The sound of the single gunshot did not reach the Akasaka Palace on the morning of September 28, although the bullet very easily could have penetrated the home of Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito and Princess Masako. Fired a mere 70 metres from the residence of the heir to the Chrysanthemum throne, the weapon was the sidearm of a member of the Imperial Guard. Still in his uniform, the 19-year-old guard had turned the weapon on himself. The unexplained suicide has turned a spotlight on the cloistered lives of the 900-member Imperial Guard, amid claims of bullying and scrutiny of the intense pressure associated with their sworn duty. When the guard was found at midday, the prince and princess were at the palace while their daughter, four-year-old Princess Aiko, was having her lunch at the nearby Gakushuin Kindergarten. 'There must be a lot of pressure in that job and I am sure this young man would have felt the responsibility of guarding the imperial family very heavily on his shoulders,' said Yukio Saito, executive director of the Lifeline telephone suicide hotline. 'We will probably never know what caused him to kill himself, but bullying is a definite possibility in an organisation such as that, as well as pressure from the media, who are always interested in what goes on inside the palace.' The guard's colleagues only realised something was amiss when he failed to arrive for his watch duty. Discovered slumped over the cistern in a toilet cubicle of an outpost just after noon, the bullet casing lying on the floor, the guard - who has not been identified - was rushed to the nearby Keio Hospital but pronounced dead soon after. The close-knit ranks of the elite corps who protect the imperial family have been rocked by the unexplained suicide. The young guard had only joined the Imperial Guard detachment in February. 'We do not know why he chose to commit suicide,' said Mitsuo Koibuchi, a spokesman for the Imperial Guard, which comes under the aegis of the Imperial Household Agency. 'No suicide note was left behind and we have uncovered no suggestion of bullying within the ranks of the guard.' He refused to comment further, except to emphasise: 'There was at no time any danger to any members of the imperial family.' The men and women who serve in the guard undergo 10 months of training at the Imperial Guard College before starting their duties, learning the skills required of bodyguards as well as the traditional Japanese arts of calligraphy, poetry, flower arranging and the tea ceremony. Required to travel abroad with the imperial family and attend state events, some have even been roped into games of tennis with their royal charges. The guards are considered loyal, intelligent and proud of their task. On the other hand, the sense of belonging to an organisation rather than being an individual was more pervasive than in an ordinary Japanese company, and the required level of self-discipline had to be very stressful, Mr Saito said.