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THE TWO TELEPHONE company vans moved along the traffic-choked boulevard beside the Imperial Palace at a snail's pace, precisely the speed at which everyone drove. Traffic in Tokyo this June morning was heavy, as usual. Reeking exhaust fumes rose from the packed roadways into the warm, hazy air in shimmering waves.
In the lead van, the driver kept his eyes strictly on the traffic. The driver was in his mid-twenties, and he looked extraordinarily fit in his telephone company one-piece jumper. He wore a blue company billed cap over short, carefully groomed hair. Concentrating fiercely on the traffic around him, he drove with both hands on the steering wheel.
The passenger in the lead van was a few years older than the driver. He, too, wore a one-piece blue jumper and billed cap, both of which sported the company logo. This man examined with sharp, intelligent eyes the stone wall that surrounded the palace grounds.
Between the fifteen-foot wall and the boulevard was a centuries-old moat that still contained water. Atop the wall was a green tangle of trees and shrubs, seemingly impenetrable. There were actually two moats, an outer moat and an inner one, but here and there they had been permanently bridged. In many places, they had just been filled in. Here in the heart of Tokyo, the remaining hundred-foot-wide expanses of water populated with ducks and lined with people were stunning, inviting, an inducement to contemplation.
The passenger of the lead van paid little attention to the open water or the crowds. He was interested in police cars and palace security vehicles, and he mentioned every one he saw to the driver. Occasionally, he checked his watch.
When the two vans had completely circled the royal compound, the man in the cargo area of the lead van spoke a few words into a handheld radio, listened carefully to the reply, then nodded at the man in the passenger seat, who was looking at him. That man patted the driver on the arm twice.
In a few seconds, the vans turned into a service entrance. The inner moat had been filled in here, and the vehicles went through a narrow gate in the wall to a courtyard. A uniformed security officer in a glassed-in guardhouse watched the vehicles park. There were two armed officers by the gate and two by the door of the building. All four of them watched the passenger get out of the lead vehicle and walk over to the guardhouse.
The security officer's little window was already open, apparently for ventilation.
The passenger gave a polite bow, just a head bob. "We are the telephone repairmen. They told us to come this morning."
"Identity cards, please."
The passenger passed them over.
"Yes. I have you on the list." The officer gave the cards back.
"Where should we park?"
"Near the door." He gestured vaguely. "There should be no conflicts. How long will your repairs take?"
"I don't know. We will have to inspect the failure, ensure we have the proper equipment to repair it."
"You must be out of the palace by four o'clock."
"And if we cannot fix it by then?"
"You will have to call the Imperial Household Agency, describe the problem, and make an appointment to return."
"I understand. First, we must diagnose the problem. We have some test equipment to take inside."
The security officer nodded and gestured to the two armed policemen standing near the door.
It took a bit to get the vans parked and unloaded. One of the security officers went over and spoke for a moment to the man in the guardhouse while the telephone men checked their equipment. The four men each hoisted a share. One of the security officers held the door open for them, and another followed them inside.
"I will show you where the problem is," he told the four, then took the lead. "The agency has a telephone technician on the staff. If you wish, I will have him summoned and he can tell you what he learned when he examined the system."
"We may have to do that," the man who had been the passenger in the lead van said. "We will look first."
They went up a staircase to the second floor and down a long corridor. They were inside an equipment room when the garroting wire went over the guard's head, startling him. The wire bit deeply into his neck before he could make a sound. He was struggling against the wire when one of the men, now in front of him, seized his head and twisted it so violently that his neck snapped.
The repairmen took the guard's weight as he went limp. They placed the body in a corner of the room, out of sight of anyone who might come to the door, open it, and look in. The murder had taken no more than sixty seconds.
The men picked up their equipment. Outside in the hallway, the passenger from the van ensured the door was completely shut and latched.
Their rubber-soled shoes made no noise as the four men walked the marble corridors deeper and deeper into the huge palace.
The bubbling, laughing children circled about the empress with carefree abandon. They giggled deliciously as they danced around her arm in arm on the manicured green lawn, among the shrubs and flowers growing riot in lush beds, under a bright sun shining down from a gentle blue sky, while temple bells chimed in the distance. Stately, measured, the bells proclaimed the beauty of an ordered universe.
