TOPArt & CultureJapanese CultureList of 7: Notorious Assassination Plots in Japan

List of 7: Notorious Assassination Plots in Japan

A look at seven notorious assassinations and assassination plots that shocked Japan

By Matthew Hernon

In a new series of listicle articles, we begin by looking at high-profile assassinations and assassination attempts that shook Japan including plots to kill Ryoma Sakamoto, Emperor Hirohito, various prime ministers and politicians, as well as Charlie Chaplin and the heir to the Russian throne.

1. Ryoma Sakamoto – The Omi-ya Incident

The assassination of one the most iconic figures in Japanese history is a mystery that remains unsolved. Ryoma Sakamoto played a significant role in bringing down the Shogunate by brokering a peace deal between the warring provinces of Satsuma (Kagoshima Prefecture) and Choshu (Yamaguchi Prefecture). As a result, there were many groups out to get him. In March 1866, Sakamoto was saved by his wife Ryo Narasaki while staying at the Teradaya Inn in Kyoto. She ran naked from her bath to warn the anti-Tokugawa activist of an incoming attack. He was able to ward off the assailants with his bodyguard Shinzo Miyoshi but his luck ran out the following year.

On December 10, 1867, Sakamoto was resting at Kyoto’s Omi-ya (a soy sauce shop and inn) with his ex-sumo wrestler bodyguard Tokichi Yamada and friend Shintaro Nakaoka when a man arrived asking to see him. Yamada answered the door. He was the first to be slain. A group of men charged up the stairs to kill Sakamoto. Nakaoka was able to explain what happened but couldn’t identify the perpetrators. He died two days later. Isami Kondo, leader of the Shinsengumi (a Kyoto-based special police force protecting the Shogunate) was executed for the crime. In 1870 Nobuo Imai claimed his police force, the Mimawarigumi, was responsible for the assassination. However, there are doubts as to the veracity of his claim. More than 150 years on, historians continue to debate the identity of the killers.

2. Nicholas II – The Otsu Incident

In April 1891 Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich II made an official stop in Japan en route to Vladivostok for a ceremony to mark the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. While he viewed it as an opportunity to learn about an exotic culture, Emperor Meiji saw the visit as a chance to strengthen Russo-Japanese relations. During his stay in the country, Nicholas visited shrines, enjoyed the company of geisha and got a dragon tattoo. It was a pleasant and peaceful trip. Then everything changed on May 11.

After a relaxing day at Lake Biwa, Nicholas, Prince Takehito and Prince George of Greece and Denmark were heading back to Kyoto with their entourage on jinrikishas when the Tsarevich was struck in the head by a sabre. It left him with a nine-centimeter-long scar. George reportedly managed to parry a second blow with his cane, saving his cousin’s life. The perpetrator, police officer Sanzo Tsuda, believed the future Russian emperor was a spy. Assigned to protect the distinguished guests from hostility, he ended up being chased down by two rickshaw drivers. He died of pneumonia a few months after being sentenced to life imprisonment. Nicholas abdicated the throne in March 1917. He, his wife and their five children were brutally murdered by Bolshevik assassins 16 months later. It ended the 300-year reign of the Romanov family.

3. Takashi Hara & Osachi Hamaguchi – Tokyo Station’s Dark History 

Walk around Tokyo Station and you may come across two plaques that serve as a remembrance for separate attacks on Japanese prime ministers during the inter-war years. One is placed next to the ticket counter near the Marunouchi South Entrance. This is the spot where Takashi Hara was stabbed to death on November 4, 1921, by a right-wing railroad switchman named Konichi Nakaoka. He accused the first commoner to be appointed prime minister of being corrupt and involving the Zaibatsu in politics. He was also critical of Hara’s handling of the Siberian intervention which led to growing animosity between the military and the government. Nakaoka was sentenced to life imprisonment but served just 13 years.

The other plaque is located near the shinkansen gates numbered 20-23. This is where Japan’s “Lion Prime Minister” Osachi Hamaguchi was shot in the stomach on November 14, 1930. He was just about to board the express train “Tsubame.” The perpetrator was Aikokusha (Society of Patriots) member Tomeo Sagoya who was one of many right-wingers incensed by the PM’s decision to ratify a disarmament treaty described as an infringement of the military’s “right of supreme command,” as guaranteed under the Meiji Constitution. Hamaguchi survived the attack but never fully recovered from his injuries. He passed away on August 26, 1931, eight months after the assassination attempt.

4. Emperor Hirohito – Three Assassination Attempts 

In the 1920s and 1930s there were at least three plots to assassinate the man that would go on to become Japan’s longest reigning emperor. The first occurred on December 27, 1923. Daisuke Nanba fired a pistol at the carriage of the then Prince Regent, shattering the window. Hirohito was unharmed but his chamberlain was injured. Nambu, a communist agitator and son of a Diet member, was angered by the murders of Japanese anarchists and Koreans during the panic of the Great Kanto Earthquake. Though he said he acted rationally, the 24-year-old was proclaimed insane to the public. After being condemned to death, he yelled, “Long live the Communist Party of Japan.”

