10. The Terrorist Organization That Started Off as an Innocent Charity
South America does not usually come to mind when people think of WWII. Nor does it often conjure images of fanatical Japanese, refusing to accept that their country had been defeated. However, South America’s biggest country, Brazil, witnessed just that during the war and in the years after its conclusion.
The country was shaken by fanatical Japanese immigrants, who formed a group that waged a campaign of terror against other immigrants deemed disloyal to Japan. After the war ended in Japan’s surrender, the group’s definition of “disloyalty” came to include the mere utterance of the fact that Japan had surrendered. Ironically, Brazil’s Japanese terrorist organization, Shindo Renmei (“League of the Way of Emperor’s Subjects“), began as an innocent charity.
9. From Innocent Origins, to Not at All Innocent Fanatical Terrorism
Shindo Renmei was neither the sole nor first organization founded by Japanese immigrants to Brazil. All such organizations, with the notable exception of Shindo Renmei, were innocent entities that were formed to offer mutual support for the Japanese-Brazilian community.
One such was Pia (“Pious”) a charity founded by Japanese Catholics, with the approval of both the Catholic Church and Brazil’s government, to help the poorer Japanese immigrants. One of Pia’s more active members was a former Japanese Army colonel, Junji Kikawa. In 1942, violent clashes erupted between Japanese immigrants and local Brazilians. That led Colonel Kikawa to split from the innocent Pia and form the not-at-all innocent Shindo Renmei, which urged Japanese-Brazilians to engage in sabotage. That began a dive down a rabbit hole of crazy that terrified Kikawa’s fellow immigrants, and bewildered and alarmed Brazil and the Brazilian government.
8. Japan’s Surrender in WWII Shocked the Japanese, and Led Many Into Extreme Denial
During WWII, Japan fought tooth and nail. Despite that, the conflict ended in abject defeat, with the country forced to throw in the towel and surrender in 1945. The shock of defeat sent many Japanese into paroxysms of grief, and quite a few around the bend and into denialism. For them – especially for those outside the country who did not get to see with their own eyes enemy troops occupying Japan – news of the surrender was “fake news”.
Most eventually came to their senses and accepted reality. Many, however, persisted in resisting facts. Thus, thousands of Japanese soldiers in isolated locales around the former Japanese Empire kept on fighting, for months, years, or even decades. Some were innocent cutoff troops, who had not gotten the memo. Others were just stubborn jerks. In Brazil, which hosted a sizeable Japanese immigrant community, a radical group sprang up to terrorize people into denying that Japan had surrendered.
7. Brazil Has Long Hosted the Largest Japanese Population Outside of Japan
Brazil hosts the largest Japanese population outside of Japan, with over 1.5 million nationals or naturals of Japanese ancestry living there. Significant numbers of Japanese began arriving in Brazil early in the twentieth century. By 1940, the country had about a quarter-million Japanese immigrants and their descendants. Most were concentrated in the coffee plantation region in the state of Sao Paulo.
Nearly all of them were hard workers, engaged in the innocent pursuit of creating a better life for themselves and their families. However, assimilation was difficult. Brazil was a completely different country with a different language, religion, customs, climate, and food. So quite a few reacted by becoming hyper-Japanese, embracing their birth country’s traditions, mores, and nationalism, with a fervor exceeding that of those actually living in Japan. In the 1930s, Brazil’s government embarked on a course of forced assimilation, which effectively banned Japanese language media. Since many Japanese could not speak Portuguese, they were effectively cut off from news beyond their immediate immigrant community.
6. During WWII, the Japanese-Brazilian Community Was Cut Off From News of the Outside World
Brazil joined the Allies in 1942, and declared war on Japan. That deepened the isolation of the country’s Japanese immigrants. All communication with Japan was severed, and no new Japanese were admitted. The immigrants’ radios were confiscated. Those living in the more urban coastal areas, where access to news was easy, were expelled and relocated to the more rural interior, where access to news was quite limited.
Cut off from the outside world and reliable news, Brazil’s Japanese immigrant community became ripe for, and ready recipients of, unreliable news. As a result, many were hurled headfirst into a world of alternative facts – one in which Japan was winning WWII. By the time the war ended in 1945, many Japanese-Brazilians, innocent of the world beyond a small circle, were exceptionally vulnerable to bad information. They sincerely believed that Japan had won the war. Those who disagreed or said any different were in for rough – at times lethally rough – treatment.