Emperor Naruhito was probably the only person to pay any attention to the chiming temple bells, which he thought the perfect musical accompaniment to the informal lawn ceremony in front of him. The children's bright, traditional dress contrasted sharply with the deep green grass and captured the eye as they circled around the empress, who was wearing a silk ivory-colored kimono trimmed with exquisite organdy. The other adults were removed a pace or two, ceding center stage to the empress and the happy children. The photographers shooting the scene stationed themselves ever so slightly out of the way. They were dressed in nondescript clothing, rarely moved, and, in the finest tradition of their profession, managed to fade into the scene almost like shadows.
The natural world certainly had an innocent charm that human affairs lacked, the emperor mused bitterly. For weeks now he had been brooding upon the current political situation. The new prime minister, Atsuko Abe, seemed bent on forcing the nation onto a new course, a course that Emperor Naruhito regarded with a growing sense of horror.
The Japanese political situation had been drifting to the right for years, the emperor thought as he watched the empress and the children. He reviewed the sequence yet again, trying to make sense of an avalanche of events that seemed beyond human control.
Each government since the great bank collapse had lasted a short while, then was swept from office and replaced by one even more reactionary. As the emperor saw it, the problem was that politicians were not willing to tell the Japanese people the truth. Their island nation was small, overpopulated, and lacked natural resources. The prosperity of the post-World War II era was built on turning imported raw materials into manufactured products and selling them to the American market at prices American manufacturers could not compete with. Japan's price advantage rested on low labor costs, which eventually disappeared. Sky-high real estate and hyperinflated stock values fell sickeningly as Japan's economic edge evaporated. The government propped up the overextended banking system for a while, but finally it collapsed, nearly bankrupting the government. Then tensions in the Mideast rose to the flash point and the Arabs cut off the sale of oil to force the developed world to pressure Israel.
The oil was flowing once again, but the damage was done. Japan found it could not afford Mideast oil at any price. The yen was essentially worthless, the banking system in ruins, huge industrial enterprises couldn't pay their bills, and disillusioned workers had been laid off in droves.
Maybe the Japanese were doomed. The emperor had moments when cold anxieties seized his heart, and he had one such now.
Perhaps they were all doomed. To be led into the outer darkness by a poisonous ultranationalist like Atsuko Abe, a demagogue preaching against the evils of foreign values and foreign institutions while extolling the virtues of the ancient Japanese nation--was this the Japanese destiny? Was this what the nation had come to?
Ah ... Japan, ancient yet young, fertile yet pure and unspoiled, home for the select of mankind, the Japanese.
If that Japan had ever existed, it was long gone, yet today Abe waved the racial memory like a flag before a dispirited, once-proud people betrayed by everything they trusted. Betrayed, Abe claimed, by Western democracy. Betrayed by bureaucrats. Betrayed by captains of industry ... betrayed by capitalism, an import from a foreign culture....
Japan, Abe thundered, had been betrayed by a people who refused to hold its values dear, the Japanese. They were guilty. And they would have to pay the price.
All of this was political rhetoric. It inflamed half-wits and foreigners and gave newspapers much to editorialize about, but it was only hot air, spewed by Abe and his friends to distance themselves from other, more traditional politicians, and to win votes, which it did. Only when he was firmly ensconced in the prime minister's office, with the reins of power in his hands, did Atsuko Abe began to discuss his true agenda with his closest allies.
Friends of the emperor whispered to him of Abe's ambitions, because they were deeply troubled. Abe's proclamations, they said, were more than rhetoric. He fully intended to make Japan a world power, to do "whatever was required."
Naruhito, always conscious of the fact that the post-World War II constitution limited the throne to strictly ceremonial duties, held his tongue. Still, the burden of history weighed oppressively upon him.
A personal letter from the president of the United States shattered Naruhito's private impasse. "I am deeply concerned," the President said, "that the Japanese government is considering a military solution to aggravating regional and economic problems, a solution that will rupture the peace of the region and may well trigger worldwide conflagration. Such a calamity would have enormous, tragic implications for every human on this planet. As heads of state, we owe our countrymen and our fellow citizens of the planet our best efforts to ensure such an event never occurs."
