What is History?

History is the greatest story ever, containing everything that occurred on earth from the birth of human beings to today, and even events that took place before they came into existence. So how can we get in touch with the greatest story today? In several ways. As history is a required subject of compulsory education in Japan, everyone has been touched by it. Some of you may hate history classes because you had to memorize the name of the battle of something or other, and king somebody, however, many people are exposed to history after graduating from high school in other exciting ways, entertainment. History is often be the source materials for novels, films, comics, games and so on, and even people who failed history enjoy these pursuits. Why is that? How come people who hated history in school enjoy Hollywood Epics or samurai battle comics? I had wanted to figure it out the reason why so I investigated this question for my thesis.

My conclusion was simple, there is no “historically accurate” work. All the work that is “based on true history” is  perhaps historically based, but it is not “history”, it’s entertainment.

First of all, in creating works of entertainment such as novels and films, dialogue is necessary. It is of course possible the legendary prince of Denmark said “Frailty, thy name is woman.”, but I doubt it sincerely. It is safe to assume it stemmed from the imagination of the greatest dramatist who ever lived, in England. Even if he said it, precisely when, where, and how he said it, must be different. In addition, in film and on stage, the actor reciting lines is not Hamlet himself. The lines, costumes, props… none of them are real things historical people said, wore, or used. Even with a person’s journal or a record of their speech, there is always a novelist filling in the blanks. Afterall, if the journal and record itself could stand on its own as entertainment, there would be no need for novelists.

If you are an author or a filmmaker  creating a piece of entertainment, your principal responsibility is to ensure your audience is not bored. The work, after all, is not for you, but for them. Nearly every contemporary novel and film has lines. The only film I have ever watched that has almost no dialogue is All is Lost starring by Robert Redford. He is the one and only character in the film,  stranded at sea at the mercy of the ocean. There is not even a monologue in the way Tom Hanks has towards his volleyball,Wilson in Cast Away. Many people cite Cast Away as their favorite film because the interplay with Wilson alone on the solitary island is both hilarious and moving. The Robert Redford movie, conversely,  is not popular even though he is one of the greatest living actors. Dialogue is indispensable in entertainment I was not entertained by All is Lost, but I understood the director’s philosophical messages. It was not an entertainment film, but a so as called art film.

In the same way, when you want to be entertained by a novel, you read works of fiction entertainment like Harry Potter or A Song of Ice and Fire, not magnificent philosophical books by Nietzsche. Entertainment novelists are supposed to entertain, not bore their readers. Entertainment books contain multiple characters; kids and adults, rich and poor, males and females… In writing historical books, a problem occurs: the men vastly outnumber the women. The more you trace back to ancient times, the less noteworthy women you discover. Even if you are familiar with history, how many women do you know from ancient Rome, or 13th century Great Britain? Would you really want to watch a film of just men and no women? Women like the noble sister of a Roman tyrant or the graceful princess daughter of a French king? That is why authors make up fictitious characters, or make appear in a time other than the one they actually lived. The king’s sister in Gladiator did not exist, and the French princess was not married to an English prince at the time the Scottish patriot was hanged in Braveheart.

In addition, authors tend to skip over boring incidents, parts not suited for the story he or she is trying to tell. If you want to create a work of entertainment a courageous hero who happened to have killed a good man in real life, you either turn the good man into a rogue find a justification killing him, or you simply skip that part, so your courageous hero never appears bad in your story. Omission has tremendous power in storytelling. If, for instance, an author is writing a novel about a historical figure   who did both good things and bad things, the author simply assembles the good deeds while omitted the bad and presto, a hero is created. However, when you make entertainment, you cannot pack all the historical facts because it will become something that takes up all of your bookshelf. That is why the author must chooses the part he writes, and the part he doesn’t. Some author choose both good sides and bad sides of a historical people, and some of the other author choose only one side of them, and this makes one of the characteristic of historical novelist.

