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Were some Māori disloyal during the war?

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Lachy Paterson
27 June, 2021

After Japan attacked Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, and moved its forces into South East Asia and the Pacific, New Zealand faced two enemies.  The war was also much closer to home, and people became much more anxious, at times even paranoid.  In 1942, concerns were expressed about the loyalty of Rātana movement, and whether they, in fact, favoured the prospect of a Japanese victory, despite three Rātana Māori MPs belonging to the Labour government. Paranoia about Māori loyalty, especially Rātana, is the focus of this kōrero, which argues that there was no substantive justification for the allegations, which surfaced at a time of national stress and anxiety.


What fears did New Zealand harbour towards Japan? 

Japan was a rising power at the turn of the twentieth century, a status confirmed with its defeat of Russia at Port Arthur in 1905.  It became an official ally to Britain in 1902 through the Ango-Japanese Alliance, proving its worth to the Empire and Allies during WW1, and gaining, as its reward, the German colonial possessions in Micronesia, and against the Chinese government’s wishes, the German concession in Shandong province, confirmed at the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.  

When the Alliance was set to be renewed in 1920, there was some concern among the white dominions, as to whether Japan should be seen as a friend, or as a potential danger to their security.  In the end, under American pressure Britain signed the Four-Power Treaty in 1921 with USA, France and Japan to regulate big power relationships in the Pacific.  The ratification of the Treaty in 1923 formally ended Britain’s Alliance with Japan.  That Japan was no longer an ally only increased  New Zealand’s suspicions of Japanese intentions.[1] 

Racist concerns about “yellow peril”, that is, of “Asiatic hordes” overtaking the white settler societies, were also pervasive in British colonies, such as Australia and New Zealand.  These ideas even infected New Zealand’s School Journal, with one article in 1923 pointing ‘to the potential threat posed by China and Japan.  The answer in this case, was to be found in attracting more British migrants as a bulwark against a land-starved Asia.’[2]

The Japanese imperial ambitions during the 1920s and 1930s lay principally in China. They used their foothole at Shandong as a base for further aggression, and after the Mukden Incident in 1931, they occupied Manchuria, establishing the puppet-state of Manchukuo.  This Japanese aggression further unsettled New Zealand, which felt somewhat isolated; their ‘only means of defence, given the United States’ isolationism, was the Royal Navy and its much-vaunted base at Singapore’.[3]  In 1937, Japan invaded China proper, occupying much of it, with fighting continuing until the end of WW2.  

After the Labour Government took office in 1935, New Zealand’s voice was more vociferous in the League of Nations, critical of weak response to aggressor nations, including Japan in China.[4]  A genuine fear of Japan was increasing.  When WW2 broke out in Europe in 1939, the New Zealand government, whose ‘defence policy was based on the assumption that Japan would attack’, sought guarantees of British naval protection as it organised troops for the war.[5]


Rātana’s visit to Japan in 1924.

Rātana’s main purpose in going overseas was to present a petition to King George V on ratifying the Treaty of Waitangi, and addressing grievances from the land confiscations of the New Zealand Wars. He was unsuccessful in London, and at the League of Nations in Geneva, when his party attempted to present the petition there.[6]  A group of performers were part of the group to London, to perform at the British Empire Exhibition there.  On their return home, Rātana visited Japan, where his group were hosted by Jūji Nakada, a Japanese bishop, and the Rātana group put on public performances.[7]  Rātana himself reputedly visited the Japanese emperor as a faith-healer in order to attempt to cure an illness.[8]

Rātana clearly saw synergies between the Japanese people, language and culture  with those of Māori, and felt a genuine spiritual and theological bond with the Japanese bishop, both of whom saw their respective peoples associated with the Biblical Jews.[9] A young Japanese man, Kito Hireshi, also returned with Rātana and lived for some time at Rātana Pā.[10]  It was on his return to New Zealand that newspapers cast aspersions over Rātana’s activities in Japan, and doubts over his loyalty to New Zealand and the British Empire.  