There was more. Naruhito read the letter with a sense of foreboding. The president of the United States knew more about the political situation in Japan than he, the emperor, did. Obviously, the president got better information.
Near the end of the letter, the president said, "We believe the Abe administration plans an invasion of Siberia to secure a permanent, stable oil supply. The recent appeals of the indigenous Siberian people for Japanese aid in their revolt against the Russians are a mere pretext orchestrated by the Abe government. I fear such an invasion might trigger a world war, the like of which this planet has never seen. A third world war, one more horrible than any conflict yet waged by man, may bring civilization to a tragic end, throwing the world into a new dark age, one from which our species may never recover."
Here, in writing, were the words that expressed the horror the emperor felt as he observed the domestic political situation. Even though he lacked the specific information that the president of the United States had, Naruhito also felt that he was watching the world he knew slide slowly and inexorably toward a horrible doom.
"I am writing you personally," the president concluded, "to ask for your help. We owe it to mankind to preserve the rule of law for future generations. Our worldwide civilization is not perfect; it is a work in progress, made better by every person who obeys the laws and works for his daily bread, thereby contributing to the common good. Civilization is the human heritage, the birthright of all who will come after us."
Naruhito asked the prime minister to call.
Although the emperor had met Atsuko Abe on several occasions since he had become prime minister, he had never before had the opportunity to speak privately with him. Always, there were aides around, functionaries, security people. This time, it was just the two of them, in the emperor's private study.
After the polite preliminaries, the emperor mentioned the letter and gave Abe a copy to read.
Atsuko Abe was unsure how to proceed or just what to say. A private audience with the emperor was an extraordinary honor, one that left him somewhat at a loss for words. Yet this letter ... He knew the Americans had spies--spies and political enemies were everywhere.
"Your Highness, we are at a critical juncture in our nation's history," Atsuko Abe said, feeling his way. "The disruption of our oil supply was the final straw. It wrecked the economy. Japan is in ruins; millions are out of work. We must repair the damage and ensure it never happens again."
"Is it true?" the emperor asked, waving the letter. "Is your government planning an invasion of Siberia?"
"Your Excellency, we have received a humanitarian appeal from the native Siberian people, who are seeking to throw off the Russian yoke. Surely you have been briefed on this development. The justice of their situation is undeniable. Their appeal is quite compelling."
"You are evasive, sir. Now is the time for speaking the blunt truth, not polite evasion."
Abe was astounded. Never had he seen the emperor like this, nor imagined he could be like this.
"The time has come for Japan to assume its rightful place in the world," the prime minister said.
"A superpower," Abe said confidently. He stared boldly at the emperor, who averted his eyes from the challenge on Abe's face.
Then, ashamed, he forced himself to look the prime minister in the eye. "Is it true?" the emperor asked obstinately. "Does Japan plan to invade Siberia?"
"Our hour has come," Abe replied firmly. "We are a small island nation, placed by the gods beside a growing Chinese giant. We must have oil."
"But you have signed an agreement with the Russians! They will sell us oil."
"That, Your Excellency, is precisely the problem. As long as we are buying Russian oil, we are at their mercy. Japan must have its own resources."
The son of an industrialist, Atsuko Abe had spent the first two decades of his adult life in the Japanese Self-Defense Force, the military. Although he was selected for flag rank, he left at an early age and obtained a post in the defense ministry. There Abe made friends with politicians across the spectrum, rose in influence, won promotion after promotion. Finally, he left the bureaucracy and ran for a seat in the Diet, which he won handily. He had been there for almost ten years, surfing the political riptides that surged through the capital.
He was ready now, at sixty-two years of age. This was his moment.
The emperor refused to look away. "Our hour? How dare you? This nation has never been in a shadow. Our way of life is honorable; we have kept faith with our ancestors. Our nation has made mistakes in the past, for which our people have paid dearly, but our honor is unstained. We need no hour of conquest, no triumph of violence, no blood on our hands."
"You are born to your position," Abe said bitterly. "What do you know of struggle, of triumph?"
