Sumo saved Charlie Chaplin from assassination

By Duncan Bartlett

Can you imagine the outcry if one of Hollywood’s biggest stars was suddenly shot dead at the home of the Japanese prime minister?

I discovered this week that in the early 1930s, this was nearly the fate of the comedian Charlie Chaplin, a pioneer of the early movie industry.

The story serves as a shocking reminder of the volatile mood in Japan in the run up to the Second World War.

Provoking war

According to a new book Day of the Assassins – A History of Political Murder by Michael Burleigh, some extreme nationalists in Japan were trying to provoke their government into a war with the West.

Charlie Chaplin was much beloved by American film-goers. Killing him would therefore have been a signal of contempt for the United States and a catalyst to conflict.

At the time, some senior figures in the Japanese navy resented the US due to treaty which they thought would limit their country’s military power. These naval officers believed it was an affront to the nation and the Emperor.

Portrait of Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi (Prior To 1932) — [Public Domain]

Murder plot

On May 15th, 1932, an armed gang linked to the navy stormed the residence of then Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi and shot him dead. They also planned to kill his 21-old son. 

However, the son had taken Charlie Chaplin, who was visiting Japan at the time, to watch a sumo match.

The conspirators who killed Prime Minister Tsuyoshi were later caught and court-martialed.

However, they received extremely lenient sentences because the court received a petition for their release that contained 350 thousand signatures, all signed in blood.

Their supporters formed a nationalist party known as the League of Blood which went on to be influential in pushing Japan into the war with the United States which began with the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. 

Charlie Chaplin (right) As “The Great Dictator” — Trailer Screenshot / [Public domain]

Charlie Chaplin escaped and went on to make classic films such as Modern Times and the Great Dictator.

He died on Christmas day 1977, at the age of 88, survived by nine children.