Gender Complexity Demonstrated in Taiko and Tree with Deep Roots

A Female Samurai, Revolutionary for the Time

A Female Samurai, Revolutionary for the Time

Demonstrations of gender vary between the characters of Taiko and Tree with Deep Roots. While some characters embody their gender stereotypes, others contradict traditional expectations. Further, by highlighting the intricacy of both genders within this setting, one can recognize how this concept transcends the text and represents overall gender complexity.


There were a number of societal expectations of both sexes during this time period, established by an article about Japanese femininity by Kazuko Sato, Mitsuyo Suzuki and Michi Kawamura, and an article about Japanese masculinity by Walter Williams. As established by Sato, Suzuki and Kawamura, traditionally, women at this time were expected to act demure, patient and kind (88). They stated specifically that “The idea of female dependence played a dominant role throughout a women’s life. A woman was expected to be dependent first on the father, later the husband, and, ultimately, on the son” (Sato, et al. 88). Likewise, the ideal man of this time was active, strong and able to provide for his family (Williams 71). Derived from studying “The Love of the Samurai” by Tsuneo Watanabe and Jun’ichi Iwata, Williams depicts masculinity further on page 71 by saying, “Japanese men have adopted the Western view that only women are supposed to exhibit beauty. Men are told that they should possess what they want (i.e., a beautiful woman), rather than to be beautiful themselves. This transformation of beauty into a feminine attribute “is in reality a limitation or reduction of the domain of masculinity itself…. [It is] the body itself which modern civilization refuses to allow to men … and demands of men that they be only an active, invisible and disembodied spirit” (Watanabe and Iwata 130). Reinforced by society, the values of Confucianism and its definitions of important relationships served as a basis for how the genders were to interact within and with others. Yet, while some characters of Taiko and Tree with Deep Roots act singularly and embody contextual expectations, many others are multifaceted and seem to contradict what society asks of their sex. Specifically, Onaka, Nene, Lady Ano and So-Yi being atypical and unusual, demonstrate the complexity of women during this time period, while Hideyoshi and King Sejong represent intricate male characters who cannot be defined or restricted by mere stereotypes. By recognizing that both men and women of Taiko and Tree with Deep Roots are complex and untraditional according to Japanese and Korean society, readers can further interpret these unique characters are representations of overall gender complexity that transcends the sources.

Empress Xiaozhey, an Atypical Woman who Went from Concubine to Empress

Empress Xiaozhey, an Atypical Woman who Went from Concubine to Empress

Influential Woman in Taiko

First, the introduction and demonstration of Hideyoshi’s mother Onaka exemplifies the complexity of women during this time, and that one can be unique within the traditional feminine confines of being a wife and mother. Traditionally, she is seen as caring for her children “She had one bright hope: to bring up Hiyoshi and make him the kind of son and heir who would grow up quickly and be able to present her husband with at least a bit of sake every day” (Yoshikawa 9). Additionally, Onaka’s perspective illuminates concepts of masculinity and provides supplementary social commentary. In the opening chapter of Book One of Taiko, Onaka is seen as the primary caretaker and ‘breadwinner’ of the household, due to her husband Yaemon being crippled in battle. The narrator comments on her frustration, saying that “In the days when her husband had gone off to battle, this equipment had been the best he had. It was now covered with soot and, like her husband, useless. Every time she looked at it, she felt nothing but disgust” (Yoshikawa 7). Onaka’s criticism of her husband and his nontraditional behavior suggests that there are strict standards for masculinity in this society, that when unrepresented are criticized. Yaemon’s incapacity to provide for his family and lack of will to live is looked down upon, particularly in comparison to Danjo, a family friend. Danjo, while having been injured in war as well, still tries to be mentally active and remain influential in his family. Their difference in war roles also suggests that the aspirations to which men must strive are concrete as well and wholly representative of masculinity at the time. As demonstrated by this scene, men are expected to act a certain way and fulfill certain roles, and are less masculine when they fail to do so.