The emperor fought to maintain his composure. "Russia has nuclear weapons, which the Russians might use to defend themselves. Have you the right to risk the very life of this nation?"
"We are in a grave crisis, Your Excellency."
"Don't patronize me, Prime Minister."
Abe bowed. When he straightened, he said, "Forgive me, Excellency. The fact you do not know is that Japan also is a nuclear power. I am convinced that Russia will not risk nuclear war to retain a wasteland that has never earned her a single yen of profit."
The emperor sat stunned. "Japan has nuclear weapons?" he whispered.
"How? How were these weapons developed and manufactured?"
"With the greatest secrecy. Obviously." The manufacture of these weapons was Abe's greatest triumph, a program reluctantly agreed to by politicians watching their world collapse, then accomplished under a security blanket worthy of Joseph Stalin.
"The government did this without the consent of the Diet? Without the knowledge and consent of the Japanese people? In violation of the constitution and the laws?"
Abe merely bowed his head.
"What if you are wrong about Russia?" the emperor demanded. "Answer me that. What if Russia retaliates with nuclear weapons?"
"The risk is as great for Russia as it is for Japan, and Russia has less at stake."
"They may not see the equation as you do, Prime Minister."
Abe said nothing.
The emperor was too astonished to go further. The man is mad, he thought. The prime minister has gone completely mad.
After a bit, the emperor recovered his voice sufficiently to ask, "What do you suggest I tell the president of the United States in answer to his letter?"
Abe made an irritated gesture. "Ignore it. No answer is necessary, Your Excellency. The president does not know his place."
Naruhito shook his head ponderously from side to side. "My grandfather, Hirohito, received a letter from President Roosevelt on the eve of World War Two, pleading for peace. Hirohito did not answer that letter. He refused to intervene with the government. All my life, I have wondered how history might have been different had my grandfather spoken up for what he believed."
"Emperor Hirohito believed that the government was acting in the nation's best interests."
"Perhaps he did. I am not convinced that your government is now."
Abe shook himself. He had come too far, endured too much. He faced the emperor like a sumo wrestler. "The government must speak for you, and the nation, which are the same. That is the law."
"Do not speak to me of law. Not after what you have told me."
Abe pounded his chest. "You reign, I rule. That is the Japanese way."
Abe took several deep breaths to compose himself. "If you will give me a copy of the letter, I will have the foreign minister prepare a reply."
The emperor didn't seem to hear. He continued, thinking aloud: "In this era of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, war is obsolete. It is no longer a viable political option. The nation that plunges headlong into war in the twenty-first century will, I fear, merely be committing national suicide. Death, sir, is most definitely not Japan's destiny. Death is final and eternal, whether it comes slowly, from natural causes, or swiftly, in a spectacular blaze of glory. Life, sir, must be our business. Life is our concern."
Before Abe could think of a polite reply, the emperor added softly, "You carry a very heavy burden, Prime Minister. You carry the hopes and dreams of every Japanese alive today and those of our honored ancestors. You literally carry Japan upon your back."
"Your Excellency, I am aware of my responsibilities," Atsuko Abe retorted, as politely as he could. He struggled to keep a grip on his temper. "Keenly aware," he added through clenched teeth.
"In your public speeches that I have read, sir, you speak as if Japan's destiny were as obvious as the rising sun on a clear morning," Emperor Naruhito said without rancor. "I suggest you consult the representatives of the people in the Diet before you make any major commitments."
He could think of nothing else to say to this fool facing him....
"Follow the law," the emperor added. That was always excellent advice, but ...
"The Japanese are a great people," the emperor told the prime minister, to fill the silence. "If you keep faith with them, they will have faith in you."
Abe forced his head down in a gesture of respect. The skin on his head was tan, the hair cropped short.
Naruhito could stand no more of this scoundrel. He rose stiffly, bowed, and walked from the room.
That had been two days ago.
Naruhito had forsaken his ceremonial, almost-mystical position as head of state to speak the truth as he believed it, for the good of the nation. He had never done that before, but Abe ... advocating the unthinkable ... telling the emperor to his face what his duty was--never in his life had Naruhito been so insulted. The memory of Abe's words still burned deeply.
He had written a letter to the president of the United States, written it by hand because he did not wish to trust a secretary.