The tendency to omit facts is not limited to works of entertainment, but academic history as well. In my thesis, I investigated works of entertainment based on ancient Japanese history from a time called the Asuka era, which lasted from around the 6th century to the early 8th century. I compared the contents and narratives to standard history from school textbooks, which are thought to be boring. I chose this era because I was familiar with the period and because the historical record is relatively simple and concise, compared to most of modern history. Japan’s oldest authenticated history records were written in the early 8th century. Before that period, historians rely on information gleaned from Mokkan, narrow strips of woods containing short written messages used prior to the invention of paper, as well as  non-textual archaeological evidence. During my investigation a vexing question surfaced what is real history? Even “historical facts” leave too many blanks and contain too many contradictions. Researchers have been discussing this for decades and still no answers, similar to the way we discuss there possibility of ghosts being real. To quote Donald Rumsfeld, former US Secretary of Defense, in response to a question about the lack of evidence linking the government of Iraq with the supply of weapons to terrorists, “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns; the one we don’t know we don’t know.”

In the middle of 7th century, there was a statesman named Soga no Iruka who had more power than the Japanese emperor, actually it was a woman at the time so I should say an empress. In 645, during a coup d’état, Soga no Iruka was murdered by one of the princes of the emperor. It is one of the most significant incidents of ancient Japanese history, one we learn about in elementary school.

Since I was an elementary school student, I have been wondering about Soga no Iruka. The authenticated historical document indicates he was a bad dictator, however, history is always written by those who hanged heroes. In my opinion, when we look into history, most of the winners are not always righteous. Through betrayal, bribery, or some other sordid deeds, they became winners. Righteous men, ironically, tend to lose precisely because of their sense of  justice and faith, while history describes them as bad to justify their death at the hands of the . A little known fact about the tyranny of the Soga no Iruka as revealed by the Nihonshaki, the only authenticated source of history prior to the 8th century, is its embellishment and distortion of events for the sake of protecting the honor of the emperor, the royal family, and the clan who created the Nihonshoki. The prince who killed Soga no Iruka, a man by the name of Naka no Oe no Oji, was an intense and vigorous individual. He was also deeply suspicious of the intentions of others, however, he the Nihonshoki depicts him as a righteous hero because he defeated the dictator, and helped transform Japan into a nation governed by laws following his ascendance to the throne as emperor (Emperor Tenji).

While I can appreciate some of his achievements and think he was a good poet, Naka no Oe no Oji is not the type of a man I would befriend considering he forced his brother to divorce with his wife so he could marry her himself, despite already having dozens of wives. He also may have had an affair with his biological sister.  Of course, these are things we cannot glean from authenticated history. He would not have become emperor had Soga no Iruka stayed alive. According to the Nihonshoki, Soga no Iruka wanted to be a king so he killed Yamashiro no Oe no Oji, one of the emperors family members who the Nihonshoki insists was a good and innocent man. There is, however, no proof that Yamashiro no Oe was good person nor proof that Soga no Iruka was a bad man. It is possibile that some members of the imperial family, including Naka no Oe, were actually allied with Soga no Iruka when he killed Yamashiro no Oe. The latest research are suggests that Soga no Iruka was not in fact a bad dictator, but the people who compiled the Nihonshoki succeeded in concealing that fact for 1300 years. I’m sure we’ll never know the full extent of what transpired during that era. Only a time machine could make a full and accurate record possible. 

History is written by the victor, or by those who had enough power to memorialize and preserve documents that can be read today. When history depicts someone as bad, it doesn’t mean he or she was bad in reality. When history says someone did something bad, or something good, it doesn’t mean he actually did. History itself is not accurate. History always paints one man generous, merciful, courageous, and perfect, while the enemy is simply rendered a fool, or terrible and nothing more. Napoleon is a prime  example. He is a hero of France, yet a terrible invader in Russia. We believe school textbooks are true, but they never say Soga no Iruka might not be a bad dictator because it truncates all of Japanese history in one book. If were to include all the details from recent investigation, you would need to carry tons of textbook to school. While history is created, it contains countless known unknowns and unknown unknowns, so how can the historical entertainment can be accurate?

