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Film shows hidden WWII history of Japanese immigrants' displacement from Brazil port city

An article describing a 1943 incident in Santos, Brazil, during which Japanese immigrants were forced to leave the area, and a photo showing immigrants aboard a train, are seen in this image. (c) Genyosha

TOKYO -- A documentary film honing in on a 1943 incident where Japanese immigrants were forced to leave the port city Santos in Brazil's Sao Paulo -- a history that had been veiled for years -- premiered Aug. 7 in Tokyo and Osaka.

    Yoju Matsubayashi, 42, director of the film "Okinawa/Santos" discovered a register including the names of immigrants who were subject to the displacement, and 60% of them appeared to be from Japan's southernmost prefecture of Okinawa. The incident had been considered a taboo subject for a long time even after World War II.

    Japanese immigration to Brazil began in 1908, as immigrant ships first arrived in Santos located in southeastern Brazil. After Japan and the United States went to battle in 1941 during World War II, Brazil sided with the Allied powers, and broke off diplomatic relations with the Axis powers including Japan. Discrimination and prejudice against Japanese people became more severe thereafter. The Brazilian government ordered the abolishment of Japanese-language newspapers and the closure of Japanese schools, and enforced a ban on speaking Japanese in public spaces -- targeting the about 200,000 Japanese immigrants apparently living in the country at the time.

    This provided photo shows Director Yoju Matsubayashi.

    On July 8, 1943, the Brazilian government suddenly ordered immigrants from the Axis powers of Japan, Germany and Italy residing in Santos to leave the port city. This order was enforced as five ships, including Brazilian and U.S. merchant ships, were sunk by a German military submarine off the coast of Santos, leading Axis nationals to be suspected of espionage.

    Japanese immigrants were forced out under the watchful eyes of soldiers with guns, leaving behind family assets and land they had amassed through hardship. They were put on trains and temporarily detained at an internment camp inside Sao Paulo, before moving to inland areas and other places with the help of relatives and acquaintances. There were many people who were unable to return to Santos and lost their property, even after the displacement order was lifted in 1945.

    After the war, this tragic incident had not been spoken about openly among the Japanese community in Brazil. The absence of records in Japanese, as well as the long-standing post-war military regime seem to be factors behind this.

    Furthermore, within the community of Japanese diaspora, there was conflict between a group of individuals who refused to believe that Japan had lost the war, and a group who acknowledged Japan's defeat. Terrorist attacks by the former even occurred, provoking antagonism against the Japanese among Brazilian citizens. The conflict is said to have continued through the mid-1950s. Amid such a harsh environment, it is believed that Japanese immigrants had kept quiet about the dark side of their community's history in an attempt to fit in as members of Brazilian society.

    A register listing the names of Japanese immigrants who were subject to displacement during the 1943 incident in Santos, Brazil, is shown in this image. (c) Genyosha

    Director Matsubayashi is also known for his 2009 documentary film that can be roughly translated as "Flowers and troops," which recorded the lives of former Japanese soldiers who survived battles in Burma during World War II, and had stayed there even after the war.

    Matsubayashi heard about the 1943 incident in 2016 from Masayuki Fukasawa, editor-in-chief of the local Japanese language newspaper Nikkey Shimbun. As he made progress with his research, he found a register containing a list of the 585 households which were subject to displacement at the time, in a former Japanese language school in Santos. The register also listed the sites at which they were detained, and was first-class material recording the incident.

    Furthermore, based on the family names, it was estimated that 60% of the individuals listed were from Okinawa. Matsubayashi then began conducting interviews with the cooperation of an association of Okinawans in Brazil. Individuals who experienced the incident and have entered old age, spoke of painful memories of being called spies and sent to internment camps, while being able to bring along little more than the clothes they were wearing.

    The film also brings to the fore a structure of discrimination that existed within the Japanese community in Brazil. In the past, Okinawa natives had been the victim of discrimination by Japanese people from other regions. In Santos, halls where Japanese individuals gathered had also been built separately.

    Director Matsubayashi commented, "The perpetrators and victims of war are at times two sides of the same coin. The Imperial Japanese Army took even more horrible actions in Asia. I thought that the Santos incident was like the flip side to this ... I'd like those who watch it to use the film as a hint to realize that the incident is relevant even today and could also happen again anywhere in the future."

    (Japanese original by Reiko Suzuki, Digital News Center, Evening Edition Group)

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