The truth was bitter: He could not affect events.
The children were singing now, led by Naruhito's wife, Masako. A flush of warmth went through the emperor as he regarded her, his dearly beloved wife, his empress, singing softly, leading the children.
Truly, he loved life. Loved his wife, his people, his nation ... this Japanese nation. His life, the nation's life, they were all bound up together, one and inseparable. A profound sense of loss swept over him. Time is running out....
Captain Shunko Kato stood concealed by a curtain at a second-floor window in the Imperial Palace, watching the ceremony on the lawn below. Behind him stood the other three erstwhile telephone repairmen, his men, standing motionless, seemingly at perfect ease. They weren't, Kato knew. He could feel the tension, tight as a violin string. Military discipline held them motionless, silent, each man in communion only with his thoughts.
The sunlight coming through the window made a lopsided rectangle on the floor. Kato looked at the sunlit floor, the great frame that held the window, the hedge, the lawn, the people, the bold, brazen sky above....
He was seeing all this for the last time. Ah, but to dwell on his personal fate was unworthy. Kato brushed the thought away and concentrated on the figures before him on the lawn.
There was the emperor, shorter than the average Japanese male at five feet four, erect, carrying a tummy. Surrounding the group were security officers in civilian clothes--most of these men had their backs to the ceremony.
Kato retreated a few inches. He ensured he was concealed by the shadow of the drape, hidden from the observation of anyone on the lawn who might look at this window. Satisfied, he scanned the security guards quickly, taking in their state of alertness at a glance; then he turned his attention back to the royal party.
The emperor stood slightly in front of a group of officials, watching the empress and the children, seemingly caught up in the simple ritual. No doubt he was. He certainly had nothing else to worry about. The emperor, Kato was sure, was quite oblivious to the desperation that had ravaged so many lives since the bank collapse. How could it be otherwise? The emperor certainly didn't move in ordinary circles.
Yet the man must read newspapers, occasionally watch television. How could he miss the corruption of the politicians, the bribes, the influence peddling, the stench of scandal after scandal? Could he not see the misery of the common people, always loyal, always betrayed?
He never spoke out against corruption, avarice, greed. Never. And never condemning, he silently approved.
Kato felt his chest swelling with indignation. Oh, that they called such a man "Son of Heaven!" An extraordinary obscenity.
The empress was saying good-bye to the children. The ceremony was ending.
Kato turned, surveyed his men. Still wearing the blue jumpers and caps of the telephone company, they were as fit as professional athletes, lean, with ropy muscles and easy, fluid movements. Kato had trained them, hardened them, made them soldiers in the Bushido tradition. In truth, he was proud of them, and now that pride showed on his face. The men looked back at him with faces that were also unable to conceal their emotion.
"For Japan," he said softly, just loudly enough for them to hear.
"For Japan." Their lips moved soundlessly, for he had told them to make no sound. Still, the reply echoed in Kato's ears.
"Banzai," he mouthed.
"Banzai!" The silent reply lashed his soul.
The security guards escorted the emperor and empress toward the door of the Imperial Palace. One of them held it open for the emperor, who always preceded his wife by two paces. The security men did not enter the hallway; they remained outside. The entire palace was inside a security zone.
Inside the building, away from other eyes, the emperor paused to let Masako reach his side. She flashed him a grin, a very un-Japanese gesture, but then she had spent years in the United States attending college before their marriage. He dearly enjoyed seeing her grin, and he smiled his pleasure.
She took his arm and leaned forward, so that her lips brushed his cheek. His smile broadened.
Arm in arm, they walked down the hall to the end, then turned right.
Four men stood silently, waiting. They blocked the hallway.
The emperor stopped.
One of the men moved noiselessly to position himself behind the royal couple, but the others did not give way. Nor, the emperor noted with surprise, did they bow. Not even the tiniest bob.
Naruhito looked from face to face. Not one of the men broke eye contact.
"Yes?" he said finally.
"Your wife may leave, Your Excellency," said one of the men. His voice was strong, even, yet not loud.
"Who are you?" asked the emperor.
