youten, the capital of the Kingdom of Kei. The empress finally returned from her “study abroad” to a palace bathed in the warm rays of the sun.
For the next five days, she secluded herself within her chambers. The former prime minister, Seikyou; the former province lord of Wa, Marquis Gahou; and the former governor of Shisui Prefecture, Shoukou, were arrested. The empress herself signed the warrants, to the great amazement of the ministers. Some objected but could hardly voice their objections to the empress, who would not even venture into the inner court.
During the empress’s absence, the Privy Council had fallen into disarray. Behind the scenes, some plotted and conspired, fearing that their sins might be revealed, dooming them to Seikyou’s fate. But for the time being, such scheming played out in the shadows and behind closed doors.
The Imperial Court will be thrown into chaos, the ministers murmured amongst themselves. Losing Seikyou meant the balance of power would be thrown to the anti-Seikyou faction, and that was where they all considered shifting their allegiances as well.
Those five days saw a constant tumult of rumors and shifting expectations. At last the empress emerged and assembled every minister and bureaucrat of note in the Gaiden, the outer palace.
The ministers gathered in the Gaiden were startled to see there the unfamiliar face of the previously-dismissed province lord of Baku, Koukan, along with his entourage. The Gaiden buzzed with excitement. When the empress appeared, escorted by the Saiho to the throne, the state of confusion was only heightened. The empress wore ministerial dress no more elaborate than what the ministers wore. By shunning her imperial robes, this monarch, whose name was recorded in the Census of Heaven while she was barely yet a woman, somewhat deflected the inherent scorn directed against empresses.
Their doubts and confusion notwithstanding, the ministers bowed, touching their foreheads to the floor. At the same time, a voice rang out, “Raise your heads!” They knelt and straightened their backs.
“To start with, I would like to apologize for my long absence.”
With no introduction from the Chousai, the empress simply began to speak. The confusion and consternation of the ministers only grew. Long-established custom held that the empress did not speak to her subjects and her subjects did not speak to her. Rather, written notes would be passed to the chamberlain, she would read them and then whisper her response in the chamberlain’s ear. The chamberlain would then repeat her words to her subordinates. Of course, no kingdom followed this custom to the letter. But in any event, no ruler spoke so directly to her subjects.
“I did not intend to waste so much of your time. I am sorry for taxing your patience.”
“I will not say much about those individuals arrested several days ago. It is the duty of the Ministry of Fall to bring their sins to light and exact the proper penalties. However, I advise them to keep in mind that I personally signed the arrest warrants.”
The ministers caught their collective breath. No one doubted that this thinly-veiled threat was a direct challenge to the Ministry of Fall: if they tried to go easy on the defendants, grease a few palms, and look the other way, they’d have to answer for their actions.
“A while back, I asked the Saiho to mobilize his provincial guard. It didn’t happen. The generals of his provincial guard seem to be suffering from a chronic ailment. That being the case, carrying out their duties must be an onerous burden. I recommend their early retirements.”
Even more started reactions this time.
“In order to fill the vacant posts, I have made requests of four individuals. First of all, the commanders of the Palace Guard will be transferred to the aforementioned provincial guard.”
Voices were raised in protest: “Surely you jest!”
The empress ignored them. “In their place, I hereby appoint Sei Shin, former commander of the Baku provincial army of the left, regimental commander of the Palace Guard army of the left. Kantai.”
“Yes!” The general deeply bowed his head.
“As for the armies of the center and right, I will act upon Kantai’s recommendations. Kantai, please put the Palace Guard in order.”
“By your command, Your Majesty.”
The voice of the man who spoke was young. He was a bright and sagacious man of around thirty. Everyone there thought incredulously: This is the province lord of Baku?
“I hereby appoint you Chousai. Please put the Imperial Court in order.”
“You can’t be serious!” rose many voices in objection.
Again, she ignored them. “I hereby appoint Saibou, the former Baku prime minister, province lord of Wa. Furthermore, I have summoned Count Shou to the Imperial Court and hereby appoint him Lord Privy Seal. Together with these appointments, you may expect that a fair number of ministerial positions will be shuffled accordingly.”
The empress looked over her audience. “Those of you with clear consciences have no cause for dismay. Having been ministers of the Late Empress Yo does not mean you will be treated poorly, just as having graduated from the Evergreen Seminary does not mean you will be accorded unwarranted favor.”
Poised on the throne, the empress said, “Everyone stand!” The room buzzed with confusion, the ministers glancing at each other as they timidly got to their feet. The empress scanned the assembly. She nodded and turned to the Saiho at her side. “This is something I wish Keiki to make note of as well.”
She said, “I do not care to be worshipped in the customary manner.”
The empress had to smile at the sound of the Saiho’s scolding voice. “It is certainly pleasing to hear respect paid and gratitude expressed. But I do not like the ranking and ordering of human beings. I cannot abide greeting someone and not being able to see his face. I understand the need for rules of decorum and propriety. But being kowtowed to and watching people kowtow to others leaves a bad taste in my mouth.”
“Your Highness, please hold on a moment!”
She shushed him and addressed the ministers. “Henceforth, with the exception of established rituals and ceremonies, and receptions for guests of honor from other kingdoms, nobody kowtows to anybody! It will be sufficient to bow while either standing or kneeling.”
To the Saiho’s attempts to restrain her, the empress curtly responded, “The matter is settled.”
“There are people who may feel they are being disrespected and become enraged.”
“And what of them?”
“I do not understand people who cannot feel secure in their positions without forcing others to grovel before them.”
The Saiho was speechless. The ministers gaped with open mouths.
“I do not understand what pride means to people like that. What’s worse, whenever a man’s made to scrape and bow, it eats away at his self-esteem. That’s a problem just waiting to happen.”
“You know, Keiki,” the empress said to the Taiho, “when you’re really grateful to somebody, when you feel real respect for them, you bow your head naturally. You bow your head to show what’s in your heart. Simply going through the motions provides no measure of a man’s soul. Turning such a bow into obeisance is no different than placing your foot on the back a man’s head and grinding his face into the dirt.”
“But people must be taught by example.”
“I do not intend to encourage insolence. We should treat others with respect. That should be obvious. What I’m saying is, when it comes to those who lack the character to do so, there’s nothing more that can be done by means of coercion.”
“That is true, but—”
“I wish to be empress to all the people of Kei.” Her voice was loud and clear. “You only have to look at Shoukou to see the fate of those who use their position to force respect from their subjects and trample the rest under their feet. And the fate of those who allow themselves to be so trampled should be clear as well. No man is anyone’s slave. No man is born to be a slave. Those who are oppressed and do not yield; who face disasters and do not break; who suffer injustice and do not fear to answer injustice with justice; who are ruled by beasts and do not fawn at their feet—these are the kinds of free people I wish the citizens of Kei to become. We are all the captains of our own souls. And our first command is to hold our heads high in the presence of others.”
She finished speaking and looked out over the audience of ministers, bureaucrats, and functionaries. “You have asked me along which path I wish to lead this kingdom. Have I given you a sufficient enough answer?”
Only their eyes looked back at her. No voices responded.
“Then by your assent, the act of kowtowing is abolished! This I proclaim as my Inaugural Rescript!”