Masculinity: East and West



A man grasps the silhouette of the sun to represent power.

In both Taiko and “Tree With Deep Roots”, masculinity is determined by a man’s intellect, interpersonal relations, and his ability to see beyond the boundaries of societal structure thereby surpassing class limitations. By contrasting the concept of masculinity from the modern-day west with that which is depicted in these two Asian platforms, we will determine the impact of lens in cultural understanding.


The characters in each of these texts embody the strength of intellectual growth and application as they advance through their individual stories. By examining the concept of masculinity through the lens of modern-day, western civilization and comparing it to that which is depicted in Taiko and “Tree With Deep Roots” the impact of viewing both texts through preexisting lenses will be determined and heavily criticized.


The cover image of the book Taiko depicting samurai in feudal Japan.

The cover image of the book Taiko depicting samurai in feudal Japan.


The developments of social norms and expectations have long been the foundation upon which generations are built. However, the 21st century, westernized lens through which Taiko is now being analyzed renders itself flawed and vastly inadequate.

Yokishawa provides readers the unique opportunity to witness the growth and maturation of a young boy in feudal Japan. Hideyoshi experiences social construct differently than others in the story, and it is his application of experiential learning that stimulates his intellect and allows him to overcome class boundaries. From the beginning of the text, masculinity is heavily emphasized as desirable if not mandatory. The psychological development of masculinity begins with the opening scene of the text in which Hideyoshi is playing with a group of other young boys when confronted with the return of Japanese soldiers. The use of his nickname, Monkey, acts as a fire which when ignited encourages Hideyoshi to achieve more and gain subsequent respect. In Joseph Tobin’s discussion on the differences between child rearing in Japanese and American cultures, he states, “Japanese culture is group-oriented, in contrast to American culture’s individualism,” (Tobin 1156). This dramatic contrast in the development of interpersonal relationships is vital to the understanding of the relationships in this story.

Hideyoshi’s relationships with both his father and his stepfather become strong catalysts in the next stage of masculine development, both in their own ways. Hideyoshi’s father, Yaemon, is a wounded soldier, which further emphasizes the association between war and masculinity. However, Hideyoshi’s stepfather, Chikuami, is more agrarian focused with an emphasis on gender roles and familial duty. Later in the text, readers are presented with further characteristics attributed to masculinity: mental stamina, a balance of physical and emotional strength, and a deeply rooted understanding of duty. It is here that readers see the most contrast with western culture as intellect becomes as valuable as physical strength. Though other areas, such as emotional openness, are familiar and comfortable for the western mind. However, the unique interlocking of intellectual capability and capacity with success as a soldier and leader is the dropping off point for most readers. The Japanese culture of the time valued intellect in tandem with physical strength, embodied within Hideyoshi as he continues to prove his maturation and gain in ranks through his understanding of emotional appropriation, intellect, and honor. “The samurai political organization rested on the formation of strong emotional bonds between military masters and vassals upheld by a strict code of honor,” (Levine 164).

Through the text, it is important that the reader shed his or her cultural lens so as to fully appreciate the depth of characterization within the story. Though masculinity and gender roles are not unfamiliar to any culture, those that exist within this text challenge the western perspective and encourage the reader to extend beyond the preconceived notion of western masculinity.

Japanese illustration of a samurai warrior.

Japanese illustration of a samurai warrior.

A notion must accurately depicted by the following statement by Donald Levine:

“Even if humans possess a genetically-based behavioral system that tends towards physical aggression, cultural systems process that disposition in various ways – by glorifying it, polishing it, or suppressing it. They determine whether or not and how aggressive inclinations get molded into an ideal of what it means to be a ‘real man’.”