When someone says they like history, I’d bet 9 out of 10 people are referring to works of entertainment, not academic sources of history and dissertations of history written by historians and scholars. Most academic materials are difficult to read and are not particularly entertaining unless you are keenly eager to learn history deeply. Many people claim to like Oda Nobunaga or Toyotomi Hideyoshi, but mostly they like the novelists’ creations, not the human beings as they were. Even historians do not know who they really were, and that is what they are paid to study. Due to their positions and their need to remain trustworthy, scholars cannot simply write something from their imaginations unless there is a logical theory that can build upon a hypothesis. They also need to illustrate all the information both supported and undermines their hypothesise, or other researchers will point out it soon after their treatise are published. Those who heap praise and adulation upon the great minds of historical figures depicted in works of entertainment would rebuke and detest those same people if they learned the true nature of their cruelty and inhumanity. 

Still, even if works of entertainment are not historically accurate, it doesn’t mean they’re not good. Shakespeare’s works still fascinate people today although historians claim his characters are completely different from the record of true events. The unlikely stories of a Roman general who became a gladiator, or kilted warrior hanged for seeking freedom were turned into spectacular works of entertainments. Shakespeare remains the best dramatist to have ever lived in England, and these two films deserved the Oscars they received, even if they betray historical facts. Whenever a big budget period film is released, it invariably invites discussions about its historical accuracy, but such discussions make no sense. No matter what, works of entertainment are fiction. Many people say the HBO’s Rome is based on the real history, but those opinions cannot be considered objective. Many thought Rome was  more realistic more than Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and no doubt it feels more realistic considering it cost 10 million USD per episode, but I’m pretty sure if all a real ancient Roman watched the series, they would not think it conveyed their real experience of Rome. Subjectively, modern people think Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is less realistic than HBO’s Rome, but even with a 10 billion dollar budget, historical films will never be perfect, but creates a more realistic simulation of history than a film with a budget of 10 million.  

All historical works of entertainments are fictional, but what does “historical” actually mean? In What is History?, English historian E. H. Carr said “It is continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the past and the present.” Compounding matters, the present becomes history in time. The events of today is the history of 50 years from now, perhaps even fewer. We read Les Miserables as a historical novel, but it was not historical when it was freshly published. Some portions of Les miserables were based on real incidents, but as you know,historical novels are not historically accurate, and neither was Les Miserables. Similarly, works classified as non-fiction are not genuinely non-fiction. The other Oscar-winning film A Beautiful Mind starring Russel Crowe is supposed to be based on the true story, but alas Russell Crowe is no more a greatest mathematician than a Roman general, the script writer was not John Nash himself, and some of the facts differ from his autobiography for the sake of dramatizing his story. The only forms of entertainment  that can be regarded as real seem to be essays or autobiographies, but still, when you disclose your thoughts to the public, who actually writes the same sentence they would in their diary? 

Even non-fiction entertainment based on present day events are works of fiction. In the mystery genre, there is an interesting work called the “Sort of Late Ellery Queen’s Problems.” A fundamental problem of the mystery genre is that the prototypical detective’s conclusions cannot ultimately be proven right in the stories. In other words, in the world of the story there is no guarantee that detective has all the pertinent information, so the fictional detective never knows there is information he or she does not know, nor will the reader for that matter. In addition, there is always the possibility that detectives have been outsmarted the way real culprits mislead detectives to pinning the blame on others. These kinds of problems are not limited to mysteries. Consumers if TV and print media  are also incapable of confirming the truth of what they watch and read. The 9.11 attacks were replete with conspiracy theories and we were incapable of distinguishing fact from fiction because it was impossible to know all the information not captured by the cameras. If we cannot completely understand the facts the incident happened less than 20 years ago, we will certainly never know why a powerful statesman in 7th century in Japan was killed in a coup d’état. Truth can be known only to those who actually experiencing it. 

If we dwell on these things, it becomes impossible to enjoy entertainment, yet we never stop reading novels and watching films. I believe this is due to our innate curiosity. Universal laws prevent us from ever going back in time. It is human nature to gaze at what we are forbidden to see. When we cannot have truth, we will settle for a glimpse of it. We enjoy feeding our curiosity, yet it will never be satiated. That is why entertainment never dies.


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