Nene, in Nun Attire after the death of Hideyoshi

Nene, wife of Hideyoshi, subverts traditional gender roles of her time through both her actions and the descriptions given to her by other male characters. She 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. Interestingly, Nene’s character and personality is described thoroughly by Hideyoshi, where a number of her unique features are highlighted rather than hidden. While Hideyoshi first describes Nene as “plain as cotton cloth” (Yoshikawa 127), he later learns that his wife is capable of so much more. When faced with the first surprise of their marriage, Nene is more than prepared, and Hideyoshi replies: “He praised her without thinking, but was suddenly struck with the thought that he hadn’t yet judged this woman correctly. She was even more capable than he had perceived before marrying her” (Yoshikawa 217). Nene, previously underestimated by her husband for her sex, strongly proves expectations incorrect and surprises both Hideyoshi as well as readers themselves. She is also described by her father, as he says “”Nene is not very talkative, but once she’s made up her mind, she doesn’t often change it” (Yoshikawa 202). To be stubborn, is not necessarily thought of as a typically desired feminine trait. Furthermore, Nene serves as an important female character of Taiko that subverts previously thought gender expectations. While Lady Ano, a female servant of Nobunaga’s, plays a small role in Taiko, her presence suggests a great deal about feminine complexity. In Book Seven, during the attack from Akechi warriors, Nobunaga personally joins the battle to defend his keep despite protests by his caretakers. Yet, Lady Ano not only aides him but refuses to leave his side, despite his saying: “Ano? What you’ve done here is enough. Now try to escape.” He motioned her off emphatically with his chin, but the court lady, Ano, kept passing arrow after arrow to Nobunaga’s right hand and would not leave, no matter how he upbraided her” (Yoshikawa 582). The imagery of the sentence, focused around Nobunaga’s right hand, highlights her importance in this sequence despite her sex. It is interesting to note, additionally, that no other men joined Nobunaga in this battle, nor sought to protect him. Also, the readers are given a classic characteristic of women, a desire to protect loved ones, utilized in a manner that elevates a female servant from commoner to fierce warrior and protector. Not even the dictates of a man could stop this woman from acting as she pleased. This passage suggests that women like Lady Ano are capable of thinking for themselves and their traditional values of protection transcend tranquil life and are present regardless of circumstance.

Important Women in Tree with Deep Roots 

Further, the representation of So-Yi in Tree with Deep Roots presents a complex female character from a different setting who still subverts societal expectations. From the beginning, So-Yi has to endure disapproval and judgment for her sex. Being smarter than most men, her intelligence is only displayed simultaneously with her faults and her silence. In the first episode of Tree with Deep Roots, towards the end, Ddol-Bok, his father Seok-Sam and So-Yi (Dam-Yi at the time) receive a letter from King Sejong to his father-in-law and are entrusted to take it. So-Yi reads the letter, presumably understands it, and sends Seok-Sam on to carry the letter. When it is revealed that the letter was switched and actually condemned Sejong’s father-in-law, he and Seok-Sam are killed. When confronted by Ddol-Bok, So-Yi reveals her incorrect reading of the letter, and then vows to remain mute from that point to repent for her mistake. In this instance, So-Yi pretends to be silent because of mistake in her judgment. Already censured for her gender, So-Yi’s intelligence and individuality is quashed further after her error cost her a man’s life. Throughout the series, as So-Yi is used for her intellectual prowess, she remains silent to convey the unimportance of her skills. Yet, King Sejong recognizes her value and continues to use her for her intellectual prowess throughout later episodes of Tree with Deep Roots. Overall, despite being repressed earlier for her unique intelligence and skills, So-Yi develops as a character, a worthy individual, and valued ally of King Sejong’s, regardless of previous boundaries.

So-Yi and King Sejong working on Hangul together.

So-Yi and King Sejong working on Hangul together.