Furthermore, the emotional reserve so highly regarded in the Japanese culture, as mentioned in Taiko, “it was the upbringing of a samurai not to let anyone see his tears” (Yoshikawa 149), a unique familiarity and sense of harmony with one’s emotional state and awareness, is a characteristic of masculinity that was established during this period of feudal Japan – the context of this text – and continues still to be a major factor in the culture. “It was the spirit of reserve, collected force, and not primitive but deeply studied simplicity; it was a spirit which sought to compress the deepest meaning into the simplest form, and to put the most concentrated energy under the most perfect control,” (Asakawa 2)


Feature image for the Korean drama series "Tree With Deep Roots".

Feature image for the Korean drama series “Tree With Deep Roots”.

“Tree With Deep Roots”

This Korean drama series depicts the creation of the Korean alphabet by King Sejun. The ability to read and write gives agency to the people. However, the lower the socioeconomic status, the less time is available for activities other than work. The propaganda that has made its way through the Korean people in “Tree With Deep Roots” about the new alphabet must be disposed of, and it must be made clear that this new alphabet provides new opportunities and new promise.

Prior to the creation of the new Korean alphabet, the thousands of characters not only presented numerous obstacles for those learning them, but also limited the audience for its use. As expressed in episode 15, farmers do not have the time to waste hours learning how to read and write. However, this belief that the new alphabet will be similar to its predecessors is misguided, as made clear by the Prince. The King has a vision to create an alphabet that will unite the people and build the nation as a whole. The honest nature of the letters to the sound made by the mouth and throat is meant to encourage its usage.

With the attempted rise of the scholars into power, the manipulation of social status is key. The power of the scholars comes from their ability to read and write; their exposure to the written world gives them agency. However, if the lower classes of people were capable of reading and writing, as made possible by this new alphabet, the power might be equalized. It is for this reason that the implementation of the alphabet poses a threat to the scholars. Intelligence is power, and the power of the scholars stems directly from their ability to spend time learning, a luxury not afforded to the lower classes.

The implementation of the new alphabet will readjust the power in the nation and does indeed pose a threat to the plan  of the scholars to rise to power. The ability to express oneself through the written word and thusly converse on a wider platform is arguably one of the most important tools in gaining agency as both an individual and as a nation. A perfect depiction of this understanding can be found 13 minutes into the 17th episode of the series. How does this reflect masculinity in Korea? This concept of intellect being of equal if not greater importance in regards to power and respect, two things which are attributed to men in this patriarchal society.

28 letter alphabet created by King Sejong in the KDrama "Tree With Deep Roots".

28 letter alphabet created by King Sejong in the KDrama “Tree With Deep Roots”.

In Conclusion

The western concept of masculinity holds physical strength, independence, and emotional reserve in high esteem. A man who is aggressive is deemed more masculine than one who possess great intellectual depth. However, as proven through both Asian texts, intellect in these cultures is vital in the application of strength and strategy. Unfortunately, the conditioning most readers have when coming into contact with this text, specifically as it pertains to the class of Asian Literature, is in the realm of westernized stereotypes. This understanding of masculinity, femininity, and gender roles skews the overall perception of the characters in both contexts. In order to fully appreciate and understand the importance of the text from a historical standpoint in regards to reflection as well as a gender criticism, one must shed the lens of western culture.


Works Cited 

Asakawa, K. “Some of the Contributions of Feudal Japan to the New Japan.” Journal of Race Development. 3.1 (1912): 1-32. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.

Levine, Donald. “The Masculinity Ethic and the Spirit of Warriorhood in Ethiopian and Japanese Cultures.”International Journal of Ethiopian Studies. 2.1/2  (2005-2006): 161-177. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.

Tobin, Joseph. “Using “The Japanese Problem” as a Corrective to the Ethnocentricity of Western Theory.” Child Development. 71.5 (2000): 1155-1158. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.

Tree with Deep Roots. Writ. Lee Jung Myung. Dir. Jang Tao Yoo and Shin Kyung Soo. SBS, 2011. DramaFever.

Yoshikawa, Eiji. Taiko: An Epic Novel of War and Glory in Feudal Japan. 1st ed. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1992. Print.


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