In the spring, the cherry trees bloomed and fulfilled their poetic role as symbols of the impermanence of life by being pelted off the branches by heavy early April downpours within days of blossoming.
The Tokyo spring of 1938 was an unquiet one.
The China Incident, which the Army had promised would be over in three months, continued to drag on, and a shortage of raw materials and foodstuffs was beginning to be felt in the capital.
In a gesture against Britain’s interference in negotiations between Japan and the Chinese National Government, a mob disrupted an art exhibition mounted by the British Council, slashing canvases and vandalizing the premises.
The American Embassy compound was nightly besieged by demonstrators protesting the US government’s hardening attitude toward Japan. Foreigners suspected of British or American nationality were harassed in the streets.
In a combined operation, units of the Kempeitai arrested four hundred Socialists and charged them with violating the Peace Preservation Law of 1925. The offices of the Labor-Farmer Faction were ransacked and all of the windows broken. The leadership of the Marxist Japanese Proletarian Party was rounded up. Card-carrying members of the proletarian Youth League disappeared from their homes.
The purges swelled the population of Sugamo Prison within the walls of which inmates were starved, beaten, and harangued into signing the Tenko, a document in which they recanted their perverted ideologies. On signing, they were judged rehabilitated and released, but many were already broken in body and spirit, and many more would die in the Manchurian holy war and later in the Pacific.
One morning before the April rains began, when the single cherry tree in his garden was at the height of its bloom, an elderly professor of economics at Keio University, a man well-known for his liberal social views, closed his front door and paused on the path to admire the blossom before going off to work.
The tranquility of the Tokyo suburb in which he lived was broken by a squeal of tires as a car pulled up at the gate. A young man dressed in a thin cotton kimono and wielding a sword jumped out of the passenger side, burst through the gate, and pursued the professor back into the house, where he killed him.
By the time the military police arrived, a muted crowd had gathered in the road near the gateway that was guarded by a uniformed officer. The Kempeitai officers found the professor lying in the vestibule of the house. He was dressed in a neat, three-piece suit and still clutched his briefcase. He had been cut deeply across the chest and shoulder by the sword, and his throat was slashed by a dagger.
Azuma was careful to avoid the blood as he stepped around the corpse and poked his head into the living room, from which he heard whispers and muffled voices. It was the professor’s wife being comforted by her neighbors.
He closed the door softly and turned to the police officer in charge for a report of the incident. While Shig took notes, a thin line of blood meandered along the vestibule and dripped off the end into one of the shoes that were lined up there.
Shig was struck by how peaceful the crime scene was. The widow was hardly making any sound at all; the police spoke in whispers, and the crowd outside was silent. Even the ambulance crept along the road without a siren.
Shig and the other Kempeitai officers followed Azuma up the stairs to the professor’s study. Azuma sat down in the fine leather chair behind the desk, flipped open a gold-leafed appointment book, and found in a drawer a large address book and pocket diaries going back three years.
“Well, Professor, what traitors can you lead us to?”
While his men began to search the file cabinets and the cluttered, wall-length bookcase, Azuma uncapped a fountain pen he had found and which he later pocketed, and drew three vertical lines on a sheet of paper. He headed the columns: Follow-up Checks; Surveillance; Arrest.
By noon, all three columns were filled with names, and the office floor had become a mountain of ripped and spine-broken books.
Some files were carted away in cardboard boxes. The rest were torn up and thrown out of the windows, floating down into neighbors’ gardens like cherry blossoms. The desk and the walls were destroyed with a pick-ax in an attempt to locate hidden compartments.
The assailants’ getaway had been botched. The driver took a corner too fast and smashed into a telegraph pole, forcing both men to escape on foot.
In the garden, police found a wooden clog belonging to the killer, with his surname written on the side. They found the same man’s wallet in the glove compartment of the car. The registration of the vehicle was traced to a militant right-wing organization.
In spite of all the evidence, no inquiries were made, no one was arrested, and the murder was attributed to unknown assailants.
Two days later, Shig got the promotion he had been waiting for. He celebrated by buying a new trench coat from the Mitsukoshi Department Store on the Ginza. It was French, made of the softest leather, and he wore it all the time, despite the warming weather.