[FILM] Torichi Kono - Charles Chaplin's Aid and Confidente
- Mr. Kono and the Tramp
Toraichi Kono, an aide to Charlie Chaplin for years, was forgotten
until crates of his papers came to light.
By Bruce Wallace, Times Staff Writer
Charlie Chaplin traveled to Japan just four times in his long life
and only narrowly missed being assassinated by a gang of rogue naval
officers on one of those visits.
But the Japanese loved Charlie and his Tramp. Still do. Chaplin's
films and Tramp character carved a lasting place in Japanese
culture, and new evidence of a little-discussed relationship with
his longtime Japanese assistant is offering fresh opportunities to
explore one of the most poked and perused lives of the 20th century.
The barely mined Japanese connection is what drew many of the
world's top Chaplinologists as well as a few hundred fans and the
late comedian's daughter Josephine to the first conference on
Chaplin in Japan.
Convened in an unheated former elementary school in chilly Kyoto one
weekend last month, they swapped business cards and traded Chaplin
anecdotes, examining such questions as how much influence Kabuki
theater had on his art and what moved prewar Japanese movie
audiences to embrace a movie character they originally dubbed
Strange Person and, later, Professor Alcohol.
"I'm searching for an explanation of why Chaplin's Tramp has had
such resonance in so many cultures for so long and why he keeps
popping up everywhere," says Kathryn Millard, an Australian
shooting "Here Comes Charlie," a feature documentary on Chaplin's
influence around the world. "It's not just about the appeal of
silent film stars. It's that the Tramp seems infinitely adaptable."
But the honey that drew the specialists to Kyoto was the recent
emergence of documents and photographs from the estate of Chaplin's
longtime assistant Toraichi Kono, a Japanese national who had
settled in California. Kono went to work as the star's driver in
1916 and was, for the next 18 years if you believe his most
enthusiastic Japanese supporters, one of the comedian's closest
The FBI had another view. They thought Kono became a Japanese spy
after he left Chaplin's employ in the mid-1930s. In the run-up to
Pearl Harbor, with Japanese-American tensions rising, they caught
Kono meeting with Japanese naval officers looking for information
about U.S. naval deployments. He was arrested, released and then
quickly interned after the attack.
That hazy, curious life story has somehow remained below Hollywood's
radar. The question, as phrased by conference organizer Hiroyuki
Ono, the leading authority on Kono and who is writing his biography,
is: "Why did the right-hand man of the world's greatest comedian
disappear from history?"
Until Ono started asking questions, the truth about what Kono did
for his movie star boss and perhaps for the Japanese navy had
disappeared into the mists. Chaplin called Kono his secretary in the
fleeting references he made to him in his 1964 autobiography (though
that's not unusual plenty of people close to the star, including
his second wife, never got a mention by name either). He also had
minor roles as a chauffeur in three Chaplin films, though he was
credited in just one: 1917's "The Adventurer."
But Ono sees Kono, who died in 1971 and whose ashes are buried in
Inglewood Park Cemetery, as much more than a gofer: He was Chaplin's
gatekeeper. Although Ono says the relationship between the men
was "never warm," he cites dozens of letters intended for Chaplin
but addressed to Kono as evidence the Japanese assistant was the man
you had to go through to get to the star.
Ono argues that Kono had such control over Chaplin's domestic
arrangements that at one point in the mid-'20s, all 17 male workers
at the actor's estate were Japanese. And it was Kono, he says, who
encouraged his boss to visit Japan for the first time in 1932 and
cultivated a love in Chaplin for everything from Japanese literature
to tempura (Chaplin's autobiography cites a book on Japanese theater
written by Lafcadio Hearn as the source of his curiosity).
A new chapter is opened
ONO'S fascination with Chaplin began 22 years ago when, at age 9, he
saw "The Great Dictator" on Japanese TV. As an adult, he has visited
all the Chaplin haunts: from the south London of his impoverished
childhood to the road in California where the Tramp walks off into
the unknown arm in arm with Paulette Goddard's gamin at the end
of "Modern Times."
An energetic storyteller dripping with enthusiasm, Ono is what the
Japanese would kindly call an otaku a Chaplin geek.