"I am Captain Shunko Kato of the Japanese Self-Defense Force." Kato bowed deeply from the waist, but none of the other men moved a muscle. "These enlisted men are under my command."
"By whose authority are you here?"
"By our own."
Naruhito felt his wife's hand tighten on his arm. He looked again from face to face, waiting for them to look away as a gesture of respect. None of them did.
"Why are you here?" the emperor asked finally. He realized that time was on his side, not theirs, and he wished to draw this out as long as possible.
Kato seemed to read his thoughts. "We are here for Japan," Kato said crisply, then added, "The empress must leave now."
Naruhito could read the inevitable in their faces. Although the thought did not occur to Captain Kato, Naruhito had as much courage as any man there. He turned toward the empress.
"You must go, dear wife."
She stared into his face, panic-stricken. Both her hands clutched his arm in a fierce grip.
He leaned toward her and whispered, "We have no choice. Go, and know I love you."
She tore her eyes from him and swept them around the group, looking directly into the eyes of each man. Three of them averted their gaze.
Then she turned and walked back toward the lawn.
From a decorative table nearby, Kato took a samurai sword, which the emperor had not previously noticed. With one swift motion, the officer withdrew the blade from the sheath.
"For Japan," he said, grasping the handle with both hands.
The sword was very old, the emperor noticed. Hundreds of years old. His heart was audibly pounding in his ears. He looked again at each face. They were fanatics.
Resigned, Emperor Naruhito sank to his knees. He would not let them see him afraid. Thank heavens his hands were not trembling. He closed his eyes and cleared his thoughts. Enough of these zealots. He thought of his wife and his son and daughter.
The last thing he heard was the slick whisper of the blade whirring through the air.
Masako walked slowly toward the door where just seconds ago she and her husband had entered the palace. Every step was torture, agony....
The men were assassins.
Masako, in her horror, had sensed it the moment she saw them. They had no respect; their faces registered extraordinary tension--not like loyal subjects meeting their emperor and his wife, but like assassins.
She knew her nation's history, of course, knew how assassins had plagued rulers and politicians in times of turmoil, how they always murdered for Japan--as if their passionate patriotism could excuse the blood, could excuse slashing the life from men who had little or no control over the events that fired the murderers--then atoned for their crimes in orgies of ritual suicide.
The bloody melodrama was terrible theater, yet most Japanese loved it, reveled in it, were inspired by it. Ancient racial memories were renewed with flowing fresh red blood. New sacrifices propitiated savage urges ... and mesmerized the audience.
Patriotic murder was sadistic, Masako thought, an obscene perversion that surfaced when the world pressed relentlessly in upon the Japanese, as it had in the 1930s, as it had in December 1941, as it apparently was ...
She could scarcely place one foot in front of another.
Oh, Naruhito, beloved husband, that we should have to face this ... and I should not be at your side....
She turned and hurried back toward her husband. Toward the evil that awaited them both.
She ran, the length of her stride constrained by her skirt.
Just before she reached the corner, she heard the singing of the sword and then the sickening thunk as it bit into flesh.
She turned the corner in time to see her husband's head rolling along the floor and his upright torso toppling forward.
She saw no more. Despite her pain--or perhaps because of it--she passed out, collapsed in a heap.
Shunko Kato did not look again at the emperor's corpse. There was little time, and staring at the body of a man who had failed Japan would be wasting it.
He arranged a letter on the table where the sword had rested. The letter was written in blood, the blood of each man there, and they had all signed it.
Kato knelt and drew his knife. He looked at his chief NCO, who was standing beside him, his pistol in his hand. "Banzai," he said.
Kato stabbed the knife to the hilt in his own stomach.
The sergeant raised his pistol and shot Kato in the back of the head. Blood and brains flew from the captain's head. The sound of the shot made a stupendous thunderclap in the hallway. In the silence that followed, he could hear the tinny sound of the spent cartridge skittering across the floor.
Air escaping from the captain's body made an audible sound, but the sergeant was paying no attention.
He looked at his comrades. They, too, had their pistols out.
Brave men, doing what had to be done.
The sergeant took a deep breath, then raised the barrel of his pistol to his own head. The others did the same. The sergeant inadvertently squeezed his eyes shut just before he pulled the trigger.