5. The League of the Way of the Emperors’ Subjects Sprang From Innocent Roots
In 1942, violent clashes erupted between native Brazilians in rural Sao Paulo and the Japanese immigrants in the vicinity. So former Japanese Army Colonel Junji Kikawa left an innocent Catholic charity in which he had been active, to found Shindo Renmei, as a self-defense organization for Japanese immigrants.
Kikawa urged his followers to protest their mistreatment with steps such as ceasing the production of peppermint, which included ingredients used in making explosives, and to stop making silk, a vital wartime material for making parachutes. He also advocated more direct steps, such as sabotage. By 1945, Shindo Renmei had a headquarters in Sao Paulo, and 64 branches in Brazilian localities with Japanese immigrant communities.
4. Innocent Japanese-Brazilians Were Led to Believe that Japan Was Winning the War
During WWII, Shindo Renmei took a turn towards ultra-nationalism. With most Japanese-Brazilians cut off from reliable news, Colonel Kikawa and his followers stepped in to exploit their innocent countrymen. They filled the information vacuum with “news” that amounted to little more than wishful thinking. As Japan reeled from defeat after defeat, Shindo Renmei told the Japanese immigrants that Japan was marching from triumph to triumph. The claims included a decisive Japanese victory in Okinawa, where America lost 400 warships. Victory was secured in no small part by a Japanese superweapon, the “High-Frequency Bomb”, which killed Americans by the hundreds of thousands and forced the Allies’ unconditional surrender.
Many believed that or if they did not, they knew better than to say so. If for no other reason than that Shindo Renmei also took it upon itself to punish “defeatists” in the Japanese immigrant community. Those who voiced doubts about how well the war was going for Japan were shunned, boycotted, and sometimes violently assailed.
3. Shindo Renmei Convinced Brazil’s Japanese that America Lost WWII
Shindo Renmei dismissed Japan’s surrender as “fake news” and American propaganda, and redoubled its efforts to punish those who said otherwise. According to Colonel Kikawa and his followers, Japanese immigrants were divided into two camps: good guys, and bad guys.
There were the virtuous Kachigumi (“Victorious”), who knew that Japan had won the war. They were mostly the poor and poorly educated. Then there were the vile Makegumi (“Defeatists”), also pejoratively labeled “dirty hearts”, who bought the fake news about Japan’s defeat. The latter tended to be the better off and better-educated immigrants, who had better access to information and could differentiate between reliable and unreliable news. However, even those innocent of Shindo Renmei’s fanaticism were terrorized into toeing the group’s line, or at least into staying silent.
2. Purveyors of Fake News and Charlatans Exploited Innocent Japanese-Brazilians
By the time WWII ended, Shindo Renmei had about 50,000 followers. They went on a buying spree that emptied local shops of red and white cloth to make Japanese flags, intended to welcome Brazil’s new overlords. The situation was further complicated by the circulation of fake Japanese newspapers and magazines peddled by charlatans.
The fake media included articles about Japan’s “great victory”; the arrival of Japanese occupation troops in America; photographs of President Truman bowing to Emperor Hirohito; and coverage of the trial of General Douglas MacArthur for war crimes. The charlatans did not do it just for kicks and giggles: they made a bundle selling the duped innocent Japanese immigrants’ land in the “conquered territories”.
1. Shindo Renmei Launched a Terror Campaign Against Innocent Civilians
Those who dared doubt Shindo Renmei’s assertions of Japan’s victory were beaten up or murdered. By the time it was over, dozens had been killed. In 1946, Japan’s new government prepared documents for distribution in Brazil, outlining reality and declaring that Japan had surrendered. Shindo Renmei dismissed that as fake news, and beat up or murdered Japanese immigrants caught reading or distributing the documents.
To reduce the violence, Brazil’s government prohibited newspapers from publishing news of Japan’s defeat, and ordered the term “unconditional surrender” removed from official communications. Things then gradually simmered down. A last gasp occurred in 1950, when Japan’s Olympic swimming team visited Brazil. When its members expressed shock at the idea that Japan had won the war, diehards claimed that the athletes were actually Koreans masquerading as Japanese. That was so ludicrous, that it eroded Shindo Renmei’s last remaining support, and the organization soon vanished into history’s dustbin.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading