Month: March 2014

Atypical Gender Roles in “Taiko”


A Rarity, Female Samurai

Demonstrations of gender vary extensively between the characters of Taiko. While some characters of Taiko act singularly and embody their gender stereotypes, many others are multifaceted and seem to contradict traditional expectations. Further, by highlighting the intricacy of both male and female characters within this setting, one can recognize how this concept transcends the text and represents overall gender complexity.

Specifically, Nene and Oichi, being atypical and unusual, demonstrate the complexity of women during this time period, while Hideyoshi and Hanbei represent intricate male characters who cannot be defined or restricted by mere stereotypes.  Nene, wife of Hideyoshi, works hard from the first day of their marriage. She stays with Hideyoshi’s mother and works on the farm with her, and certainly has a positive attitude throughout the whole time Additionally, Oichi, the sister of Nobunaga and the wife of Nagamasa, presents herself unexpectedly in Book Four. After being “rescued” from Nobunaga’s attack of her castle, and losing her husband by the hands of her brother, Oichi asserts herself with unexpected anger rather than typical sadness. Likewise, when Nene is approached by Nobunaga about her husband’s infidelity, she does not demonstrate despair but rather keeps her emotions to herself. Further, the two women act and display less feminine qualities as a symbolic measure of their implicit complexity. 

Similarly, both Hideyoshi and Hanbei display atypical features as males. They are neither physically strong or handsome, yet both are intellectually superior and are well appreciated for their intelligence. Hanbei (before Hideyoshi) lives as a recluse and pursues mental development, yet is valued by armies for his capacity for strategic development. Despite lacking physical prowess, he is a vital asset to Hideyoshi’s team as well. The leader himself develops and rises in rank through his mental capabilities. Hideyoshi continues to grow and reach success through the five books through his intellectual strength and his emotive capacity to read and reach out to others. Both of these men demonstrate unique, unmanly characteristics that suggest the multifaceted nature of their being.


Empress Xiaozhey, from Concubine to Empress

Therein, as demonstrated by the aforementioned characters, the tale of Taiko highlights the actual complexity of both genders by showing persons who are unique and yet are valuable nevertheless.

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Death Is Power!

An artistic's rendition of a Samurai preparing for seppuku ritual.

An artistic’s rendition of a Samurai preparing for seppuku ritual.

From a personal and militaristic perspective, in most cultures it is regarded as honorable to die fighting for what one believes in. In Yoshikawa’s Taiko, Hideyoshi frequently utilizes the threat death – to himself and others – as a way to enhance his power by showing the utmost respect for what he believes in, and a means of acquiring what he wants.

To meet death fearlessly shows unwavering commitment to ideals, a rare sight in a modern context. One of the most prominent examples of Hideyoshi’s display of this behavior can be found in Book Three when he tries to meet Hanbei, a great leader who lives at the top of Mount Kurihara. He states to Hanbei’s sister, “’If I see that it will be impossible to complete my lord’s order, I’ll commit seppuku right here by this swamp” (285). Hideyoshi merely wishes to speak with a man who refuses to acknowledge him. Though by threatening to kill himself, Hideyoshi is able to attain the respect he desires by Hanbei. Another example of this fearless commitment to leadership can be found in Book Five. Hiding from his enemies, the narrator claims that Shikanosuke “had one great hope: to get close to his mortal enemy… and die stabbing him to death… after he had snatched away Kikkawa’s life, he would rejoice to meet his former lords in the afterworld” (473).  In this culture, it seems that dying for one’s leader is the ultimate reverence for whoever is in command.

Although there is evident honor and commitment in these men, they are not necessarily greeting death without caution. Their reasons are carefully constructed. Hideyoshi displays his prudence when he approaches Nobunaga in Book Five: ““’I don’t want a single soldier to die in vain’” (468). Although these men are obviously committed to a certain code of honor, they are not careless in their decisions when it comes to approaching death.

Warriors of feudal Japan show total commitment to their values through a fearless acceptance of death. Not only does this make battling even more gruesome, but also shows a value for less individualized glory and an emphasis on intellect, especially for military strategy.

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There’s Something About Monkey: Hideyoshi’s Special Talent


Eiji Yoshikawa’s Taiko follows the rise of the protagonist, Hideyoshi, from son of a crippled soldier-turned-farmer to general.  As a child, Hideyoshi is often criticized for being unruly and boisterous; however, there are those who take a chance on him.  The key to Hideyoshi’s success is his inexplicable, almost secret ability to convince people of his worth and abilities.

