Historical Fiction

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.

July 08, 2022 14:45

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15:02 Jul 08, 2022

This story is tightly based on the historical events of the Feb 26th Incident in Japan in 1936. My first attempt at historical fiction, and I'm still figuring out how writing in this genre works.


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Michał Przywara
20:59 Jul 12, 2022

I enjoyed this. The title caught my eye, and the setting was well established. There's a real sense that the court is so very far removed from the real world, with details like the emperor expressing surprise or concern, and that itself being surprising. The weight of the situation is also established by the little unusual things, like Isao being picked and addressed so directly. Everything feels heavy in this story, ominous. Not just because it was dramatic, but also because it was bigger than any of the characters, even the decision make...


01:31 Jul 13, 2022

Thanks Michal, happy you got something from this little nugget of history that I've always been fascinated with after seeing a tv documentary in Japan. Somehow the human mind prefers to attribute actions of vast countries to single individuals and the group dynamics get lost, yet they play a much larger role in the outcome, which is a theme I wanted to explore.


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Graham Kinross
08:31 Jul 11, 2022

First, I really like the title. Secondly, living in Tokyo, so much of this seems accurate. The sound that Japanese people make sounds more like ‘oon’ but said without opening your mouth, a sound made with your throat. And usually there’s a lot of head nodding as well. It’s amazing how history repeats itself isn’t it? It’s reminds me of the Q Anoners storming the capitol building in Washington.


08:48 Jul 11, 2022

Thanks, you are very right about the 'oon' expression and the nodding. I guess its hard to describe some of the Japanese gestures, as the words and meanings are different than anything we have in english. Words such as "genki" "gaman" just have their own shade of meaning. Nice to hear you're living in Tokyo, I left now over a decade ago and miss it;)


Graham Kinross
08:53 Jul 11, 2022

Tokyo is amazing in some ways, odd in others. I just had to make a healthcare appointment by fax, that doesn’t seem like a thing that should happen after the 1980s. Japan makes some of the most advanced technology in the world then sends it away so that everything can be done with a million forms and inkan. I still don’t understand why name stamps that can be bought in shops all over the place are seen as secure.


09:04 Jul 11, 2022

ikr.. I worked for two japanese companies back in the day and so much admin work was done with 1950s style paper and pencil and checking things off on calendars. But then again, things like the services provided within a Tokyo 7/11 with all their gadgets are simply amazing compared to anywhere else.


Graham Kinross
09:38 Jul 11, 2022

It’s cool that people can even get stuff like chargers at the corner shop. Were you working 16 hour days? I work for a preschool so my hours are great but even in education some people work far too long. The system where people have to stay until their manager is gone is ridiculous, unproductive and it is probably the main reason that Japanese people aren’t having enough kids. Plus you get charged to have a child. The government gives out a token book that pays for some of the appointments but the actual birth costs a small fortune and is re...


14:18 Jul 11, 2022

Yeah, spent a lot of time wasting time and working late. What you say about medical costs sounds tough, they make it difficult to pay for everything to do with having children, while at the same time the govt keeps talking about the birthrate.


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Hi Scott! Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres to read, and I know it takes a lot of work to write it accurately and entertainingly. This is an amazing story. The gravity of the situation comes across clearly, and your comic relief is relevant and well-placed. Bravo! 👏 Critiques: [“indecision would be foolhardy. The rebel forces support you the Emperor, for now.”] I would capitalize the I in {Indecision}, and change the next part to {The rebel forces support you as Emperor, for now."} [“It's unbelievable in 1936, today’s Moder...


06:06 Jul 10, 2022

Thanks so much Guadalupe. Those are all perfect tweaks. I often find the rules of dialogue punctuation confusing and the proper usage of who/whom/that. Very happy to hear you enjoyed the story!


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10:13 Jul 13, 2022

hi Guadalupe, i've wrote a new story, a non-fiction drama.. would be interested any feedback you have. i have never been to latin america and not sure if i got it all right also. https://blog.reedsy.com/short-story/ncfs5s/


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Kendall Defoe
09:41 Jul 09, 2022

Well done!


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Craig Westmore
21:17 Jul 08, 2022

Glad to see you are trying something different this week, Scott. What intrigued you about this particular event in history? You choose the right point of view character to tell this story. Young Isao can see and go places the others can’t because of their high position. I thought you could go further with the details of this story, if you weren’t limited by 3000 words. I wanted to know more about the background of the General to explain his bellicose behavior and the desires of the emperor. Is he interested in ruling but afraid of mucking...


06:35 Jul 09, 2022

Thanks Craig, those are all very good points. Ive fixed some of the grammar issues, and will be thinking about reorganzing some of the plot this weekend. It was a challenge how to explain so much history while having a plot at the same time. When I lived in Japan i had seen a local tv documentary about the event, which was intriguing within such a consensus based country, and had always wanted to research it further.


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Tommy Goround
07:56 Jul 10, 2022

(excellent critique).


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Mike Panasitti
16:34 Jul 08, 2022

Scott, I'd say this first attempt at historical fiction is a resounding success. I found it to be much more seriously written than your "Octopus Game" entries. I've studied a little Japanese history and I always find the conflicts between adherents of tradition and proponents of modernity to be fascinating. I think you could translate your personal experiences in Japan into very compelling stories with more forays into Japanese historical fiction.


06:38 Jul 09, 2022

Hi mike, thanks for the positive feedback and happy you enjoyed the new type of story! I was influenced by the tone of A Gentleman in Moscow, a historical novel, which i have been reading lately.


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