Honor As A Driving Force

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 concept of honor has been weaved through the lifestyles of both Korea and Japan for centuries. In the popular Korean drama Tree With Deep Roots two of the leading characters, Ddol Bok and King Sejong battle the concept of honor in very personal ways. King Sejong wants to be remembered as a leader of his people, for his people and wishes to give back to the lower class and grant them more power and education. While Ddol Bok’s main concern is avenging the wrongful death of his father; however he learns that the best way to honor and avenge his father may not be to end a life, but instead to honor his father’s last wish that Ddol Bok would become literate. Throughout Eiji Yoshikawa’s Taiko you see the importance of Hideyoshi redeeming the honor lost by his father to his family. There are several characters in Taiko that are clear representatives of how much weight the concept of honor held over them in the decisions they made as men. Honor ruled the lives of many in feudal Japan and Korea, and it proved to be both detrimental and beneficial.

A young Samurai in his prime.

A young Samurai in his prime.

When I think of Samurai I always think about the bushido code or “the way of the samurai” and how honor is the driving force behind almost every decision a samurai and his clan make. In Eiji Yoshikawa’s Taiko there are a few scenarios in which honor is called into question. One that stuck out to me the most is in the chapter “Three Princesses” when Nobunaga kills his brother in law, Nagamasa. Nobunaga is power hungry and anyone that gets in his way in his pursuit of it is his enemy, family or not. While in retrospect one can say that Nobunaga’s decision to attack Odani castle and kill Nagamasa was not a matter of honor but a matter of necessity. But, considering Nobunaga’s affiliation with samurai I cannot help but wonder what he was thinking in killing a member of his family, an act that is considered to be one of the most dishonorable of all. Alas, Nobunaga does reserve some sense of honor in sparing the lives of his sister and her children; he is relieved to see that they are safe and unscathed. However, he can sense the anger coming from his sister Oichi but is still personally offended that she feels such disdain for him, “he felt an uncontrollable revulsion for the foolish woman who could not understand her brother’s great love” (Taiko 421). I don’t really know how Nobunaga expected his sister to react, obviously if you kill her husband and put his head on a platter to be presented to her and her children her reaction was not going to be a positive one. While yes he may have seen this as a necessary course of action here is still no honor in killing a member of ones family, on any level. It seems as if honor and the way of the samurai is a concept that can become jaded when the possibility of gaining power comes into play.

If we look at the opposite side of the spectrum the affiliation with samurai has its positive aspects. . The Bushido code, or way of the samurai, is the main guideline to how a samurai should act as an individual and as a warrior. The “way” teaches the value of devotion and responsibility and the importance of honoring ones family. In the beginning of Taiko, Hideyoshi makes it clear that he wishes to restore honor to his family’s name and he knows the way to go about it is working for a samurai and then to eventually become one. Samurai understood the importance of respecting not only yourself but also your enemy. What wrong is there in searching for a purpose in your life, and understanding the importance of honor to you and your family? The character development of Hideyoshi exemplifies the importance of restoring his family name and honor after his father fails to do so. Even Yaemon, Hideyoshi’s father recognizes that Hideyoshi is the only hope the family has in restoring honor to their family name, “A father was supposed to be the best judge of his son, but even at his most optimistic, Yaemon could not see how this strange looking, snotty nosed little brat was going to rise above his parents and wash away the disgrace from their name. Still, Hiyoshi was his only son, and Yaemon rested impossible hopes in him” (Taiko 10). Holding a low position in society and making one single mistake that could ruin your career brings dishonor to not only the individual themselves, but their entire family name.

When we take a look at how honor is weaved into the lives of the character in the Korean drama Tree With Deep Roots we see how honor has a very personal impact on each person. The story’s main character, Ddol Bok, has lived his entire life in the hopes that he would be able to honor his father’s death and take down the person who he thought was responsible for his death, King Sejong. The main premise of the show is King Sejong’s hope that he would do something for his people that will be beneficial to them in the present and future, Ddol Bok must make the decision to join King Sejong or kill him. Ddol Bok doesn’t know that King Sejong actually saved his life and the life of his childhood Dam. He soon becomes a member of the king’s guard under the alias Chae-yoon and discovers that King Sejong is working on a secret project with the help of several people. The project is the creation of a Korean alphabet, which is supposed to help the common people and give them the power to fight against those who abuse their power. When Ddol Bok finds the long awaited opportunity to kill King Sejong he can’t do it, even as King Sejong steps into Ddol Bok’s sword.