Lovers Pak Yol and Fumiko Kaneko were also given the death penalty in 1926 for an alleged plan to kill Emperor Taisho and his son with explosives at the latter’s wedding ceremony to Princess Nagako. An imperial pardon commuted their sentences to life imprisonment. Kaneko refused to thank the emperor and took her own life a few months later. Pak was captured by the North Korean army five years after his release. The third attempt on Hirohito’s life was by Korean Patriotic Legion member Lee Bong-Chang in 1932. He threw a hand grenade at the emperor’s horse carriage as he departed the Imperial Palace via Sakuradamon Gate. Despite missing the target, he was executed in Ichigaya Prison that year.

5. Tsuyoshi Inukai – May 15 Incident

While Hirohito managed to survive the Sakuradamon Incident in 1932, several other high-profile figures in Japan weren’t so fortunate. In January and February of that year, Junnosuke Inoue, governor of the Bank of Japan, and Dan Takuma, director-general of Mitsui, were both gunned down in what became known as the League of Blood Incident (the original plan was to kill 20 wealthy businessmen and liberal politicians). An even more shocking episode occurred on May 15 when 11 young naval officers shot Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai. Attempting a coup d’état, their aim was to remove the democratic government in favor of military control.

The group also planned the assassination of Charlie Chaplin. Believing him to be an American, they hoped his death would lead to a war with the United States. The British comic was a guest of Inukai and was scheduled to attend a welcome party on the evening of the 15th. He suddenly changed his schedule and instead went to watch sumo
with the PM’s son Takeru. That last-minute alteration saved his life. Four years later there was another attempted coup d’état: The February 26 Incident, as the Imperial Japanese Army tried to purge the government. The rebels killed several leading officials including two former prime ministers. They misidentified the then PM Keisuke Okada and instead murdered his brother-in-law Matsuo Denzo. Future PM Kantaro Suzuki also survived the purge, though the bullet from the attack remained inside his body for the rest of his life.

6. Inejiro Asanuma – A Televised Assassination 

A televised political debate at Hibiya Hall in Tokyo came to a dramatic conclusion on October 12, 1960, when ultranationalist Otoya Yamaguchi stormed the stage. He stabbed Japan Socialist Party (JSP) leader Inejiro Asanuma with a foot-long yoroi-doshi — a traditional Japanese sword used by samurai during the Feudal era. The politician, who had controversially given a speech in Beijing describing the United States as the “shared enemy of China and Japan,” was pronounced dead at the scene. The school uniform-wearing assailant smiled as he was taken away by the police. Around 1,000 people were in the audience including Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda.

Yamaguchi was a member of the Uyoku Dantai, an extreme right-wing group that had been critical of Asanuma’s socialist politics. The schoolboy assassin committed suicide in his juvenile detention cell three weeks after the incident. He used sheets to create a noose to tie around a light fixture to hang himself. On the wall written in toothpaste were the words of one of Japan’s greatest ever military strategists Kusunoki Masashige. “Seven lives for my country. Long live his Imperial Majesty, the Emperor.” While the incident didn’t make a significant impact politically, it lived long in the memory for those who were there. Yasushi Nagao received a World Press Photo of the Year award and a Pulitzer Prize for his picture of the stabbing. 

7. Koki Ishii – A Political Assassination Shrouded in Mystery

An outspoken member of the Democratic Party and author of the book Japan’s Secret Checkbook: The Truth about the Financial Interests That Will Destroy the Nation, Koki Ishii was on a mission to expose political corruption and reveal information that was being hidden from the public. Then came his untimely death on October 25, 2002. His daughter Tatiana was at home with him on the eve of his murder. She felt something wasn’t quite right. “I was trying to talk but he was so withdrawn and serious,” she said. “I thought maybe he wanted to tell me something, but he stayed silent, so I went to bed. When I left the house the following morning, he was just staring out of the window at me.”

A few minutes later Ishii’s life was taken in broad daylight by a man in a bandana who jumped out of a bush with a 12-inch sashimi knife. The following day ultra-nationalist Hakusui Ito turned himself in, stating that he murdered the politician because he’d refused to pay a bribe. Ishii’s daughter, however, felt the case went much deeper. “Days before he died, he was telling people he had uncovered something that could sink the Koizumi administration,” she said. “That’s why he looked so worried.” Investigative journalist Noriyuki Imanishi also revealed that Ishii had told him he had “discovered something terrible,” shortly before his death. In 2008, Ito renounced his sworn testimony regarding personal motives and instead claimed he had been hired to kill Ishii.