O n the stage, Charlie Chaplin was known as the tramp who made millions laugh without saying a word. But in his heart of hearts, it seems the great comic wanted to be a statesman whose words could change history.
Despite his infectious humor and the wealth brought about by his Hollywood stardom, the real “Little Tramp” was touched at every stage of his life by the traumas of current events, spending many of his days pleading with the United States to defend his native Britain through two world wars, flirting with socialism, and then being hounded into exile by McCarthyism and the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover.
But Chaplin’s life was not only buffeted by the turmoil in European and American affairs: his foray into Japanese politics 73 years ago this week almost cost him his life. The tale of Japanese revolutionaries stalking Chaplin through the streets of Tokyo seems like a comic movie plot — but Chaplin was to find that it was a very real and very lethal intrigue that would involve a close brush with death and end with the assassination of the then prime minister in an attempted coup d’etat by young naval officers that has come to be known as the May 15th Incident (Goichigo Jiken).
Catalog of painful events
Yet the danger that Chaplin encountered during his 1932 visit to Kobe and Tokyo seemed to be just one more episode in the catalog of painful events he was fated to be witness to.
As a child, just before World War I, Chaplin saw how the British working classes were scraping by on subsistence wages without any kind of safety net. Unchecked capitalism left vaudeville performers destitute the day after they retired, and Charlie’s mother was one of them. When she went insane, he and his brother sang, acted and danced on stage in order to survive. Memories of this hardship were to haunt Chaplin throughout his movie career, spawning laughter and absurdity in the midst of great sorrow.
The young Chaplin saw hope in the rise of Soviet socialism, trade unionism and, once he went to live in America, Roosevelt’s New Deal. This brought the perky actor to a crossroads of history. Before Hitler attacked France in 1940, many cadres of American society looked favorably on the Nazi regime. The German airships “Hindenburg” and “Graf Zeppelin” were docking on the East Coast, Charles Lindberg admired the Nazis’ aircraft designs, and German scientists like Albert Einstein enthralled the scientific world.
Though many were taken in, believing that Hitler was a man who could be reasoned with, Chaplin sounded the alarm, starting production of his comic movie attack on Hitler, titled “The Great Dictator,” well before the Fall of France.
But were it not for the brief hesitation of a group of Japanese assassins, Chaplin might have never lived to make his anti-Nazi classic.
In 1932, at the height of his reign as Hollywood’s top celebrity, Chaplin took his entourage by ship to Japan on what he thought would be both a cultural journey and a chance to promote his latest movie, “City Lights.”
Chaplin had read about Japan in books by the Greek-born, Anglo-Irish Japanophile Lafcadio Hearn, and he decided to go by ship through the Suez Canal, then via India and Singapore to view for himself the enchanting land that Hearn so loved.
His arrival in Japan was very close to what you might expect for a visiting screen star. Chaplin claimed in his autobiography that, “In Kobe harbor we were greeted by aeroplanes circling over our ship dropping leaflets of welcome, while thousands cheered on the docks.
“The sight of numerous brightly colored kimonos against the background of smokestacks and drab gray docks was paradoxically beautiful,” he continued, “. . . [and] The Government put a special train at our disposal to take us on to Tokyo. At each station the crowds and excitement increased, and the platforms were crammed with a galaxy of pretty girls who loaded us with presents.”
The effect of this, he recalled, as the girls stood waiting in their kimono, was “like a flower show.”
From the high point of his uniquely Japanese welcome, things started to deteriorate. Chaplin became uneasy when his Japanese guide, whom he referred to as Kono, began making mysterious requests. Chaplin’s entourage was asked to stop in front of the Imperial Palace and bow — even though there were no officials in view to witness the act.
Bags and rooms searched
The next morning Chaplin’s brother and traveling companion, Sydney, charged into Chaplin’s hotel room and claimed that their bags and rooms had been searched.
Then Kono approached Chaplin and asked that they visit specific stores, and when Chaplin brushed off the suggestions Kono seemed to become very agitated.
Chaplin later wrote: “Sydney insisted that we were being watched and that Kono was holding something back. I must admit that Kono was looking more worried and harassed every hour.”