King Sejong in K-drama series Tree With Deep Roots

King Sejong in K-drama series Tree With Deep Roots

In a sudden revelation, both men realize who each other are. Ddol Bok realizes that King Sejong saved his life so many years ago. Sejong realizes that the words that came from Ddol Bok’s wailing mouth that night stayed with him and that Ddol Bok is the reason for all that he is doing now. Sejong attempts to persuade Ddol Bok to understand that the alphabet is for the good of the people and tells him that he wants Ddol Bok to come to his side because Ddol Bok was at one point a part of the people he is now trying to save. Ddol Bok however still argues with King Sejong and says that writing will do no good for the common people, it cannot make them nobles and it cannot make rice. Sejong fights back and says that it “may not make rice, but it will teach the people more ways to make it and that it may not make them nobles but it will help them to fight back”.

When King Sejong asks why Ddol Bok is so negative about it, Ddol Bok breaks down and tells him that it’s because of his father’s will. It is his father’s words that brought him to tears since his last wish was Ddol Bok learn to read and write. His father felt that because he did not learn to read and write he was a halfwit, so it is Ddol Bok duty to become literate and live well. Thus presenting Ddol Bok with the realization that perhaps killing King Sejong is not the way to avenge his father’s death, but instead for him to join the king’s cause and educate himself and his people. King Sejong is also working to restore the honor that he felt his had tainted during his oppressive rule. As a young prince King Sejong hid from his father and was too much of a coward to confront him on his wrong doings. He knew that what his father was doing to the people was not for the good of the people but a cruel example of the abuse of his power as their leader. Now that Sejong is the single ruler of Joseon he has chosen to devote his life to bettering the lives of the people his father worked so hard to destroy. He was very influenced personally by Ddol Bok when he was a young boy, and from that night until his death he will work to give the people what they need to sustain themselves.


Mulan cuts her hair after her decision to take her father’s place in battle.

I wanted to use a classic example that we are all probably very familiar with. In Disney’s animated film Mulan the title character makes the decision to replace her father in battle because she feels he is not fit for battle anymore, which he is not. As a woman the only thing Mulan has to do is find a fit husband to love and support in whatever way she can, so naturally her decision to do the exact opposite brings great “dishonor” to her family name. When the men of each family are called to battle Mulan’s father steps forward, even though he still suffers from an injured leg from his previous ventures in battle. Because of the importance of value in Chinese culture he would rather step forward and fight with an injury that stay at home and neglect his duty as a husband, a father and as a man. Mulan takes matters into her own hand and doesn’t care about the honor her father is so keen on keeping and leaves their home to fight in his place, because she knows if he left he would not make it. Anyways, we all know the story and how her ancestors are very concerned in preserving honor in their family and when Mulan comes home she apologizes for disappointing and dishonoring her father, and her father says, “the greatest honor is having you for a daughter”. In the end Mulan recognizes that the most honorable acts are the ones done out of love and devotion to one’s family.

Each of these examples are clear cut representations of the power honor has over the decisions a person makes and how a family is viewed even after they are gone. Hideyoshi’s determination to restore the family names and his father’s desperation to see him do it show why it is so important that the people of each family understand that everything they do reflects on their family for generations. Ddol Bok at first feels the only way to honor his father’s memory is to kill King Sejong, but he then realizes the the best way to honor him is to help King Sejong and become literate and become the man his father never could be. King Sejong is making up for his lack of sticking up to his father and never stopping the cruel and unusual punishments he carried out against those who were less powerful than him. He recognizes that everyone should be given the opportunity and the tools that will help them to not fall behind and be able to fight for their rights, which is why his secret project is so important to him, he knows that education is how he can give back to his people. Mulan may be a woman but she still carries the weight and pressure of preserving her family’s honor. But, she recognizes that in order to save her father she has to do the unthinkable and stand in as his fictional son, in doing so she brings the greatest honor to her family and the greatest pride to her father.

The concept of honor can become one that is jaded to men on a very personal level. It’s interesting how an intangible idea such as honor, can drive a man to make the decision to hurt his own sister, but at the same time live his entire life to maintain the honor that comes with his name.


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

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

Mulan. Dir. Tony Bancroft, Barry Cook. Disney, 1998. Film

1999 Bushido: Warrior Code of Conduct The Samurai. Akido World Web Journal.


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Honor As A Driving Force by Autumn Vaughn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Based on a work athttps://polygrafi.wordpress.com/2014/05/01/honor-as-a-driving-force/.