The Art of Surviving and Thriving: Strategically Embracing Social Change

This image is a word cloud featuring the most popular words and phrases that are associated with social change.

This image is a word cloud featuring the most popular words and phrases that are associated with social change.

Social change is often inevitable; however, attitudes toward social change are more fluid. The ability to survive and thrive in a chaotic new world relies on open-mindedness and the foresight to understand the implications of change. This is illustrated through the development of firearms, Christian missionaries, and the Korean alphabet.


 Concerns about drastic social change and its resulting chaos in the world are issues found at the core of the novel Taiko, by Eiji Yoshikawa, and the Korean television drama Tree with Deep Roots. These changes create much unrest and anxiety among the characters of these texts and, in their minds, the state of the future is cast in serious doubt. Some of these social changes are deliberate, such as King Sejong’s creation of the Korean alphabet in Tree with Deep Roots, and other changes, such as the introduction of firearms into Japan or the infiltration of Christian missionaries in Taiko, are unavoidable realities. Whether intentional or inevitable societal alterations, these changes necessitate adaptation and an open mind. Although there will always be opposition to social change, the characters who achieve and endure in Taiko and Tree with Deep Roots are the ones who willingly embrace the changes of the times, and those who resist are gradually extinguished.


Japanese soldiers firing tanegashima (matchlocks), using ropes to maintain proper firing elevation

Japanese soldiers firing tanegashima (matchlocks), using ropes to maintain proper firing elevation.

Although Taiko, a novel by Eiji Yoshikawa, is set in feudal Japan, many technological advancements and societal changes occur in this world of war and chaos. Oda Nobunaga’s success as a military leader is largely due to his utilization of significant changes in weaponry and military strategy. In Book 5 of Taiko, the mountainous Kai warriors are defeated by Nobunaga’s army on the basis of inferior weaponry and a failure to understand how war tactics have changed since automatic weapons. The Portuguese revolutionized warfare with the introduction of firearms in Japan, and thus, the traditional style of fighting could no longer win on the battlefield. Historical analysis of this development explains that, “As a result of the adoption of firearms, close combat was largely replaced by long-range fighting” (Brown, 244). Nobunaga understands this, but Kai, “protected by its mountains, ravines, and rivers, was cut off from the center of things and isolated from foreign influences” (Yoshikawa, 436). The Kai are proud of their province and put all of their confidence in the fierce bravery of their troops. They assume that since they have not been defeated in the past, defeat will not be theirs in the future. For the opposing Oda forces, however, “Nobunaga had planned a fully scientific strategy using modern tactics and weapons” (Yoshikawa, 436).

When the Oda and Kai forces clash on the battlefield, the Kai emerge as clearly superior in hand-to-hand samurai combat. This boosts the fighting spirits of the Kai; Takeda Katsuyori and his generals subsequently order the Kai army to advance and destroy the Oda. As the Kai forces march onward, Nobunaga signals to his soldiers hidden on Mount Chausu, and suddenly, “the earth shook at the volleys of gunfire. The mountain split open and the clouds were shredded… The horses and men of the Kai army fell like mosquitoes into piles of corpses” (Yoshikawa, 437). This scene highlights that, although the Kai are superior warriors, their skills and brute strength cannot compete with a shower of bullets, and thus, they suffer great casualties and complete defeat at the hands of Nobunaga.

In a later chapter in Book 5, Nobunaga receives a letter indicating an old-fashioned formal challenge to battle from Uesugi Kenshin, lord of Echigo. Nobunaga laughs when he reads this note because the gesture makes Kenshin look archaic. Nobunaga thinks, “How sad for Kenshin that he wasn’t born during the colorful olden days when they wore scarlet-braided armor with gold plates. I wonder what he thinks of Azuchi, with its mixture of Japanese, Southern Barbarian, and Chinese styles?” (Yoshikawa, 452). While reflecting on these recent social changes, Nobunaga sees old traditions and modes of thinking as obsolete, saying, “All of the changes in weaponry and strategy in the last decade have brought us into a new world. How could anyone say the art of war hasn’t changed too?” (Yoshikawa, 452). Nobunaga’s perspective argues that if traditional warfare has no actual benefits in the current times, then holding on to those customs is useless. Yoshikawa reminds readers that, “Civilization moves on like a horse at full gallop” (Yoshikawa, 436).  Historical analysis indicates that these “new long-range weapons provided the more capable and foresighted barons with an important means of extending their military power, and therefore, facilitated the establishment, by Nobunaga and Hideyoshi, of Japan’s first strong, central government” (Brown, 253). Successful survival in a changing and disorderly world can only occur when people adjust to these inevitable social changes. Refusal to adapt, much like the Kai or Uesugi Kenshin, results in an abrupt end to one’s history.


