Japanese began migrating to Brazil in 1908. By the Second World War, they numbered half a million, and ran the country’s most productive farms. When news hit that Japan had lost the war, many Japanese Brazilians refused to believe it. Soon, secret societies sprang up dedicated to the idea that Emperor Hirohito had triumphed; underground newspapers reported Japan’s army had landed in California and would soon march on New York. Japanese who accepted the defeat, meanwhile, enraged the triumphalists. By 1947, assassins with the Shindo Renmei, the largest of the secret groups, had killed 23 and injured 147.
This internecine conflict has long been taboo among Japanese Brazilians, 31,000 of whom were in jail by war’s end. Outside Brazil it’s largely unknown. That may change when Dirty Hearts, a Brazilian film with Japanese stars, hits screens next spring. Many of the narrative’s strangest claims are true. Japanese loyalists, who numbered over 100,000, believed Gen. Douglas MacArthur had surrendered, and presented doctored photos of president Harry Truman bowing to Hirohito as proof. Con artists hawked land in Manchuria, where they said Japan ruled over a new eastern empire. Mobs flocked to Brazil’s coast, convinced Japanese ships would rescue them.
Belief in Japan’s victory persisted until 1950, when Japanese Olympic swimmer Masanori Yusa toured ecstatic Japanese enclaves in Brazil. It was his embarrassed shock at the notion that led to its demise.