This was also the time Rātana was formally establishing his movement as a church. When Rātana representatives took the kawenata (covenant) around the country, some may have been too effusive in their praise for Māori-Japanese connections.  One was reported as telling the Arawa at Rotorua. “Ratana has married the Maori race to the Japanese race, and their salvation now lies in the hands of Japan.”[11]  In a letter from “well-known Maoris” from Upper Whanganui, it was asserted that people there had also been told this, that Rātana had made an agreement with Japan, and Māori who did not sign the kawenata “will be forced to serve against the Maori interests in the coming war, whereby Japan will restore the Maori lands.”[12]

Rātana secretary, Peter Moko, was quick to dismiss any such assertions, stating their mission to Japan was purely religious, and that “Ratana has never made nor suggested a political or national alliance with Japan, and he repudiates the reported statements made at Rotorua.”[13]  In an interview Rātana also stated that “the allegations in regard to the visit to Japan were hardly worth referring to, as the Government had received information that there was no truth in them.”[14]  


World War Two

The Rātana movement had been successful politically in the 1930s, securing three of the four Māori parliamentary seats by 1938.  Its members were also part of the Labour Party which formed the government in 1935, and when Rātana died in the first months of the war, the government was prominent at his funeral.  In December 1940, the Rātana/Labour MP Parāire Paikea was appointed to the Executive Council which no doubt helped align the Rātana movement more with the government.  Next month,

A pledge to support the war effort and the Government and also to support the Home Guard movement was given by the Ratana Maoris after they had been addressed by Mr. Paikea, representative of the Maori race on the Executive Council, during his first official visit to Ratana pa.[15]

In 1942, Paikea headed the Māori War Effort Organisation that coordinated Māori recruitment into the forces, as well as essential industries.

But Pākehā paranoia began even before the war started.  In June 1939, a retired Pākehā clergyman, on holiday in a former parish, reported that a parishioner had said that “he had seen certain pamphlets that were circulated amongst the Natives, telling them that if the Japanese were to land at . . . that they were welcome them and treat them as brothers,” which “he thought it might be the work of Ratana.”[16]  The parishioner concerned, denied saying this, but in conversation his wife had told the clergyman she had heard years before an old Māori man speak of Māori assisting the Japanese, but neither she nor her husband gave it any credence.[17]  After the local constable had made exhaustive enquiries, the local Police Inspector was able to inform the Commissioner of Police, “There appears to be no truth in the information received”, which was then relayed to the Chief of General Staff.[18]

The Home Guard was established in New Zealand in August 1940 before Japan had entered the war. A sergeant reported his concern about Māori members in the Home Guard, as a friend had told him of Rātana services that were “nothing more than hot beds of disloyalty and open to support our enemies, particularly the one we think of most in the East. . . . At present I feel so strongly about it that I would not have any Maori in a key position for fear of treachery.”[19]    This was passed on to the Commissioner of Police, but no action was taken.

Hostilities with Japan in December 1941 further heightened anxiety in New Zealand.[20]  Japan was much closer than Europe, and our troops were in North Africa.  This led to more paranoia on the part of some citizens, and state surveillance on the part of the government.   The 1920s allegations about Rātana and Japan again resurfaced briefly in the newspapers in 1942, but also led to a number of secret investigations by the state. 

The issue arose publicly at a tangihanga where Bob Tūtaki, a union leader, “brought up the question of loyalty and the alleged want of loyalty on the part of a certain section of Ratana people.”  Taupō chief, Hori Mautaranui, rejected the charge.  “In his own village all able-bodied men had gone to the front.  Some had gone through Greece, Crete and Libya, and some were wounded, others prisoners of war.”  Although nearly 70 years of age, the chief had joined the Home Guard.  Commenting on this, the Anglican Bishop Bennett brought up the allegations of the 1920s, but stated “we hope this statement represents the spirit of the Ratana movement as a whole”.[21]  The issue does not appear to arisen again in the newspapers, but according to Rātana sources, in March 1942, Tokouru Rātana, the prophet’s son and MP for Western Māori, removed gifted Japanese taonga from Rātana Pā before the arrival of army officers investigating the possibility of collaboration with the Japanese.[22]

In secret government files Pākehā paranoia can be found, often based on the events surrounding Rātana’s visit to Japan, as well as evidence of state surveillance of Māori communities.  For example, a Pākehā lighthouse keeper writing to his superiors, claimed he could not trust his Māori assistants. 

