By Jessie Yeung and Tetsu Sukegawa, CNN
Several members of a QAnon group in Japan were sentenced by a Tokyo court on Thursday for breaking into multiple Covid vaccination centers, according to CNN affiliate TV Asahi.
The five defendants were members of YamatoQ, an offshoot of the larger QAnon conspiracy theory that originated in the United States in 2017. In the years since, a number of fringe QAnon groups have emerged in Japan, with some local influencers garnering tens of thousands of followers.
Kuraoka Hiroyuki, the 44-year-old former leader of YamatoQ, was among those convicted of breaking into vaccination centers across Tokyo in March and April this year. On Thursday, the court ruled that since he had shown remorse by submitting documents to formally leave the group, his sentence — one and a half years’ imprisonment — would be suspended for three years, according to TV Asahi.
The other defendants were also given suspended sentences.
The members “dared to commit the crime for the purpose of forcing their own beliefs,” said the court in its decision, according to TV Asahi. “They may not evade severe condemnation.”
YamatoQ, a general incorporated association, has organized monthly protests against vaccines and face masks across Japan this year. The group’s manifesto and website reflect the baseless conspiracy theory it stemmed from, saying it aimed to protect people from Satanists and the Illuminati — and that it respected former US President Donald Trump.
QAnon began in the US in October 2017 when a person or persons using the name “Q” (which is a level of US security clearance) posted a thread on 4chan, an anonymous American messaging board regarded as the birthplace of the alt-right movement.
The poster spread several conspiracy theories, including ones claiming that Trump was facing down a shadowy cabal of child-trafficking elites, and others about the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election.
The theory quickly moved from the darkest corners of the internet to draw in people around the world.
The Japanese network has become one of QAnon’s most sophisticated and active outside of the United States with its own ideologies and influencers, according to social network analysis research firm Graphika. There aren’t solid estimates for the number of QAnon followers worldwide or in Japan, but several splinter groups have sprung up in the country, including J-Anon and QArmyJapanFlynn.
QAnon is rooted in the belief that governments and established institutions are lying to the public, an idea with broad appeal around the world. Experts say QAnon adherents are searching for meaning in a society they feel is broken, manipulated to believe QAnon answers all the world’s problems.
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CNN’s Emiko Jozuka contributed reporting.