As a child, Hideyoshi is a “precocious little brat,” (Yoshikawa, pg. 8) and incredibly difficult to control – he often gets into trouble and causes problems.  His mother, Onaka, struggles to control him and worries about his future because he lacks obedience and is incapable of following instructions (Yoshikawa, pg. 8).  His stepfather, Chikuami, resorts to hitting him in an attempt to gain some kind of control over Hideyoshi; he says to Onaka, “I’m beating this twisted little monkey because I think it’ll do him some good.  He’s nothing but trouble!” (Yoshikawa, pg. 13).  However, these beatings, locking Hideyoshi in the shed, and not permitting him to have dinner have no real affect on the young, unruly boy.  In fact, the more that Chikuami tries to beat Hideyoshi into submission, the more Hideyoshi resents his stepfather.  He has been given no reason to respect his stepfather and thus does not even attempt to behave.

Yet there are those who see the potential in Hideyoshi.  Even after Hideyoshi accidentally breaks an important incense burner, the pottery merchant, Sutejiro, makes an offer to one day be his master because Hideyoshi “seems to hold promise,” (Yoshikawa, pg. 19).  This is just the beginning; ultimately, Hideyoshi enters into the service of Nobunaga with whom he builds a relationship.  Nobunaga trusts Hideyoshi so completely that he stops even asking what Hideyoshi’s plan is and just allows him to carry it out.  For example, Hideyoshi is tasked with going to Koroku, head of the Hachisuka clan, and convincing him to betray his loyalties to the Saito clan and support Nobunaga instead.  Because he is an honorable man, Koroku is inclined to reject this request, but reconsiders after talking with a monk, Ekei, who says to him, “Someday this man is going to do something extraordinary…  That man may move the entire country someday,” (Yoshikawa, pg. 258).  Ekei knows nothing of Hideyoshi, but he could tell from their brief meeting that, someday, Hideyoshi would change everything.

Hideyoshi is an undeniably nuisance at the beginning of Taiko – he resists his mother, tries to avoid responsibility, and has difficulty following rules.  And yet, as he got older and found masters whom he wanted to serve, he learned respect and loyalty and in return was given the same.  But it is this hidden, subtle promise that serves Hideyoshi the best – it is what makes people take chances on him and it has served him well.


Yoshikawa, Eiji. Taiko: An Epic Novel of War and Glory in Feudal Japan. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1992. Print.

Digital image. THE GOLDEN AGE OF OLD JAPAN. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2014.

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By Blood and By Choice

"Confucius presenting the young Gautama Buddha to Laozi." This is a picture of Confucius himself, but it represents the importance of mentors and father figures.

This is a picture of Confucius himself, but it represents the importance of mentors and father figures.

The characters of Yoshikawa’s novel Taiko pay special attention to the Confucian relationships that play roles in their lives. One of these is the father to son relationship. Both Hideyoshi’s biological father to son relationship with Yaemon and his surrogate father to son relationship with Nobunaga influence the man he becomes.

Bonded by Blood: Hideyoshi and Yaemon

Although it is rather short lived in the novel, the relationship between Hideyoshi and his biological father, Yaemon, has major impacts on the way adult Hideyoshi thinks and acts. When he was young, Hideyoshi eventually learned that he could get the things that he wanted. When he wanted to play with the sword in the shed, his mother told him no after Hideyoshi fought her on it, but his father said that he could have the sword (Yoshikawa 8). This event specifically encouraged Hideyoshi to work at things until he eventually got what he wanted. His father’s handicap also caused Hideyoshi to strive for success in all his endeavors. Yaemon told him “I’m not great, in the end I’m just a cripple. Therefore, Hiyoshi, you must become a great man!”(Yoshikawa 11). This instilled in him a great desire to prove himself and become even greater than his father. In accordance with Confucian relationships, he owed honor to his father and could provide it by granting his father’s wishes. Yaemon also influenced Hideyoshi’s treatment of women. Yaemon told the young Hideyoshi that women ought to be respected and protected. When he has wronged and neglected the women in his life, Hideyoshi returns to apologize to them, realizing that he has not fulfilled his duty (Yoshikawa 455). Yaemon also plays a significant role in Hideyoshi’s decision to become a samurai. He hopes that by being a warrior he can bring the honor that his father was unable to bring and fulfill his Confucian duty as a son.