Christian missionaries in feudal Japan preaching to the Japanese people.

Christian missionaries in feudal Japan preaching to the Japanese people.

Taiko features Christian missionaries surfacing periodically throughout the text. The infiltration of the Christian faith into Japan highlights important commentary on social change. Christianity is a Western religion, so it is not neutral; it is connected to Western culture. In Book 4 of Taiko, Nobunaga visits a Christian school and states that he is very pleased with Western technology, medicine, and weaponry coming to Japan. He is not, however, satisfied with certain aspects of Westernization, stating, “There were two things that his digestion absolutely rejected: Christianity and Christian education. But if these two things had not been allowed to the missionaries, they would not have come with their weapons, medicines, and other wonders” (Yoshikawa, 331). Nobunaga is in favor of Westernization as long as it serves a valuable purpose to him (technological advancements, medicine, etc.). He is tolerant of the Christian schools for the present, but he plans on closely watching over the missionaries.

Nobunaga’s doubts about Christianity illustrate some of the complexities of adapting to social change. Nobunaga strategically adapts to the social change brought by the Christian missionaries. The technology, medicine, and weaponry are easy for him to digest; they benefit him and give him power. Embracing these aspects of Western culture is not as complicated as the religious doctrine that accompanies these advancements. Nobunaga is skeptical of the philosophy and accompanying modes of thinking that are sneakily working their way into the country too. Nobunaga is not in awe of this religion and cannot even appreciate its value system. Nobunaga can understand the societal implications of technological advancements brought by Westernization; the implications of the Christian faith are less clear, so Nobunaga is waiting to see the direction it will take and whether or not that is a social change worthy of adaptation.

Nobunaga does eventually recognize the work of the Christian missionaries. In Book Seven of Taiko we see the growing spread of Christianity throughout Japan. Oda Nobunaga, as the ruler of Japan, has accepted the work of the Christian missionaries, and he has publicly recognized their work in spreading their religion; he even invites them to dine with him at his banquets. However, he has also forced Buddhist monks “to their knees” using extreme force and violence, risking permanent disdain from his people. The text reads, “the Buddhist monks raised a hue and cry about which of them Nobunaga considered to be the foreigners—the Christians or themselves” (Yoshikawa, 646). Nobunaga willingly turns his back on Buddhism, a religion cherished by his people for centuries. This action communicates Nobunaga’s important attitudes toward tradition. Nobunaga isn’t turning his back on Japan; he realizes that Christianity in Japan is now inevitable so it’s a matter of ruling the country and helping the nation advance into the modern world. In order to help lead his people, Nobunaga has to adjust as the world changes. It’s important to keep in mind that Buddhism itself is not native to Japan; it was also a foreign doctrine that required adaptation many years prior.


The 28 letters of the Korean alphabet, as developed by King Sejong, in the television series Tree with Deep Roots.

The 28 letters of the Korean alphabet, as developed by King Sejong, in the television series Tree with Deep Roots.