In 2004, he met Kono's second wife, who uncrated hundreds of photos
and letters for him and gave approval for a biography that would
unveil the driver-valet-fixer's importance in the Chaplin pantheon.
Ono took news of his find to a July 2005 Chaplin conference in
London, where the assembled Chaplin scholars excitedly encouraged
him to host his own conference in Japan.
The result was a three-day gathering that made up for a lack of
slickness in presentation with a big dose of authenticity and
spirit. The venue an abandoned school in a Kyoto neighborhood that
has become an "entertainment" district was cold and drafty. But it
was also the site of the first movie screening in the country and a
perfect reminder of the Japan Chaplin encountered when he visited in
the 1930s: austere but welcoming, with everyone enraptured by the
And the discovery of the supporting role played by a Japanese
assistant seeded a wider discussion about the extraordinary reach of
the Tramp into other cultures and the endurance of Chaplin's appeal.
(There are Chaplin festivals and conferences around the world
virtually every year dissecting his cross-cultural appeal.)
Japan was hardly immune to the Tramp's charms. Movie screens were
dominated by American films in the early years of the century, just
as Japan was embracing everything the West had to offer in the name
of modernization. In an analysis of Chaplin's popularity at the
time, Japan's great novelist Junichiro Tanizaki wrote admiringly
about the "dynamism of slapstick," citing it as an example of the
dynamism of American society.
But Chaplin's appeal in Japan went beyond belly laughs. From "A
Dog's Life" to "The Gold Rush," Chaplin's films were regarded as
"My students all seem to respond more strongly to Chaplin than to
other filmmakers," said Jeffrey Tarlofsky, who has taught a Chaplin
course at four Japanese universities. He cites the case of three
members of a sumo team who took his course and blubbered through the
rescue scene in "The Kid."
"These are boys who were not, shall we say, noted for their academic
abilities," Tarlofsky recalled. "But they are large kids, and you
could hear these great big gasps coming from the back of the room."
Ono also argues it was Chaplin's melancholy that appealed to the
Japanese. "They would say: 'Don't you hear the sad song coming from
his soul?' "
In 1931, just six months after the world premiere of "City Lights,"
a Kabuki company adapted it in a piece called "Komori no Yasusan,"
with a lead actor in a Chaplin mustache and the boxing scene
converted into a sumo wrestling match.
Chaplin made his first visit to Japan a year later, shepherded by
Kono. His autobiography describes it as a trip bristling with
intimidation and violence.
The visit's defining moment came while Chaplin watched a sumo match
with Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai's son, Ken, on the afternoon of
May 15. Six young naval officers broke into the leader's official
residence in Tokyo and murdered the prime minister, hoping to spark
a revolution that would reinstate an emperor-based government.
Their plot dissolved. But later court-martial testimony into what
the Japanese call the May 15 Incident suggested the officers had
debated killing Chaplin as well, on the dubious premise it would
provoke the U.S. into war with Japan.
But the conference in Kyoto skipped over any discussion of the
political violence of those times. Chaplin was a leading critic of
fascism, militarism and imperialism extremist forces that were all
swelling in strength in Japan during that visit and two more in 1936.
Yet there was no discussion on what effect Japanese nationalism
might have had on him his politics or films. And it was noted but
never deeply discussed that Japan's wartime government banned "The
Great Dictator," Chaplin's film skewering Adolf Hitler. It was not
shown in Japan until 1960.
Ono said the conference ignored Chaplin's collision with nationalist
extremism because the near assassination of the world's greatest
comedian is well known in Japan a debatable statement in a country
whose school texts are notoriously skimpy on the history of that
Instead the participants stuck safely to a mandate of uncovering
evidence of Chaplin's Japanophilia. They learned he once devoured 30
shrimp tempura in one sitting. And they heard from Tetsuko
Kuroyanagi, a leading TV personality who met Chaplin in New York in
1972, that the actor told her of his love for Japan, even bursting
into tears at the sight of her in a kimono.
KONO'S story the driver entered Chaplin's orbit in 1916, by which
time he had been living off and on in California for more than a
dozen years was the perfect catalyst for the conference. Unlike
many Japanese who arrived in America fleeing poverty, Kono was a
party guy running from the restraints of an arranged marriage and a
wealthy but demanding father.