Bonded by Choice: Hideyoshi and Nobunaga

Hideyoshi and Nobunaga do not have the same relationship seen between Hideyoshi and Yaemon, but it is just as influential in Hideyoshi’s life. Upon meeting Nobunaga, Hideyoshi has finally found a master that he considers worthy of serving and for once in his life, Hideyoshi starts to put his whole heart into doing his job well. Hideyoshi has the upmost respect for Nobunaga and, wanting to please him, he works above and beyond his station. When Nobunaga is preparing for battle he finds that Hideyoshi is the first man ready and he wonders “Why was his sandal bearer, whose duties were in the garden, the first to appear ready for battle?” (Yoshikawa 123). Because Nobunaga is such a good role model for Hideyoshi, Hideyoshi comes to understand respect and taking orders. He still does things his own way, but he has more than just himself in mind now. Nobunaga encourages him to continue the hard work by rewarding him with promotions (Yoshikawa 125).

These two relationships, though they are genetically different, affect Hideyoshi’s character as he grows up. Both Yaemon and Nobunaga teach Hideyoshi important lessons and encourage him to become a better man. Their lessons and examples help Hideyoshi to become stronger, more charismatic, more determined and more respectful as he grows older.

Yoshikawa, Eiji. Taiko. Kodansha International, Ltd., 1992. Print.


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An investigation of Morality

Taiko: An Epic Novel of War and Glory in Feudal Japan was written by Eiji Yoshikawa

Taiko: An Epic Novel of War and Glory in Feudal Japan was written by Eiji Yoshikawa

Throughout Taiko: An Epic Novel of War and Glory in Feudal Japan, we are presented with scenarios that are morally questionable according to the standards of Western culture, such as seppuku. However, I contest we must look through a different lens when dealing with the morality of other cultures.

If we are able to take more in depth look at the customs and practices of the historical characters in Taiko, rather than immediately casting them off as morally reprehensible, we will draw closer to limiting ethnocentrism, as well as possessing a firmer understanding of moral truth. For example, in Book 2 of Taiko, Tokichiro explains to Nobunaga that he can rebuild the castle walls within three days, however, if he fails, his punishment will be severe,

“He accepted the commission and prepared to withdraw, but Nobunaga asked him again, ‘Wait. Are you sure you can do it?’ From the sympathetic tone of Nobunaga’s voice, it was clear that he did not want Tokichiro to be forced to commit seppuku if he was to fail,” (Yoshikawa 156).

From this short excerpt we can see that the moral necessity required by Tokichiro’s failure would be the ritual suicide of seppuku. From a Western perspective, this would is not only seen as strange and archaic, but even morally wrong on the grounds that a life would be wasted over a trivial matter. However, if we remove our own cultural lens as we look at the practice of seppuku, we may be able to discover the meaning behind the practice, as well as its moral justification.

Seppuku was typically reserved for the Samurai as a form of capital punishment for a variety of offenses, but in this case for bringing shame upon Tokichiro’s name. I believe the criteria we should use when judging a culture’s practices as moral or immoral should hinge upon the practices pursuit of righteousness. It would be foolish for any one man to claim they have a complete understanding of the absolute moral truth, therefore, we must use our reason and attempt to identify what makes something moral. Tokichiro’s commitment to suicide upon failure, is based upon the self-inflicted punishment he would receive for bringing shame upon him. His actions would not show any selfishness or benefit him in any way, but rather a humble admission of guilt. Therefore, I contest that the action of seppuku is an attempt to maintain the dignity of the samurai and displays a pursuit of righteousness. Therefore, we must resist the urge to label this action as immoral, merely because it is something we do not fully understand, but rather we must try to realize that this practice is rooted in an ideal that values justice and dignity.

When we look at differences in other cultures, it becomes all too easy to label them as right or wrong, using our own values as a guide for morality. However, I urge all of us to ask ourselves, how certain are we that Western culture possesses all moral truth?

Work cited: Yoshikawa, Eiji. Taiko: An Epic Novel of War and Glory in Feudal Japan. New York: Kodonasha, 2012. Print.

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