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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 age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood