Gender Norms and Violations in Ancient Japan and Korea

Hideyoshi with his wife and concubines

Hideyoshi with his wife and concubines

Gender norms played a significant role in the cultures of Japan and Korea. By examining Taiko and also “Tree With Deep Roots,” the reader/viewer can better understand how men and women were expected to act in society and also how these rules were often violated.

Japanese culture held the belief that, “manlike behaviors include suppression of the emotions. It is important to be free from lingering attachments, so that one does not hesitate for a second to kick one’s wife out if something is found wrong with her” (Levine, pg. 168).   This idea sets up two notions about Japanese culture. Firstly, men are to epitomize masculinity by being strong warriors, the leader of the household, and unemotional. Secondly, women are inferior to men; a wife is meant to obey her husband and nothing more. These were the ideal roles for men and women in Japanese culture.

In Taiko, Hideyoshi’s parents did not completely match the Japanese ideals of men and women. Instead of Hideyoshi’s father, Yaemon, being the primary provider and his mother being subservient, Hideyoshi’s father was crippled and unable to provide for his family. This left Hideyoshi’s mother, Onaka, playing the role of both man and woman in the household (Yoshikawa, pg. 8).  Yaemon was especially ashamed of this, feeling as if he was a failure because he could not support his family and his wife was forced to (Yoshikawa, pg. 11). His shame and belief that he is a letdown demonstrate that his role in the household is not what society expects. Instead of being an able-bodied and capable provider, he is essentially useless to his family. After the death of her first husband, Onaka marries Chikuami, a much better example of the Japanese masculine ideal. Chikuami was more able to provide for Hideyoshi’s family. He also held the belief that Onaka was too lenient with Hideyoshi and took it upon himself to be stern with the unruly child. Though his methods may have seemed cruel, Chikuami was upholding the belief that men needed to be strong and domineering.

Hideyoshi, however, both exemplifies and violates traditional gender norms. He is often portrayed as a cunning and capable leader, someone who is able to complete tasks others cannot, often in unconventional ways. However, he also has times when he expresses emotions, a typically feminine trait. After reading a letter from his mother, Hideyoshi openly cries, something that is even witnessed by his servants. Hideyoshi’s servants witness his breakdown and are clearly unnerved by it, prompting him to respond, “Is there something strange about crying when you’re supposed to?” (Yoshikawa, pg. 150). The servants are visibly uncomfortable about this atypical display of strong emotions from a warrior, but Hideyoshi is able to combat the gender norm that men, especially masculine men, should not demonstrate any emotions. Instead of maintaining a stiff-upper-lip mentality, Hideyoshi embraces his emotions.

Hideyoshi was also surprisingly compassionate toward his wife and “had high esteem for her and [a] close bond of affection” (Boscaro, pg. 417). While he was away, Hideyoshi wrote many letters to his wife inquiring after he health and updating her as to his whereabouts. He even would have her send him his concubines. This was customary at the time, so it was not insulting to Nene to be asked to do this. In fact, the reason he asked Nene to do this was because he trusted her so completely. He further showed his concern for her happiness when he “feigned indifference” regarding the pregnancy of one of his concubines. As Nene could not herself become pregnant, Hideyoshi pretended that he was not excited so that he would not hurt her feelings by making her feel inferior or less important (Boscaro, pg. 418). Hideyoshi’s actions toward his wife show that he believed that a successful man was more than just masculine; he was also compassionate and understanding.

Much like in Japan, men and women in ancient Korea were on different levels. Men dominated the public sphere. However, in Korea there was an indigenous belief that women should have more freedom than they were typically allotted in other cultures. So, instead of being completely controlled by men, women were given some allowance. There were certain paths that allowed them a degree of autonomy and status (Kshetrimayum, pg. 29). Instead of being largely ignored, women in Korea were able to occupy a place in society that offered them more freedom an da greater ability to have a societal role.

In “Tree With Deep Roots,” the audience is exposed to Korean values and gender norms. In the first episode, viewers see the Korean queen going to her husband, King Sejong, and asking him to spare her father (Lee, Episode 1). It’s a powerful, tearful moment, something that may not seem strong in the beginning; however, the Queen actually shows great strength here, more so than her husband. The fact that she is able to approach the King and ask for this shows that she has courage. This is later emphasized when she comes to King Sejong and tells him that her father has been killed and that he died with honor. In doing this, she is essentially telling King Sejong that this is his fault, that he was not a strong enough man to stop this. By pointing out the King’s shortcomings and by calling him weak, the Queen is potentially taking a huge risk – he would have every right to retaliate. But she refuses to allow him to sit back and think this will all just pass. Instead, she knows she must show him how he was wrong in order to spur him into action because she does not have the power to do anything on her own.

This moment also shows something about King Sejong. In the beginning, he is not a strong, confident leader and thus violates the important ideals of masculinity and power. This violation leads him to feel weak and ashamed, as subtly shown through his silent battle between doing what he knows is right and what his father orders. He attempts to warn his father-in-law, Shim Won, by writing him a letter, but his plan is flawed and the letter does not reach Shim Won in time. His choice to merely write a letter is still weak. Though he is taking action, he is doing as little as he possibly can. He makes this decision because he does not want to disappoint his wife, who has essentially called his masculinity into question, yet he is also scared of his father’s retaliation should he intervene. King Sejong is more of a frightened young boy than anything, which makes him an ineffective, unreliable leader.

Ultimately, King Sejong realizes he must defy his father and reclaim his masculinity and prove that he is a real man (Lee, Episodes 2-3). At the beginning of “Tree with Deep Roots” episode 3, though it appears at first that King Sejong is asking for his father’s forgiveness and is acting as weak as ever, he is in fact out-doing his father. He accepts that his father will remain in control of the army, as all he wants is to spend his time with scholars and academics. When asked about the lunchbox that was sent to him, King Sejong tells his father he received no such box and that this will be best since, after all, he will live longer. This moment is particularly interesting and intense. Though King Sejong appears to be further relinquishing control to his father, he is instead showing him that he has some power and that he cannot be disposed of so easily. By saying he will live longer, King Sejong is defying his father and telling him that, essentially, he will outwait and outlive him and then be in control of Joseon.


King Sejong goes to confront his father

King Sejong goes to confront his father


King Sejong is best known for his creation of the Korean alphabet, a pursuit that is at the center of the series. One of his advisors is also the best example of a strong female character in “Tree with Deep Roots”: So-Yi. Though some might perceive her inability to speak as a weakness, her eidetic memory and ability to read and write prove she is anything but weak. In fact, she is a key player in King Sejong’s mission to create a Korean alphabet because of her eidetic memory. In addition to being an advisor to King Sejong, So-Yi is also trusted with important, discreet missions. Because of her intelligence and loyalty, she is able to demonstrate her worth to King Sejong and proves to be an important character and pivotal in creating the Korean alphabet.

Though Japan and Korea had very strict beliefs for how men and women should act, there were many examples of people eschewing these gender norms. Some were for the best: So-Yi was strong, independent, and loyal, and thus able to help King Sejong in his efforts to unify Korea under one alphabet; Hideyoshi was a fierce warrior and leader, but managed to also have a compassionate, humanizing side that made him relatable. Others were not: King Sejong, as a young ruler, did nothing to inspire confidence in his abilities – he was weak and unable to free himself from the suffocating rule of his father, the Former King; Hideyoshi’s father was a cripple and believed he was useless to his family, but, instead of finding a way to overcome this, he wasted away and died. By recognizing negative gender ideals, such as the inferiority of women and incorrect assumption that women have no value, and embracing positive gender beliefs, these characters from Taiko and “Tree with Deep Roots” demonstrated that the gender roles dictated by ancient Japanese and Korean culture were unfair and limiting, instead of allowing for members of each society to reach their full potential.




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

Levine, Donald. “The Masculinity Ethic and the Spirit of Warriorhood in Ethiopian and Japanese Cultures.” International Journal of Ethiopian Studies 2 (2005-2006): 161-77. JSTOR. Web. 12 Mar. 2014.

Boscaro, Adriana. “An Introduction to the Private Correspondence of Toyotomi Hideyoshi.” Monumenta Nipponica 27.4 (1972): 415-21. JSTOR. Web. 28 Apr. 2014.

Kshetrimayum, Otojit. “Women and Shamanism in Manipur and Korea: A Comparative Study.” Indian Anthropologist 39.1/2 (2009): 17-34. JSTOR. Web. 28 Apr. 2014.

Jung-Myung, Lee, Kim Young-Hyun, and Park Sang-Yeon. “Episode 1.” Tree with Deep Roots. Dir. Jang Tae-Yoo and Shin Kyung-Soo. 5 Oct. 2011. Television.

Jung-Myung, Lee, Kim Young-Hyun, and Park Sang-Yeon. “Episode 2.” Tree with Deep Roots. Dir. Jang Tae-Yoo and Shin Kyung-Soo. 6 Oct. 2011. Television.

Jung-Myung, Lee, Kim Young-Hyun, and Park Sang-Yeon. “Episode 3.” Tree with Deep Roots. Dir. Jang Tae-Yoo and Shin Kyung-Soo. 12 Oct. 2011. Television.

“Tree With Deep Roots: Episode 2 » Dramabeans » Deconstructing Korean Dramas and Kpop Culture.” Dramabeans Tree With Deep Roots Episode 2 Comments. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2014.

“Image Gallery: Taiko Gosai Rakuto Yukan No Zu 太閤五妻洛東遊観之図 (Picture of Hideyoshi and His Five Wives Viewing the Cherry-blossom at Higashiyama).” British Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2014.


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