He was a pilot whose first wife wouldn't let him fly, and he worked
in a shop and as a houseboy before meeting Chaplin at the Los
Angeles Athletic Club, where the actor then lived.
Their relationship didn't end until 1934, when Kono complained about
the spending habits of Goddard, Chaplin's third wife. Chaplin sided
with his wife. Kono walked out. "It was a matter of face for him,"
Kono did take up Chaplin's offer to become the Japan representative
of United Artists (which Chaplin co-owned) but quit after a year,
muttering about sabotage from other Chaplin employees. He then slid
into a social world that included Japanese naval spies who were
scouting for information on U.S. Navy battleships. The FBI arrested
Kono on espionage charges, though the allegations were dropped in
favor of attempts to deport him.
But when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Kono was rearrested the same
day. He spent the war in internment camps, where he ran the
projector on movie nights, just as he had done for the screenings at
the Chaplin mansion, says Clyde Kusatsu, a Los Angeles actor and
filmmaker who is finishing a shooting script for a documentary on
He was not released until 1948.
Kono's defenders say he never was a spy, though he did sign a
confession while in custody. Ono contends that Kono sought only to
be a bridge between Japan and America. "While the Japanese navy may
have used Kono as a tool, we do not believe he betrayed the United
States," Ono says.
Kono fought further attempts to deport him after the war but by the
1950s had returned to his birthplace of Hiroshima. He was living
there in 1961 when Chaplin came to Japan for the last time.
On that trip, Chaplin went to Hiroshima, where he visited the Peace
Memorial Park built below the spot where the atomic bomb was
detonated. Kono lived in an apartment facing the park.
The two never met.
Who the hell was Kono? Chaplin's driver who also was his personal
secretary, a handy man and a friend? Or was he a friend? Why did they
go separate ways? And how did they find together in the first place?
He was born 1888 and moved to the US at the age of 17 or 18 to become
a lawyer. He saw an article in a newspaper providing a job as a
chauffeur and ended up coincidentally with Charly Chaplin.
Kono showed peculiar behavior in the beginning, asking Chaplin to
pray for the emperor, acting weird or with anxiety. When the Japanese
president, Inukai Takeshi at that time had been assassinated, it
became clear to Chaplin that Kono had been once pressured by the
Japanese right wing, still carrying the fright with him.
So was he satisfied with his boss? He was fond of him, one can
probably say and ill mouthed about Chaplin's second very young wife
Rita Grey, who was an avid spender of money and enjoyed parties with
marine officers. This is according to a memoir by Mr. Ushihara, a
Japanese Director, who's wish was to be a student of Chaplin. He
therefore contacted Mr. Kono, who replied: "My uncle is a very
difficult man. But I will try what I can do." When permission was
achieved Ushihara to be a student of Chaplin, Kono was supposed to
have exclaimed joy as if it was his own destiny, showing his side of
a compassionate good man.
Mr. Kono also tried to get some other acts together, for example when
director Sternberg asked him to arrange Chaplin to see his movie,
shoving a little bit of money into the pocket of Kono. Oh, was Kono
greedy? Noo, this example should show, how Kono would work hard to
get pieces moving together, taking his job serious as a secretary of
Chaplin. It is obvious that Kono was a man of the Japanese Meiji
period with strict moral orders. Chaplin invited Kono to play a part
in his movie "Adventure" (Gee is this the American title? I just
translated it from the Japanese) and was glad to tell his wife about
the additional income he had received, upon which, his wife
responded: "How dare you, an actor, this will never be forgiven by
our ancestors, you should never, ever try to do this kind of thing
Kono tried to support Chaplin in many ways. When Chaplin was going
through the divorce with his first wife Mildred Harris, his
project "Kid" which was in the process of being edited, was in danger
of being held down by the court as a property. Both ended up fleeing,
Kono driving the car with 60$ and Chaplin himself with 70$ in his
pocket respectively all the way down to Salt Lake in Utah.
According to David Robinson, who wrote about Chaplin, Kono took also
care of private matters. He was supposed to have camouflaged the
proceedings with Rita Grey and Chaplin, to support a smooth process
for their wedding.