Seemingly, years ago, before Ratana died, he visited Japan and the high officials there made a pact with him that if the Maoris would help them when the time came they would come to New Zealand, turn the British out, and give the land back to the maoris.  These people actually believe this, and the change in these people since Japan struck is remarkable.  . . .  I am not getting the sleep I ought to have because I have to keep a close watch on them. I have no evidence of this; they are careful not to say anything to me, but I have been 7 years amongst these Maoris here, and by a word let drop now and again and when I saw the change when Japan came in I am certain that in the event of an invasion any of these Ratana Maoris would help the enemy.[23]

Paikea investigated, considering that “although there had been some excitement anong the Maori staff on the outbreak of hostilities with Japan, their actual loyalty cannot in any way be questioned.”[24]

The issue of Māori loyalty within the Home Guard surfaced again.  A local Group Director reported to Director General of the Home Guard, “Shortly after the Home Guard was formed, it was evident that considerable activity was going on amongst the Maoris in connection with the Ratana Movement, and a certain amount of disloyalty appeared to exist.”[25]  But there was no evidence in the file of any such disloyalty, which consists mainly of correspondence relating to Māori seeking their own Home Guard units, with their own officers. This was somehow seen as not showing sufficient loyalty.

There was also considerable anxiety about enemy submarines and warships along New Zealand’s sea routes and isolated areas.  This was particularly the case in the Chatham Islands.  Because planning for its possible defence was distinct from the New Zealand mainland, more intelligence work was done on the islands and its people.  The local vicar, for example, considered “that from 25% to 35% of the inhabitants, particularly those of Portuguese, German and Maori descent can be regarded as apathetic towards Britain.”[26] Another report suggested some “being of doubtful loyalty . . . descended from deserters from whaling ships, also Maoris of the Ratana persuasion.”[27]  In an extensive general Security report on the Chatham Islands in 1942, the official was suspicious of Māori in general but claimed that, although some advocated for cooperation with the Japanese, few would actively assist a Japanese landing. “The general feeling of the Natives is ‘if the Japs. come, give them what they want in the hope that they will go away in peace.’”[28]  Again, the report provided no actual evidence of disloyal behaviour.



Rātana’s visit to Japan in 1924, and the way he defined his spiritual connection with Japanese Christians had been misinterpreted at the time, due to New Zealand’s apprehension of Japan as a rising world power.  However, the alleged Rātana-Japanese plot had no foundation and was soon forgotten.  The Rātana movement gained political momentum in the 1930s, and formed part of the Labour administration that governed from 1935 to 1949.

The war caused anxiety for New Zealand, which manifested itself through concern about potentially disloyal elements within the population.  This only intensified after the fall of Singapore and Japanese penetration into the Pacific, when the allegations of Rātana disloyalty of the 1920s resurfaced.  The paranoia facilitated increased surveillance of some Māori communities.  Most of this occurred in early 1942 when the Japanese threat was greatest.  After US naval victories in the Pacific, the threat of invasion receded.  Consequently anxiety lessened, and the charges against the Rātana movement disappeared.   


Image: Group associated with the world tour of Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana. Tesla Studios: Negatives of Wanganui and district taken by Alfred Martin, Frank Denton and Mark Lampe (Tesla Studios). Ref: 1/1-017026-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22890216


[1] Jaroslav Valkoun, “Great Britain, the Dominions and Their Position on Japan in the 1920s and Early 1930s”, Prague Papers on the History of International Relations 2/2017. (accessed 20 June 2021); Ian H. Nish, Alliance in Decline: A Study of Anglo-Japanese Relations, 1908-23, Bloomsbury: London, 2012, p. 383;  Roberta Allbert Dayer, “The British War Debts to the United States and the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, 1920-1923”, Pacific Historical Review , 45:4 (1976): 569-595.