Chaplin, however, held his suspicions in check until surprise guests at dinner crystalized everyone’s fears.
That night Kono, Chaplin and his brother were dining at a restaurant when six men walked up to their table uninvited. One of them sat down and addressed Kono in harsh tones while the others stood looming over the table. Chaplin, raised in the streets of working-class London, did not need to understand the language to know that they were being threatened. Ever ready to put on an act, he stood up at the dinner table, placed his hand in his jacket pocket as if grabbing a gun — and barked at the six interlopers.
This public outburst made the attackers hesitate, and the quick-thinking film star used that crucial moment of confusion to shuffle his brother and guide to a taxi outside.
Chaplin was now certain that people were trying to coerce him and control his movements. But he suspected financial motives. Back in Hollywood he had been shadowed by aspiring actresses who turned out to be gold-digging blackmailers, and had fought them in court or paid them off.
Chaplin had not yet grasped, however, that the motivations of his present tormentors were political rather than pecuniary: This time he was being drawn into a power struggle that would shock the whole of Japan. The day after his May 14 restaurant getaway, Chaplin was somewhat relieved to sit down and watch a sumo tournament as the guest of Ken Inukai, the prime minister’s son. Feeling safe in such company, he took little notice when Inukai was called away to attend to some matter.
Returning after an inexplicably long time, Inukai sat with Chaplin looking so distraught that Chaplin asked him if he were ill. Holding his head in his hands, Inukai told him: “My father has just been assassinated.”
On hearing that, Chaplin and Inukai rushed to the Prime Minister’s Residence to find the floors still soaked with blood. Chaplin, who was to have met the late prime minister the next day, was soon surrounded by the press, but — shocked by how brutally the cat-and-mouse game had ended — his responses to journalists’ questions were almost incoherent.
In fact, Chaplin simply didn’t know what to say. He also did not know at that time that the six men who burst into the Prime Minister’s Residence and shot Tsuyoshi Inukai to death also had Chaplin’s name on their hit list.
As history soon afterward made clear, the assassination of the prime minister was the culmination of a multi-cell plot to decapitate the power structures that ruled Japan during the impoverished times of the Depression Era. The group responsible for the killing, named Ketsumeidan (Blood Brotherhood), had been founded by self-appointed Buddhist priest Nissio Inoue, and the plotters’ base was in Ibaraki Prefecture, north of Tokyo, where farmers had become destitute and held the rich ministers in contempt, blaming them for Japan’s ills. One of their meeting points was the Naval Air Training Base at Tsuchiura City on Lake Kasumigaura.
Goal to foment chaos
The organization drew up a list of targets that included politicians, industrialists and former advisers to Emperor. Their goal was to foment so much chaos that the military would declare martial law, thus giving the generals control of the country.
Within the Blood Brotherhood, one of the most determined and hardened cells was a group of naval officers headed by Lt. Seishi Koga. They had already succeeded in killing the finance minister and a prominent industrialist several days previously.
Killing the prime minister and Chaplin together was to be the final blow that would topple the government.
In the end, it was Koga’s arrest and subsequent confession that shed light on just how close Chaplin had come to being killed — and why. According to the transcripts, the assassins hoped to time an attack on the Prime Minister’s Residence while the prime minister and Chaplin were having tea.
The presiding judge asked Koga why he wanted to kill a silent movie actor along with the prime minister. Koga responded: “Chaplin is a popular figure in the United States and the darling of the capitalist class. We believed that killing him would cause a war with America, and thus we could kill two birds with a single stone.”
To this the judge responded: “Then why did you give up your splendid plan?”
Koda: “Because the newspapers later reported that the projected reception was still uncertain.”
Koda added under further questioning that within his clique there was hot debate over whether it was justifiable to kill the comedian on the off chance that it might bring about war with the United States and thereby increase the power of the military.
Chaplin’s response to the publication of the court transcripts was reminiscent of his movie performancess, showing his trademark melancholy humor in the face of hardship.
He wrote in his memoirs, “I can imagine the assassins having carried out their plan, then discovering that I was not an American but an Englishman — ‘Oh, so sorry!’ ”