soon had 100,000 paying members in 64 towns and cities throughout the state of São Paulo, where most of the immigrants had settled. The league printed faked pamphlets with orders from the emperor to fight on, and even doctored a photograph that showed MacArthur accepting Hirohito's surrender aboard the US aircraft carrier Missouri to make it appear that the American general was the one surrendering.

Most Shindo Renmei members were moved by fanatical loyalty to Japan, but some were motivated by the desire to make money out of their gullible compatriots. Unscrupulous tricksters convinced thousands to sell their homes and buy tickets on ships said to be coming to take the immigrants to settle Japan's new eastern empire. They exchanged their Brazilian currency for now-worthless yen and headed for Santos to wait for the Japanese ships that would never arrive.

The more sinister elements of the organisation set out to eliminate the makegumi, or defeatists - those immigrants, many of whom were successful businessmen, who had learned Portuguese and who insisted that Japan had lost the war. They became the targets of a ruthless campaign of assassination: the months of murder and violence that ensued are not a time the present-day colony likes to remember, but they have been well documented.

Those marked for assassination would find a note pinned to their door with the sinister warning "Wash your neck in preparation", though most of the killings were carried out not with swords, but with firearms. The killers, mostly poor young immigrants, acted in groups of five, the Imperial Japanese flag wrapped round their bodies under their shirts. They were amateurs, and bungled many of the attempts, but even so, by the end of 1946, 23 men had been assassinated and 147 injured. Meanwhile, in the towns of Osvaldo Cruz and Tupã, lynch mobs hunted down hapless immigrants, whether Shindo Renmei supporters or not, dragging them through the streets and beating them almost to death.

The crimes sparked a heated debate in congress on Japanese immigration and whether it should be halted. One legislator compared the Japanese to sulphur: insoluble, unassimilable. The Shindo Renmei was accused of aiming to "Nippon-ise" Brazil and of wanting to create a new Japanese empire stretching from the Atlantic via Bolivia and Chile to the Pacific. Others argued that to ban the Japanese from Brazil would be to replicate the racism of the Nazis, which the country had gone to war to defeat. The amendment banning immigration was defeated by one vote.

They had won in congress, but Japanese Brazilians were in disarray. To put an end to the murderous activities of the Shindo Renmei, the police made mass arrests of tens of thousands of immigrants. The leaders were transported to the island prison of Anchieta, a 12-hour boat journey from Santos. At first, they fought with the prison guards and turned to the east every morning to sing the Japanese national anthem, but soon they were planting kitchen gardens, tending chickens and fishing. In 1958 they were freed, and the cult of Shindo Renmei faded into oblivion.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, My year with Obama

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times