[2] Roger Openshaw, “The Highest Expression of Devotion: New Zealand Primary‐ Schools and Patriotic Zeal during the Early 1920s”, History of Education, 9:4 (1980): 337.

[3] David Littlewood, “The Debates of the Past’: New Zealand’s First Labour

Government and the Introduction of Conscription in 1940”, War & Society, 39:4 (2020): 278.  See also, Valkoun, p.41.

[4] Littlewood, p.277.

[5] L. K. Munro, “New Zealand and the New Pacific” Foreign Affairs, 31:4 (1953), pp. 641-2; Littlewood, p.282.

[6] Angela Ballara. “Rātana, Tahupōtiki Wiremu - Ratana, Tahupotiki Wiremu”, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, (1996). Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 June 2021).

[7] For example, see New Zealand Herald, 23/12/1924: 13; Evening Post, 26/12/1924: 6; New Zealand Times, 27/12/1924: 5.

[8] Keith Newman, Ratana Revisited: An Unfinished Legacy, Auckland: Reed, 2006, p. 143.

[9] Aike P. Rots, “Christian Millenarianism and Nationalism in Pre-War Japan: Nakada Jūji’s Politics of Identity”, in Toru Aoyama (ed.), Politics, Identity and Conflict: Proceedings of the Postgraduate Workshop, Leiden University, 28 August 2009,  Tokyo: Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, 2010, pp. 50-55; Bronwyn Elsmore, Like Them That Dream: The Maori and the Old Testament, Auckland: Libro International, 2011, 194-5.

[10] New Zealand Times, 27/12/1924: 5; Evening Star, 2/4/1925: 6.

[11] Stratford Evening Post, 16/1/1925: 2.

[12] Press, 20/1/1925: 10.

[13] Stratford Evening Post, 16/1/1925: 2.

[14] Evening Star, 2/4/1925: 6.

[15] Evening Post, 29/1/ 1941: 9.

[16] Statement of . . . made at Police Station, . . ., 10/6/1939. Intelligence -  Japanese Activities Among Maoris. Ref: AD11 17, National Archives, Wellington.   [Names have been anonymised.]

[17] Statement of . . . made at Police Station, . . ., 29/6/1939. Intelligence -  Japanese Activities Among Maoris.

[18] Report of Constable . . ., Police Station, . . . 3/7/1939; Inspector of Police to Commissioner of Police, 4/7/1939; Memo, Commissioner of Police to the Chief of General Staff, 5/7/1939, Intelligence -  Japanese Activities Among Maoris.

[19] Sgt. . . . to . . . , 14/2/1941, Intelligence -  Japanese Activities Among Maoris.

[20] There was one file held by the Royal New Zealand Air Force, “Intelligence Mauris [sic] Pro. Japanese (Ratana Element Etc.)”. Unfortunately this was disposed of when some RNZAF archives were transferred to Archives New Zealand.

[21] Manawatu Times, 21/2/1942: 6.

[22] Newman, Ratana Revisited, pp. 154-5.

[23] Letter, . . . to Secretary, Marine Department, 12/1/1942. War with Japan — Attitude of Maoris, 1941-1942, Ref: M12W1749 6, National Archives, Wellington.

[24] Memo, P.K. Paikea to R. Semple, Minister of Marine, 18/2/1942, War with Japan — Attitude of Maoris, 1941-1942.

[25] Group Director, . . .  Group Home Guard, . . .  to Director General, Home Guard Headquarters, 8/1/1942.

[26] Naval Officer-in-Charge, Lyttelton to Director of Naval Intelligence, 16/4/1942. Defence of Pacific – Chatham Islands – Report of Security Intelligence Bureau, June 1942. Ref: EA1 585, National Archives, Wellington.

[27] Memo, Lieut.Commander, RN to Director of Naval Intelligence, 23/4/1942. Defence of Pacific – Chatham Islands.

[28] The Chatham Islands [Report], Defence of Pacific – Chatham Islands.

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