IT contains all the elements of a political thriller: family squabbles, power struggles, duplicity and murder. It involves a huge pile of treasure - bullion worth billions stashed all over the world - and secret operations to retrieve it. It promises a sequel. And best of all, it is all true. So say Sterling and Peggy Seagrave, in their latest work, The Yamato Dynasty (Bantam Press, $150), an incisive biography of five generations of Japan's imperial family since the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Their most controversial claims, however, centre on the country's longest-reigning emperor, Hirohito, who died in 1989. The book claims to reveal for the first time the imperial family's alleged role in Japan's wartime looting of Asia - a covert operation named Golden Lily that was headed by Prince Chichibu, a brother of Hirohito, and involved the military, the secret service, underworld figures and businessmen. It aims to expose the extent to which Washington and Tokyo supposedly collaborated to keep this secret and deceive the world into thinking the fighting had left Japan too poor to compensate its victims meaningfully. It dashes once and for all assumptions that the imperial family was a fossilised symbol removed from day-to-day decisions during the war. It also says that the people involved in Hirohito's exoneration of war crimes - including General Douglas MacArthur and former US president Herbert Hoover - walked away from the occupation with huge amounts of gold. 'I think this is going to turn out to be one of the great scandals of the century,' Sterling Seagrave says matter-of-factly. In a phone interview from his home in Europe, the former journalist explains how he and his wife first stumbled across information that would lead them on an 18-year investigation of the Japanese imperial family. He tiptoes around exactly where he lives because of possible retaliation over the latest revelations. 'In the course of working on a book about the Marcoses [The Marcos Dynasty] we discovered how much of the Japanese war loot Ferdinand Marcos had recovered,' Seagrave says. 'At the time we didn't really understand too well how the looting operation had occurred during World War II. We assumed there was collaboration between the Japanese army and the Japanese underworld. It was only after we published the book that we realised there were a number of imperial princes involved in the looting.' While Japan's war aggression is well documented, much less has been written about its plundering and the people killed to keep hideaways secret. According to the Seagraves, many POWs prisoners of war and Japanese soldiers were buried alive in vaults they dug for the booty, which included gold bullion, gems and artefacts. Others died when the ships they were on were scuttled so the treasure could be hidden at sea. That it has taken so long for the imperial family to be implicated is not surprising because, according to Seagrave, 'nobody had looked beyond Hirohito himself'. Seagrave says nobody had done a study of Prince Chichibu, who until now was believed to have sat out the war recuperating from tuberculosis in an estate near Mount Fuji, or Prince Takeda, a cousin of Hirohito who, Seagrave says, oversaw the collection and concealment of Japan's war loot, or any of the others, like Prince Asaka, an uncle of Hirohito who commanded the rape of Nanking. The authors contend that Hirohito appointed Chichibu head of Golden Lily (named after one of the emperor's poems) in 1940, with Takeda as his deputy. According to their sources - participants and other eyewitnesses, as well as Chichibu's retinue - the two apparently travelled to China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Malaya, Singapore, Sumatra, Java, Borneo and the Philippines, looting treasures and supervising their transport to Japan using ships disguised with hospital crosses. The imperial family's actual role in Golden Lily was never apparent for several reasons, Seagrave says. 'For example, Prince Takeda used a nom de guerre everywhere he worked in Asia during the war, so people who came into contact with him knew him by different names. This has taken us nearly 20 years to figure out,' he says. But the couple was able to pinpoint Takeda and others by putting together information gleaned from various sources. 'People who described Takeda to us physically knew he was a prince, but they didn't know which prince he was and weren't quite sure what his relationship was to Hirohito,' Seagrave says. 'It turned out there were actually uncles, cousins and brothers all there [involved in the plundering] at the same time.' After the war, the story takes a more sinister turn when US forces led by MacArthur occupied Japan, raising expectations that, among other things, democracy would flourish, the zaibatsu conglomerates that had bankrolled Japan's warmongering would be dissolved, and the guilty would be brought to justice. But those hopes proved premature when Allied investigators proclaimed - falsely, the Seagraves say - Japan to be bankrupt, removing from it the duty of paying meaningful reparations. In comparison with Germany, which has provided US$30 billion (HK$233 billion) in compensation over the years, Japan has paid only US$2 billion. According to Seagrave, 'British PoWs received only US$48 each. Most victims got zero'. MacArthur also allowed Hirohito's own accountants to audit the emperor's wealth - which they hugely underestimated at US$100 million, a point that has been noted by others. In addition the Supreme Commander Allied Powers announced that after taxes and other penalties, Hirohito had only US$42,000 in cash - a laughable figure in the Seagraves' opinion. Not only did the imperious general downplay Japan's and the emperor's net worth but, the authors contend, he went out of his way to make Hirohito seem innocent of any war crimes by forcing wartime prime minister General Hideki Tojo and other officers to perjure themselves by claiming exclusive responsibility for the war. But MacArthur was not alone. His aide, General Bonner Fellers, Hoover, and US ambassador to Japan Joseph Grew were also in on the conspiracy to exonerate Hirohito, the Seagraves say. And Hirohito was not the only member of the imperial household to escape punishment. None of his family was tried for war crimes. Why the deception? MacArthur and a clique of right-wing Americans (financiers included) wanted Hirohito to remain in power so they could hold him hostage to their demands, the authors argue. They needed to protect US interests in Japan, including massive loans and business investments made before the war. They also wanted a shield against communist expansion in the East. 'Hoover wanted conservative, anti-communist Japan to be America's political, commercial and financial ally in Asia,' the Seagraves write. 