Isao’s youthful legs burned from kneeling since dawn. It wasn't acceptable to shift positions in front of the Emperor. In three years at the palace, the divine one had never spoken to him, yet had never complained about him either.
The sovereign had been woken early to receive General Honjo and Minister Yuasa, who arrived with news of a coup. Soldiers filled with nationalistic fervor had mutinied and overrun the capital.
The barrel chested General Honjo stood ramrod straight in a uniform covered with medals. He bellowed, “The Righteous Battalion has taken over Parliament, and requests that you rule the country directly, and we as a nation put an end to this farce of politicians and political parties.”
Next to the General, Minister Yuasa advised in a more solicitous tone, “Emperor, may I suggest we judiciously weigh events and follow the protocol which has protected the very survival of this Court for thousands of years.”
General Honjo retorted, “Indecision would be foolhardy. The rebel forces support you the Emperor, for now.” He bowed to the Emperor and walked out, rapping his walking stick on the ground in front of the courtesans.
Isao shuddered but didn’t flinch. That would not be acceptable in front of the divine ruler. Minister Yuasa left shortly after the General, and the room fell silent.
Normally, the Emperor had never addressed junior courtesans, but today he curiously scanned their faces. His eyes stopped on Isao.
“What is your name and position, boy?”
“Heavenly Emperor, I am Alternate 2nd Assistant to the Vice Chamberlain, Isao, at your service...”
“That’s enough,” Hirohito said curtly, “take your body out of this court and go seek out what’s happening in the city and report back to me. You are not to tell anyone you are on an errand for the palace, understand?”
“Yes, yes.” Isao fumbled with his words, confused how to reply at the right level of politeness after being spoken to so directly. Isao bowed deeply and walked backward out the entrance door, and kept walking backwards until he exited the second chamber.
On his way out of the palace, he heard a voice booming from the Chrysanthemum hall. General Honjo was discussing politics with Minister Yuasa out of earshot of the Emperor.
“It's unbelievable in 1936, today’s Modern Girls are wearing Western clothes and dresses above ankle length. If things continue this way, who knows what the country will be like by 1940!”, General Honjo said.
“But General, when the people began to eat ice cream and drink coffee back in the 1920s, everyone said THAT would be the end of Japanese culture. Now look, it's 1936, and Japanese are still eating sushi and drinking miso soup, aren’t they?” Minister Yuasa said.
“You know that's not the same thing as the moral decline of our young people,” shouted the General louder.
“I can’t believe we’re arguing over this. There’s a hostile army outside the gate.”
“That’s not a hostile army. The Righteous Battalion wants to bring back the old traditions, Duty, Honor, Respect.”
“They are brainwashed recruits led by fanatic officers. They will bring nothing but chaos.”
Their argument over modern morals and military ethics rattled around through seemingly unconnected topics. Isao thought of the imported American washing machine installed below the Servants Quarters.
Isao wouldn’t get any useful information from the General and the Minister, just one-sided dogma. He needed to find people who could give him information free of high rhetoric. Working class people.
In the annex, he removed his silk court robes and wooden slippers and put on a gardener's working clothes. Outside the palace building around the corner from the main gate he saw a policeman smoking a cigarette.
Isao bowed ever so slightly as is the habit of the common people, then lit a cigarette of his own.
“So, how bad is it out there?”
The policeman hissed air in through his teeth, the Japanese gesture for a difficult situation.
“It depends on if you think young people can shoot straighter than old men.” The officer tried to laugh as he touched his glasses. “There are 700 soldiers out there that look fresh out of bootcamp. And they’re being led by a manic officer who keeps shouting nonsense about the divine emperor’s destiny.”
“Umm.” The Japanese language has many words for stating vague agreement.
“And they shot the Prime Minister dead at 5am today.”
“That is not a small deal,” Isao said. The Japanese language has many words for understating extraordinary events.
“This is not a good thing for any of us,” said the policeman, who had lived a life of service and looked resigned to whatever fate had in store for him.
Isao thanked him politely and bowed, much lower than the first time.
Isao did his rounds and confirmed with a few other people what the policeman had said, then returned to the Emperor’s reception hall.
When he had his opening to speak he said, “Emperor, a military uprising has indeed taken the capitol, and they have men at the Sakashita Gate”
The Emperor of Heaven nodded and said, “Tell me the worst part.”