After 18 years Kono decided to go separate ways. Chaplin was now
together with Paulet, who was more engaged than his preceding wives
in Chaplin's personal matters. According to Mr. Yodogawa, the famous
film critic of Japan, Kono was jealous of Chaplin's new wife, and mad
about Chaplin, who had made himself being a marionette of her,
telling him what Kono had to do. Chaplin later apologized and asked
Kono to come back again three times, but his wounded pride never
Chaplin arranged him new work in the movie business, but Kono never
found a way to stay there. He opened up a law office in Little Tokyo
at Los Angeles and was known among the neighbors just as a lawyer
Kono, not by the long-term relationship with a famous man. He reveals
the character of the old traditional Japanese, pertaining thoughts
and memories for himself. That on the other hand is the lack of a
million seller titled "Charly Chaplin, the Writer, Director, Actor
and the Man who Shagged a Million Chicks". (Had I been Kono, gee, I
would be living in Hollywood in a mansion with three swimming pools
and 100 chicks.)
In the late days Kono was living in his apartment in Hiroshima. Mr.
Yodogawa, the film critic paid him a visit and recalls the last time
he met him that he would speak of Chaplin with love and before
departing, that he was guiding out the way and looking at him until
he disappeared in the far with eyes that followed his past.
1916-1934 Personal Secretary and Driver of Chaplin
1971 Passed away in Hiroshima
This piece was written based on the information by Hisaji Kubo.
Although Chaplin would deny, at times none too convincingly, that he
was even present on the Oneida that weekend, few believed him. One
witness to the contrary was Vera Bernett, who later told Davies'
biographer, Fred Lawernce Guiles, that she remembered Chaplin and
Louella Parsons picking up Marion at the studio on their way to San
Pedro. Indeed, the most damaging alleged witness was none other than
the normally discreet Toraichi Kono, a loyal Chaplin employee.
Supposedly on the dock in San Diego waiting to pick up Chaplin, who
scheduled to meet United Artists executives the next day, Kono was
present when Ince was brought ashore, and he saw something that upset
him. Kono confided in his wife, and the story spread among the
network of Japanese domestic workers in Beverly Hills.
By the time the gossip reached the ears of actress Eleanor Boardman,
the future wife of King Vidor, it was being said that Kono had seen
Ince bleeding from a bullet wound to the head.
That William Randolph Hearst shot Ince became part of Hollywood
legend. It was often alleged, though never proved, that Hearst made a
private settlement to Ince's estate, paying off the mortgages on the
Château Elysée apartment building in Hollywood and another rental
property. There are two schools of thought on this theory. One
dismisses the Ince shooting as a fantasy; the other claims that
Hearst had found Marion and Ince together in the yacht's galley late
at night. Ince was looking for something to calm his upset stomach,
but Hearst, mistaking him for Chaplin in the poor light, assumed he
had walked in on a tryst and shot him.
Chaplin's comments on Ince's death in his autobiography are equally
bizarre. After denying that he was on the Oneida, he goes on to say
that he, Hearst, and Davies visited Ince's bedside together a week
after he fell ill. Ince seemed to be improving, Chaplin says, but
died two weeks later.
Why would Chaplin, Hearst and Davies have paid a joint call on Ince
unless they had all been together on the yacht? On the other hand,
why would Chaplin invent such a story? At any rate Ince survived not
three weeks but less than forty-eight hours. That Friday Chaplin was
a pallbearer at Ince's funeral. On Saturday, he completed the
renegotiation of his United Artists contract and on Sunday, he
departed for Guaymas to reunite with his underage wife Lita, whom he
was forced marry after she became impregnated.
Toraichi Kono, widely thought to know the truth about the Oneida
incident, was later the chief source for Gerith von Ulm's gossipy but
generally accurate biography of Chaplin. Published while Hearst and
Davies were still alive, the book makes no claim that Ince was shot,
but it does say Chaplin's decision to marry Lita Grey devastated a
certain star, since "retired from the screen." This star was surely
Marion Davies, though von Ulm, who had reason to fear a libel suit,
chose to identify her by the pseudonym "Maisie," who wrote naïve and
highly indiscreet love letters, using Kono as an intermediary. The
envelope of one such letter, Kono recalled, bore the imprint of her
lipstick-smeared mouth - the lover's come for "sealed with a kiss."
