From 1965 to 1985 my wife and I and our two daughters lived in a modern house we had built in Bethesda, Maryland. Several years after ours went up, a house was constructed on the lot next door and put up for sale. It was a big Federal colonial that sat empty for some months and then was bought by the Japanese Embassy to house their finance minister.
These diplomats were good neighbors, though very formal. Each of them —there were three ministers in turn during the years we lived there—came to pay a courtesy call shortly after moving in, greeted us with warm formality whenever we saw one another outside, and had us over for at least one formal dinner party. I grew accustomed to seeing, while I was working on some chore at the head of my driveway, the ministers, members of their families, and various servants, men and women young and old, coming, going, or working about outside.
The time came when Emperor Hirohito came to Washington on a state visit. This was a very big deal. The Emperor of Japan rarely made state visits, and never to the United States. There were fears that lingering animosities from World War II might induce demonstrations or even a rash act by some deranged person. Exceptional security precautions were taken for the emperor’s safety, especially at Blair House, the residence across the street from the White House where our most important state visitors are put up.
During the week of Hirohito’s visit, I saw unusual levels of activity across the driveway. Big black cars were coming and going, and there were always one or two parked in their drive. They seemed to have added some servants. Whenever I happened to be outside they had people about: maids going in and out of the kitchen, chauffeurs standing around, an elderly fellow wearing a cardigan working in the gardens, cutting flowers, and always burly young men in dark glasses muttering into their lapels. The servants, even the new ones, smiled and nodded as ever. The young men didn’t. The activity is hardly surprising, I thought. The minister must be going to official functions day and night and maybe entertaining there in the house as well. Once the emperor’s visit was over, things quickly got back to normal.
A few years later we were at a dinner party given by the most recent minister. After the meal the minister got expansive. “You know,” he said, smiling at me, “I must tell you something. When our emperor visited Washington, our two governments were so concerned with his safety that although we made everyone believe he was staying at Blair House, he really stayed here in this house the whole time.”
Well, of course. All that activity and all those people. The emperor was there. Every time I took out the garbage that week, I realized, or came out to do some chore or wash the car, what those guys with the black aviator glasses had been muttering into their lapels was “Relax. It’s only the dentist next door.”
And then I thought of the old man working in the garden. I never saw him before that week; I never saw him after. A personal equerry of the emperor, perhaps? Or a valet or a butler? Probably. Except, who knows? I’ve read that Hirohito was a putterer. Maybe while the governments of two great powers spent great efforts protecting him, he came out and cut flowers for the house. Maybe that old gentleman in the cardigan nodding politely to the dentist across the driveway was the Emperor of Japan.