"They have assassinated Prime Minister Okada.”
“That’s not a small deal!” the Emperor’s passive expression slipped into something more human and anxious, just for a second.
Isao pondered that for decades the court’s main focus was on occupying and distracting the Emperor with tea ceremonies, receptions, awards for school children and soldiers, meetings with foreign dignitaries. They did all this because when the Emperor occasionally turned his attention to trying to direct the nation, through Imperial edicts and so on, it would cause problems for the people who actually ran things, and once the Emperor moved on to another distraction, everyone would need to do a lot of work to minimize the repercussions afterward.
But now, they might possibly need the Emperor’s active leadership.
“The rebels have another request, to have a meeting to ask for your support.”
The Emperor stared at Isao with his calm smile.
“How many soldiers do they have?”
“700, with rifles.”
“How many do we have?”
“50, mostly with pistols.”
“Tell them the Emperor does not have time today and will see them tomorrow.”
If they were fighting to have the Emperor elevated to a higher position in the nation, they certainly couldn’t turn down his rescheduling request, could they? On the other hand, if they had just shot half the government dead they could also change their mind about who they wanted to support. The Emperor thought warily of General Honjo.
While the emperor was thinking, Isao looked at the morning newspaper full of yesterday’s uneventful news. It was dated Feb 26th 1936.
The Emperor got his attention again.
“History repeats! The same thing happened in 1932. They shot the Prime Minister that time too.” The emperor made a throat cutting gesture.
Isao tried not to laugh. After three years of tedious paperwork arranging receptions for people who would never return to the palace, at least this was exciting.
Later in the morning, the police commander Isao had met with earlier let him know that the rebel forces who went to assassinate Prime Minister Okada were holding a picture of the Prime Minister. His brother-in-law, in the house at the time, unfortunately looked very much like him, and they shot him instead. They shot the wrong man and were parading his body in front of the Prime Ministers house.
The real Prime Minister was hiding under a bed in the servants quarters and awaiting a chance to escape. The house was still surrounded by soldiers from the Righteous Battalion.
Immediately after Isao received this news, he requested a reception with the Emperor.
“The Prime Minister has been located alive, and is in a safe location.”
“Where is he?” the Emperor asked Isao.
No one had trained Isao for this occasion. If he told the Emperor and the Emperor let the Prime Minister's whereabouts slip to someone like General Honjo, his end might come about swiftly. And if the Prime Minister was dead, the Emperor would have no choice but to accede to the rebels' demands.
Isao bowed with regret. “I don’t have that information.”
The Emperor nodded and said, "Now that the Prime Minister has been saved, I order the full power of the Japanese Imperial Army to crush the rebellion with haste.”
With the Emperor's word, the gears of the Japanese State swung into action. A police operation rescued the Prime Minister from under his bed. Then the vast bureaucracy who collected salaries and didn’t spend much time thinking about political idealism followed their new orders. Police opened armories, the Army marched in Divisions, the Navy moved warships and landing forces. The next day, the 2,000 rebels found themselves surrounded by 20,000 government’s soldiers. When the rebels heard the rumble of the Army’s tanks moving into position, they surrendered without a fight.
The Emperor was relieved. If the Righteous Battalion had gotten their way, he would have been appointed the administrator of the nation. All that deciding of mundane details would have been deeply tiring. After greeting the new parliamentary session and giving them his divine blessing, he could return to gardening.
When you can receive the glory without getting blamed for everything that goes wrong, that's a far better option.
Three weeks later, Isao, 2nd Assistant to the Vice Chamberlain, busied himself helping to prepare another awards ceremony.
The Emperor addressed the soldiers of Tokyo’s 1st Army Division, the source of the Righteous Battalion who had all been returned to their posts, and commended them for their patriotism and loyalty to the Emperor. In acknowledgement of their dedication to the nation they were to be sent to Manchuria on the glorious mission of defending the Japanese empire from the treacherous Russian Bolsheviks.
In the coming years, Isao was sad to see that after the supporters of the Righteous Battalion had been purged from the Army, in order to absorb the popularity of their movement, the previously less militant Army bureaucracy adopted much of their aggressive rhetoric. The Emperor, beholden to the Army’s support, could no longer question their actions in China as he did before, and Isao watched as the nation slowly moved toward senseless war.