Significant Men of Taiko

Similar to female characters of Taiko, protagonist Hideyoshi encountered plenty of scorn for his differences, yet prevailed over disapproval by being his unique self. Primarily, Hideyoshi is demonstrated as a more intellectual and passionate man than others, led by his mind and by his heart. Comparatively, he appears to be less physically expressive or violent. As a further description, the narration mentions that “He [Hideyoshi] realized that he would be separated from Nene for some time, and the desire to catch just a glimpse of her under the summer moon, there and then, welled up in his chest. It was his nature that nothing could stop him once he got an idea into his head, Tokichiro was a child of passion, and the uncontrollable passions and desires that dwelt in his heart dragged him to Nene’s house” (Yoshikawa 194). Such a display of emotion and feeling is atypical for masculinity at this time, as Williams mentioned previously that men were expected to focus on attaining such beauty rather than experiencing it for themselves (whether physically or emotionally). Aside from his rash and outspoken character, Hideyoshi is primarily acknowledge for his intellectual and mental superiority. His way with people, from enemies and allies alike, tends to benefit him the most, rather than leading armies through battle and slaughtering all who surround him. Uncommon for a man at the time, Hideyoshi represents how a revolutionary and exceptional man can attain all and become one of the most powerful men of Japan.

Portrait of Hideyoshi

Portrait of Hideyoshi

Subverted Men of Tree with Deep Roots 

Like Hideyoshi, King Sejong of Tree with Deep Roots is an unconventional male figure who chooses to fight with his mind and words rather than his fists at any given moment. King Sejong, the creator of Hangul, is criticized from early beginnings about his pursuit of intellectual strength. King Sejong is censured throughout his life by his father and other peers for being more interested in academic pursuits than those of war. In episode two of Tree with Deep Roots, Sejong is mocked by his father Taejong for being weak and refusing to make violent choices. Later, Taejong and Sejong debate about the implementation of a library and scholarly center in the kingdom, as Taejong says that “the king might be the puppet to the noblemen if he practices too much discussion and indirect power sharing” (Deep Roots, Episode 2). The capacity for communication is another feminine characteristic considered unworthy of men. To see more about the relationship between Sejong and Taejong, and their tense relationship due to their difference in opinions, check out the link below for a clip from another k-drama King Sejong the Great.

Then, in episodes 15-17, Sejong is continuously questioned by his scholars and bureaucrats about his choice to uplift the people, an action considered more feminine than the mere masculine act of conquering all. Regardless of criticism, King Sejong prevails in his passion and enacts Hangul for the good of the people. His actions and behavior, despite being untraditional for a man of his time and stature, influenced the outcome of the modern world. His portrayal in Tree with Deep Roots serves to reinforce the importance of his differences, regardless of criticism.


Furthermore, through the demonstration of characters within Taiko and Tree with Deep Roots, a number of unexpected qualities can be seen in both men and women of 16th century Japanese and Korean culture. Specifically, Onaka, Nene, Lady Ano and So-Yi are examples of multi-faceted female characters who influenced a great number of people and situations, while Hideyoshi and King Sejong represent men who could act differently than expected but still change the world. Considering that a number of these characters were real figures who enacted such change, it is reasonable to consider that this perspective of atypical characters can be studied within a general context.

Works Cited 

Sato Kazuko, Suzuki Mitsuyo and Kawamura Michi. “The Changing Status of Women in Japan.” International Journal of Sociology of the Family, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Spring 1987), pp. 87-108. JSTOR. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.

“King Sejong the Great”. KBS. South Korea. 2008. Television

“Tree with Deep Roots”. SBS. South Korea. 5 Oct. 2011. Television.

Williams, Walter L. “From Samurai to Capitalist: Male Love, Men’s Roles, and the Rise of Homophobia in Japan.” Journal of Men’s Studies 1.1 (1992): 71. ProQuest. Web. 20 Mar. 2014.

Yoshikawa, Eiji. Taiko. New York, NY: Kodansha USA, 2012. Print.


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