Biography for Toraichi Kono
Born in 1888 and raised in Hiroshima, Japan, Toraichi Kono
immigrated to the U.S. around 1906 to study law and become a lawyer.
In 1916, when Charles Chaplin was recruiting a trusty for his
secretary, Kono applied for the position and immediately obtained
it. Chaplin hired the Japanese allegedly because the cane, one of
the trademarks of the Little Tramp character Chaplin played, was
made in Japan.
During the next 18 years, Kono was Chaplin's right-hand butler both
in his public and private life. As a result, strongly impressed and
admired by Kono's trustful job performances, Chaplin visited Japan 4
times in his lifetime (1932, twice in 1936, 1961). However, their
close relationship with trust ended in 1934 when Kono reproached
Paulette Goddard, Chaplin's 3rd wife, for being a spendthrift.
It made Chaplin angry and made him dismiss Kono after 18 years as
his butler. As Kono, 1-year older than his boss, was thinking of
returning home to Japan, Chaplin appointed him as the chief manager
of the United Artists Japan.
According to Kono himself, Chaplin visited him one day at his house
and appeared to be eager to have him back, but Kono declined. Not
fitting in the new position as well as the old one, Kono came back
to Los Angeles and worked as a lawyer. Toraichi Kono died in his
home Hiroshima, Japan in 1971 at age 83.
City Lights (1931) (driver: Mr. Chaplin) (uncredited)
... aka City Lights: A Comedy Romance in Pantomime (USA)
The Circus (1928) (driver: Mr. Chaplin) (uncredited)
The Gold Rush (1925) (driver: Mr. Chaplin) (uncredited)
A Woman of Paris (1923) (driver: Mr. Chaplin) (uncredited)
The Pilgrim (1923) (driver: Mr. Chaplin) (uncredited)
Pay Day (1922/I) (driver: Mr. Chaplin) (uncredited)
The Idle Class (1921) (driver: Mr. Chaplin) (uncredited)
... aka Vanity Fair (USA)
The Kid (1921) (driver: Mr. Chaplin) (uncredited)
A Day's Pleasure (1919) (driver: Mr. Chaplin) (uncredited)
... aka A Ford Story (USA)
Sunnyside (1919) (driver: Mr. Chaplin) (uncredited)
Shoulder Arms (1918) (driver: Mr. Chaplin) (uncredited)
A Dog's Life (1918) (driver: Mr. Chaplin) (uncredited)
The Adventurer (1917/I) (driver: Mr. Chaplin) (uncredited)
The Immigrant (1917) (driver: Mr. Chaplin) (uncredited)
... aka A Modern Columbus (USA)
... aka Broke (USA: 8mm release title (short version))
... aka Hello U.S.A. (USA)
... aka The New World (USA)
The Cure (1917) (driver: Mr. Chaplin) (uncredited)
... aka The Water Cure (USA)
Easy Street (1917) (driver: Mr. Chaplin) (uncredited)
The Rink (1916) (driver: Mr. Chaplin) (uncredited)
... aka Rolling Around (USA)
... aka Waiter (USA)
Behind the Screen (1916) (driver: Mr. Chaplin) (uncredited)
... aka The Pride of Hollywood (USA)
The Pawnshop (1916) (driver: Mr. Chaplin) (uncredited)
... aka At the Sign of the Dollar (USA)
... aka High and Low Finance (USA)
The Count (1916) (driver: Mr. Chaplin) (uncredited)
... aka Almost a Gentleman (USA)
One A.M. (1916) (driver: Mr. Chaplin) (uncredited)
... aka Solo (USA)
The Vagabond (1916) (driver: Mr. Chaplin) (uncredited)
... aka Gipsy Life (USA)
The Fireman (1916) (driver: Mr. Chaplin) (uncredited)
... aka A Gallant Fireman (USA)
... aka The Fiery Circle (USA)
The Floorwalker (1916) (driver: Mr. Chaplin) (uncredited)
... aka Shop (USA)
... aka The Store
----- 1941 -----
Spy LCDR Ohmea allowed to return to Japan so as to keep tabs on his
May 19. Spy Nakauchi intercepted message: "We have already
established contact with absolutely reliable Japanese in San Pedro
and San Diego area, who will keep close watch on all shipments of
airplanes and other war material "
mid-June 1941. Spies LCDR Itaru Tachibana and Toraichi Kono
The Search for Toraichi Kono
By Philip W. Chung
I first came across Toraichi Kono by chance. Several years ago, the
Los Angeles County Museum of Art was showing a retrospective of
Charlie Chaplin's films. I happened to catch Chaplin's 1917 silent
short, The Adventurer, and noticed that the character of the Tramp's
chauffeur in the movie was played by a handsome, young Asian man.
