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.