“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.”
— Lt. Seishi Koga, confession during trial, Japan Times, Shibly Nabhan
When one thinks of the beginnings of World War II, one often thinks of dictators, armies, and general chaos. However, life went on before the conflict broke out, including the movie industry. During a trip to promote his movie “City Lights” in May of 1932, Charlie Chaplin found the world was changing in a startling series of events.
The actor, who was at the height of global fame, read books about the enchanting land of Japan and wanted to see it with his own eyes. So, he loaded up his staff and friends on a ship, conducting an Asian tour with its end being Japan. Little did Chaplin know this magical country was in the midst of bloody changes.
On his arrival, nothing appeared out of the ordinary — if anything it was fantastic. According to Shibly Nabhan’s article, thousands awaited Chaplin’s ship at the docks and airplanes dropped leaflets. He’d recount a sea of colorful kimonos looking like a flower show. The government even put a special train at the actor’s disposal.
However, Chaplin and his group soon noticed their Japanese guide seemed a little too pushy. He shuffled them to specific areas and made strange requests, getting agitated if questioned. In one instance they were brought before the Imperial palace and told to bow, even though no one was there to receive the display. Chaplin’s brother also claimed their bags and rooms had been searched.
The actor often challenged the guide’s itinerary but kept an open mind until a strange event at dinner. While the group sat with the guide, six men came to their table uninvited. One sat down and began reprimanding the guide in an aggravated tone. The other five men loomed threateningly around the table. Chaplin didn’t understand Japanese, but knew they were in danger.
He immediately put his acting skills into play to protect the group. Standing up, he placed his hand in his pocket like a gun was at the ready and started shouting at the invaders threatening the table.
Their tormentors seemed suddenly stunned by the public display and Chaplin ushered his team away from the table. Although he figured something was wrong, the actor had no idea of the chaos about to unfold around him.
Revolution In The Air
Chaplin may have read enchanting stories about Japan, but he didn’t realize he stepped foot into a land in the middle of upheaval. In February Japan’s finance minister was shot to death on the way to a speech. About a month later, the director of a large financial company was killed while walking into his office. Both were killed by young men under the direction of a shadowy group called the Blood Brotherhood (Ketsumeidan).
Japan had been struggling economically in recent times. There was also a big divide between the military and civilian government. The military had taken on an expansion policy in China, ignoring orders from the government to reign in activities. While the government signed a treaty with global powers to limit the size of its navy, many military officers saw this as treasonous.
“At Washington Japan had agreed to a sixty percent ration of the fleet strength of Britain and the United States. …What was worse, the government in Tokyo overruled the Chief of the Navy General Staff and accepted the London agreement in defiance of his protests. The navy, therefore, had a grievance of an acute kind, and young officers who believed that politicians and capitalists should be extirpated were swimming with the tide.”
— “Government by Assassination”, Hugh Byas
While the navy had some of the grievances above, which would cause younger officers to become radicalized, the army also followed suit. According to Byas, a seemingly innocuous school called the Native-Land-Loving School bred contempt within the army.
The school which taught simple mathematics, bookkeeping, history, and agricultural management became a major attraction for farmers. Byas notes that 80% of the army’s conscripts were farmers, many of whom had been radicalized by the school’s teachings.
Their leader Kosaburo Tachibana even gave speeches on army bases, becoming a “spokesman of peasant unrest” according to Byas. Tachibana preached the idea of a mixture of peasant and soldier returning Japan to its agrarian roots and cleansing it of capitalist influence.
At the same time a Buddhist firebrand priest named Nissio Inoue also preached at a temple built in the city of Mito. Although the temple was built with proceeds from an entrepreneur's streetcar company, the priest spread anti-western propaganda and chastised the life created by capitalism.
Disgruntled members of the Navy, Army, Nissio’s followers, and members of the Native-Land-Loving School came together in one murderous band called the Blood Brotherhood. They’d plot chaos in order to cause a declaration of martial law, under which the emperor could rule the land and dissolve the government of civilian traitors.
One of their plots just happened to coincide with the visit of Charlie Chaplin. In fact, he happened to be one of the initial targets.
Sumo And Assassination
The day after the restaurant incident, Chaplin tried to regain some normalcy and changed his plans a bit.
He sat down on May 15th to watch some sumo matches with the Prime Minister’s son, Ken Inukai. At some point during the matches Ken left to attend some official business. Later he’d return visually shaken, catching Chaplin’s attention.
When Chaplin asked what happened, Ken said his father had been assassinated. He’d travel with the Prime Minister’s son to the palace and see the blood-stained floors. Chaplin was surrounded by reporters and gave disjointed responses in a state of shock — he was scheduled to meet the Prime Minister the very next day. He’d also discover his name was on a hit list of dignitaries to be killed by a group called the Blood Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood’s ringleader Lt. Seishi Koga admitted at his trial they originally planned to kill the Prime Minister and Chaplin together the next day. However, Chaplin was too hard to predict, so they settled for May 15th for the assassination.
Reflections And An Awakening
However, Chaplin learned a life lesson from the event. It doesn’t matter if you think a fringe groups’ beliefs are crazy — if they believe them, they’ll move heaven and earth to make them come to fruition. Perhaps the event also made Chaplin a little more sensitive to another fringe group goose-stepping in Germany when others weren’t.
He’d go on to create his masterpiece in 1940 “The Great Dictator” in response to Nazi Germany, mocking Adolf Hitler and gave one of the greatest film speeches ever recorded.
The assassination came to be known as the May 15th Incident and was one of several similar killings in Japan. Fortunately for the world, Charlie Chaplin’s quick wits and independence saved him from the same fate