Authors: Stephen Coonts
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 postâWorld 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 nationâwas this the Japanese destiny? Was this what the nation had come to?
Ahâ¦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 industryâ¦betrayed by capitalism, an import from a foreign cultureâ¦.
Japan, Abe thundered, had been betrayed by a people who refused to hold its values dear, the Japanese.
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 letterâ¦He knew the Americans had spiesâspies 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