Upon further research, I learned that the role had actually been
played by Chaplin's real-life chauffeur, a Japanese American man
named Toraichi Kono.
For more than 17 years, Kono worked with Chaplin, first as his
driver, and later as his personal valet. Kono was the man who held
the keys to Chaplin's kingdom. (At the time, Chaplin was the most
famous movie star in the world.) He was Chaplin's closest
confidante, his caretaker and according to most accounts, the man
Chaplin trusted more than anyone else.
I remembered that, years ago, I had met Chaplin's daughter, the
great actress Geraldine Chaplin, and she had told me about her
father's Japanese valet and their decades long friendship. Then two
years ago, I was having lunch with Clyde Kusatsu, the Japanese
American actor best known for his roles in films like Farewell to
Manzanar and for playing Margaret Cho's father on All-American Girl.
I casually mentioned what I knew about Kono to Clyde and he
immediately responded to it.
"At a time when Asian Pacific Americans were marginalized, here's
this case of a Japanese man in a position of some power in
Hollywood," Kusatsu said about what attracted him to Kono's
story. "I thought it was important to reclaim a piece of history
that's been all but forgotten."
Clyde recruited two other colleagues Warner Brothers on-line
producer Jason James and Tim Lounibos, one of my co-Artistic
Directors at Lodestone Theatre Ensemble and we decided to produce
a documentary film about the life of Toraichi Kono with the notion
that we would later develop the story into a possible feature-length
narrative film or play.
For almost two years we've been slowly, but surely, researching and
collecting information about Kono.
Kono was born to a wealthy family in Hiroshima and quickly turned
into an "undutiful" son, preferring to hang out with geishas,
gambling and developing a rebellious spirit that members of upper
class Japanese society frowned upon. He was sent to live with family
in Seattle for a year in hopes that he would learn discipline and
obedience, but when he returned to Japan, not much had changed.
Shortly thereafter, Kono ran away from home and managed to both con
his way onto a ship bound for America and convince U.S. immigration
officials to let him into the country.
By all accounts, Kono was a cunning and resourceful individual. Once
in the United States, he hoped to be an aviator, but by now he was
married and had a son. His wife forbade him from flying. Not wanting
to become a farmer or gardener like many of the other Japanese
immigrants, Kono learned to drive and became Charlie Chaplin's
In time, Kono became Chaplin's valet and confidante. Kono was the
man you went to see if you needed something from Charlie Chaplin. It
didn't matter if you were the president or a fellow Hollywood
celebrity, you had to pay respects to Kono if you wanted to get to
Chaplin. Even Chaplin's own family had to make arrangements through
Kono if they wanted an audience with Charlie. In this regard, Kono
had a position of power and direct access to a world that was off-
limits to most Asians living in America at the time.
Kono left Chaplin's employment in the early 1930s because he
couldn't get along with Chaplin's then-wife, actress Paulette
Goddard. After this point, his story gets murkier but also more
interesting. We know he spent a year working in the Tokyo office of
United Artists, but after that things got stranger.
Before the United States entered World War II, Kono was back in the
United States working in some capacity for or with Itaru Tachibana,
a Japanese naval officer who was later arrested and indicted for
spying. Kono, himself, was detained for a period of time as a
possible Japanese spy. After Pearl Harbor, Kono was interned at the
camp in Kooskia, Idaho.
So far, the information we've found about Kono's activities during
this period and beyond has been vague and raises more questions than
Recently, we received word from the California Civil Liberties
Public Education Program (CCLPEP) that they would award us a grant
to start work on our documentary film.