The creation and development of the Korean alphabet by the ruler of Korea, King Sejong, in the Korean television drama Tree with Deep Roots does more than promise the equal opportunity of literacy for all Korean citizens; it establishes a source of nationalistic pride and unity for the country through its accessibility and sound. It is a revolutionary idea; King Sejong wants to construct a language that will be easy for his people to learn—even those who labor all day on fields and farms. Throughout many episodes of Tree with Deep Roots, the Korean alphabet is described as “easy enough for a fool to learn in a day and a wise man to learn in half of a day.” It is this accessible feature of the language that is ultimately what wins over the character Kang Chae Yun when he discovers Hangul; he is incredibly intrigued by the alphabet’s 28 letters (as opposed to thousands of symbols like the Chinese language) and, although he was a staunch opponent of King Sejong’s actions and methodologies, he comes to see the value and power in creating a literate society. He eventually respects King Sejong’s efforts and understands that the king truly does care for the well-being of his people.

In Tree with Deep Roots, King Sejong’s alphabet will (eventually) teach Koreans of all social statuses how to read and write, but ultimately Hangul has a more symbolic, nationalistic meaning. The language will serve as a way to empower the common people and establish a distinct language and voice for Korea. Understanding the implications of this revolutionary new alphabet is important when considering social change in Joseon. Many characters are opposed to King Sejong’s alphabet because they view it as a threat to the nation-state and insist that it violates Confucianism, an ideology that has become entwined with the identity of the country. One notable character who repeatedly opposes King Sejong’s work in Tree with Deep Roots is the leader of Hidden Root, Jung Gi Joon (the identity Ga-Ri-On the simple-minded butcher is his cover). Jung Gi Joon does everything in his power to stop the publishing of this new alphabet. In Episode 19 of the show, Jung Gi Joon meets with King Sejong and tells him, “It [the alphabet] goes against Confucianism. The praise of China in Joseon is only a realistic way of survival” (5:20). He elaborates further in Episode 20, explaining that literacy for all will throw off the balance of Korean society; the existing social status will be in turmoil. He says, “But your writing system is trying to destroy that controlled system” (11:57).

In the quotations mentioned above, Jung Gi Joon represents obstinacy in face of social change, particularly when this change brings many benefits for Korean society, including literacy, national pride, and societal survival. The common people will actually have a way to voice their opinions to their king, which better ensures that their issues will actually be properly addressed. Throughout the series, people die because of their inability to read. This is seen at the beginning of the series when the character Dam incorrectly pretends to know the meaning of a royal letter, and as a result, the King’s father-in-law and his household are killed. Jung Gi Joon fails to see how the Korean alphabet will actually advance the people of Korea; he is content with a stagnant Joseon. He cannot envision the ways that Joseon will be better because of this social change. King Sejong tries to explain this to Jung Gi Joon when he proposes that literacy won’t shatter Confucianism in Korea; it could actually bring Koreans closer to Confucian ethics and ideals since they will be able to learn the codes for themselves and better understand the meaning of these codes. King Sejong eventually does successfully implement his alphabet, and historically speaking, “King Sejong’s reign has been considered the most glorious period not only of the Joseon dynasty, but in all of Korean history” (Jongmyung 136).


This image depicts a road sign indicating "CHANGE AHEAD."

This image depicts a road sign indicating “CHANGE AHEAD.”

Social change elicits a variety of responses from people, good and bad. Some individuals immediately rise to adapt to these changes and cast off tradition without a second thought; others cling to the ideals of tradition and worry that social change will result in societal collapse. Many of these changes are simply inevitable; they require adjustment if one wants survival and societal advancement. Social change, however, is continuous and fluid; as soon as society adjusts and settles, there is typically a new development to be addressed.

Works Cited:

Brown, Delmer M. “The Impact of Firearms on Japanese Warfare, 1543-98.” Far Eastern Quarterly. 7.3 (1948): 236-253. Print.

Jongmyung, Kim. “King Sejong’s Buddhist Faith and the Invention of the Korean Alphabet: A Historical Perspective.” Korea Journal. 47.3 (2007): 134-159. Print.

“Tanegashima (Japanese matchlock).” Wikipedia. Wikipedia, 16 Feb 2014. Web. 11 Mar 2014.

Tree with Deep Roots. Writ. Kim Young-hyun and Park Sang-yeon. Dir. Jang Tae-yoo. Seoul Broadcasting System, 2011.

Yoshikawa, Eiji. Taiko. Trans. William Scott Wilson. New York: Kodansha USA, 2012. Print.

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