'Tokyo would be the Asian base for the Republican Party and its Wall Street supporters.' Even if the sham had stopped there, Tokyo and Washington would have enough reason now to take up the cudgels; there is likely to be a surge of reparation claims, for one. But there is more. The Seagraves contend that while Washington was declaring Japan to be insolvent, between 1945 and 1948 agents of the Office of Strategic Services (which became the CIA in 1947) and US Army officers were led by an OSS officer, Severino Garcia Santa Romana, in the recovery of billions of dollars worth of war loot from mountain caves in the Philippines. Gold bullion emptied from vaults were deposited in 176 bank accounts in 42 countries, they add. And some of this bounty ended up lining the pockets of Hoover and MacArthur. 'The loot was earmarked for secret anti-communist operations during the Cold War,' Seagrave says. 'What this means is that there is now incontrovertible evidence of collusion between America and Japan, while millions of war victims went without any form of compensation to this day.' Seagrave's calm, steady voice belies the excitement he must have felt when he found what he says is proof of this unholy alliance. 'It's only as this book began to come into its final form [in the past two years] that things dovetailed - to the extent we knew beyond question there had been collusion,' he says. 'We were doing research at the Hoover Library in California and the MacArthur Memorial Library in Norfolk, Virginia. At both places we suddenly came across documents, personal notes, diaries, entries and also some annotations that confirmed the link between General MacArthur's staff in Tokyo and the people in the Philippines making these recoveries. That . . . led us to the bank documents that showed the Japanese war loot in bank accounts in the name of Herbert Hoover and of General MacArthur.' How much did they profit from the war? 'We know that when Herbert Hoover died, his son had to get permission from the American Treasury to sell US$100 million in gold bullion that was in his father's bank account,' says Seagrave, adding that he has yet to calculate the exact amount MacArthur had in his account. But, he continues, 'we do know MacArthur had an account with millions of dollars in gold in it at the Hong Kong branch of the Sanwa Bank. He held this account jointly with Hirohito. If that isn't collusion at the highest level . . .' According to Seagrave, the US has kept its role 'in all of this very, very secret'. But, 'we got some documents connected to the CIA, who were involved in the Santa Romana bank accounts. These were people who in the last 20 years or so have been trying to get their hands on some of the gold deposits, for their own benefit'. What are their names? 'I'd rather leave that for the next book,' Seagrave says, estimating that the sequel, which will focus on the revelations about Golden Lily, will be out in 18 months. 'I need to have enough documentation so that I can't get challenged at this point legally.' Seagrave's caution is understandable, considering the furore this book could cause in Washington and in Tokyo (though, to date, there has been nothing but stony silence). Already, however, the wheels of justice may be starting to turn with new legal action being taken by war victims. 'What's happening now is that various PoWs and their lawyers are grouping together in what could become something equivalent to the tobacco industry class-action suit,' Seagrave says. 'I think it could end up being a suit against the zaibatsu on the one hand and the Japanese Government on the other. 'But, eventually, I think it's going to involve the US Government for collusion.' The Seagraves are also taking no chances by revealing before they are ready the names of other players in this game of political poker. No doubt they will also sleep easier as their web of researchers and sources expands. 'There might be people who become outraged and decide we have to be murdered but it's not going to be that easy . . . murdering me is not going to stop this story coming out.' After Seagrave's 1986 publication of The Soong Dynasty, in which he revealed Chiang Kai-shek's underworld links, he and his family went into hiding because of death threats. Seagrave, who grew up in Burma and has spent his career investigating East-West history, is also the author of Lords Of The Rim, which is about overseas-Chinese networks. Peggy Seagrave, with whom he worked to produce Dragon Lady, a book about the Dowager Empress Ci Xi, will be collaborating on the sequel to The Yamato Dynasty. No doubt treasure hunters will take a close interest. As the Seagraves point out: 'In the Japanese holocaust, millions were killed and billions were stolen, but the loot vanished. One of the great mysteries is what happened to the billions of dollars' worth of treasure confiscated by the Japanese army from a dozen conquered countries.' Chichibu had much of the plunder sent to him in the Philippines, where it was hidden in 172 'imperial' locations for later shipment to Japan, the authors say. In Japan, loot was stashed in several places, including Nagano, where the 1998 Winter Olympics were held. 'We have no idea how much made its way to Japan, either overland from China, through Korea or by sea,' says Seagrave, who believes it is with this secret fund that the zaibatsu financed Japan's post-war economic 'miracle'. He also contends a member of the imperial family has confided that the army had amassed more than US$100 billion in loot (in 1945 dollars), much of it salted away in the Philippines, where 'it will take a century to uncover'. Seagrave also believes 'there are small repositories all over the place, because individual officers or groups of officers managed to siphon off a certain amount of loot'. 'The equivalent of what were then the imperial sites in the Philippines are known to exist in Sumatra, Java, Borneo and the Celebes. It's possible there were some in Malaya as well,' he says. Seagrave says it is hard to say where else the loot may be hidden, because in many cases wartime inventories fell into the hands of the Marcoses or those who worked with them. 'But we have photographic evidence of site maps of these 172 sites and we know one-third of them that have not been recovered,' he says. As to why countries have not made concerted efforts to reclaim their stolen property, the Seagraves in part blame the tumultuous scramble for independence after the war. But they also point to ongoing operations - in the Philippines, for instance, groups are trying to uncover loot at an army base in Rizal, southeast of Manila. In Nagano, however, Seagrave says: 'I think the loot has simply been left there as national treasure.' Perhaps it will be needed if Seagrave's dream is to come true. 'All these people who've been cruelly treated and whose lives have been deformed by their experience during the war were simply cheated, very often by their own governments after the war in collusion with Japan,' he says. 'I hope the war victims in the end get what they should have had all along, which is some justice.'