No Honor Among Ninja?

Ninja versus Samurai

Ninja versus Samurai

No Honor Among Thieves Ninja?

The role of a ninja is in flux in the cultures depicted in Taiko and “Tree with Deep Roots.”  This digital essay will argue that, within these texts, characters acting in the role of a ninja are viewed as dishonorable warriors.

The role of ninja: an explication

The role of the ninja inhabits an ambiguous moral space in Taiko and “Tree with Deep Roots,” but remains vital part of both texts because ninja (and ninja-like) behavior is unique in the way that it deviates or conforms to traditional cultural ideals of honor. Characters and culture in both Taiko and “Tree with Deep Roots” place great value on honorable behavior, honorable living, and honorable relationships. For both Japanese samurai and Korean warriors in these texts, what is or is not honorable dictates daily life. Those who are—or who act as—ninja, however, seem to occupy an ambiguous space as both scapegoat and deviant within these cultures. Japanese and Korean cultures differ some in how they view these ninja and ninja-like characters, but overall these characters are still seen as less honorable. Whether an individual is simply dressed as a ninja or ninja by occupation, the system of ethics, morality, and responsibility is slightly different from the norm for these characters.

Taiko explains this differing system of ethics by showing the reader that, while the highest honor for a regular samurai is to die for his lord, a Japanese ninja cannot function within this line of thought (Yoshikawa 356). According to Taiko, ninja must stay alive regardless of the metaphorical cost to their honor, as they are of no service to their masters if they are killed before completing their missions (Yoshikawa 356). Though staying alive is an integral part of a ninja’s mission, ninja in Taiko are not viewed as honorably as regular samurai because of this particular tick. Ninja also reflects a social occupation in Japanese culture; it is a role passed from father to son, and individuals are trained as ninja because of their family ties (Bertrand 12). This facet of Japanese ninja culture relegates the dishonor to certain families, certain groups of people—though in many cases ninja would work anonymously—but this makes sense for a culture in which a single person’s “dishonorable” behavior could disseminate dishonor through his/her entire family.

Group of ninja training

Group of ninja training

Discussing ninja and honor in reference to “Tree with Deep Roots” is interesting because, as a K-drama, the text is Korean and thus does not explicitly name people as “ninja.” Though this digital essay recognizes that the term “ninja” is not used in Korean culture, for its purposes and ease of understanding, those in the K-drama who dress in nondescript, black or darkly colored monochromatic garb will be referred to as “acting-ninja” “or ninja-like,” as they are occupying a role that is in some ways synonymous with that of the Japanese ninja in Taiko. In “Tree with Deep Roots,” men who are dressed as ninja, functioning as such, do so because they are engaging in dishonorable actions; the garb dissociates blame for misconduct from different leaders, such as King Sae Jong or the Root. Dressing as a ninja in the K-drama is used a disguise that masks responsibility for an individual’s actions and makes it all the more difficult to situate said individual into the normative social hierarchy of Joseon. The concealing of a person’s social role through ninja-like clothing is an interesting facet of the K-drama, as characters who are not ninja by occupation (because “ninja” by name are a role unique to Japan) don ninja-like disguises and function as acting-ninja over the course of the television series.

The black sheep of the ninja in Taiko

Ninja are essentially the black sheep of the samurai in Taiko. They may be retainers in a lord’s house and even hold places of favor but, because of the samurai code of honor, ninja are not regarded by their peers are truly honorable samurai. This is due to the fact that one of the main tenets of the samurai code, as explained in Taiko, is that there is nothing more honorable for a samurai than dying in the service of his lord (Yoshikawa 356). For ninja, the code of honor in regards to death differs from that of regular samurai because ninja must stay alive regardless of the metaphorical cost to their honor. Because of the samurai way of life, ninja are perceived as less honorable members of society.

Illustration of Nobunaga

Illustration of Nobunaga

The text demonstrates this on multiple occasions: before the battle against Yoshimoto, Nobunaga’s generals declare that he does not even have to ask them to give their lives for him (Yoshikawa 199). During this battle and others like it, samurai often yell out their names and their loyalties during a charge so that they are known even in death for their honorable connections to their lords (Yoshikawa 210). These examples demonstrate the degree to which death for one’s lord is ingrained into the samurai culture in Taiko, as well as the ease with which samurai are willing to sacrifice themselves for the interlocked combination of their lord and honor (both personal and clan honor). Additionally, the practice of seppuku—or declaring that one will commit seppuku— is frequently as a common show of repentance for an error that goes against the wishes or honor of a samurai’s lord. On several occasions, Hideyoshi offers his suicide to Nobunaga or claims that he will commit seppuku when enemies/potential allies refuse to see him, saying that he will do so because he has failed Nobunaga (Yoshikawa 280). In all of these ways, it becomes obvious that a samurai’s death in the service of his lord is seen as the ultimate act of devotion and servitude. This idea is confirmed by Cameron Hurst in his essay on the bushido ideal, in which he writes that samurai found value in “a reckless death offered up in the lord’s name” (Hurst 515).

Illustration of Hideyoshi

Illustration of Hideyoshi

The ninja stands contrary to all of these ideas surrounding honorable samurai death and, in many ways, the ninja is seen as a set apart sub-category of samurai (Howland 361). Rather than their purpose being in death for their lord, a ninja would operate under the assumption that he is no good to his lord dead; death means that he has not obtained and relayed the information for which he was sent, or that his mission is otherwise incomplete (Yoshikawa 357). Though one could say that this behavior and outlook is the ninja’s honorable service to his lord, other samurai view this clinging to life as a less honorable way to live; Taiko references ninja as being called “depraved samurai,” which points towards the idea that, at least from the view of other samurai, ninja are seen as less-honorable, less-notable social positions (Yoshikawa 357).

It is worth noting that, since the ninja in Taiko try to remain anonymous, there is little direct interaction between a ninja and a regular samurai in which both parties are aware of the status of the other. The exception to this, of course, is when Hideyoshi (then called Tokichiro) correctly deduces that Ganmaku is a ninja for Nobunaga, but our protagonist is not prone to condescension and, at the time, inhabits a lower social class, which means that the reader does not truly see how samurai and ninja interact (Yoshikawa 120).

A ninja’s role in “Tree with Deep Roots”

The word “ninja” is never explicitly used in “Tree with Deep Roots.” As stated at the beginning of this essay, hereafter characters discussed as “acting-ninja” are referenced as such because of their outer appearance and the social roles they play. Although the term “ninja” is not used in “Tree with Deep Roots,” several characters temporarily (or consistently) serve in the role of the ninja. They do this by dressing in black—or similarly dark, monochromatic garb—and use this disguise when they participate in covert operations over the course of the K-drama. When characters want to act anonymously, unaffiliated with organizations, leaders, or social groups, they utilize ninja-like clothing and function as acting-ninja.

Sung Sam Moon and Park in ninja-like garb

Sung Sam-moon and Park Paeng-nyeon in ninja-like garb

Characters wear ninja garb in an effort for secrecy and anonymity, or to demonstrate a lack of social ties. The clearest reason for wearing ninja garb in “Tree with Deep Roots” is anonymity. By wearing black, characters in the show hide their true colors—their place within society, their allegiance to a group or leader, and their motivations. This can be seen in Episode Six, when Sung Sam-moon and Park Paeng-nyeon forsake their scholars’ garb and dress in black when they steal the corpses from the butcher’s shop. Though they are merely trying to satisfy their own curiosity about the murders, dressing in black as opposed to their typical scholars’ clothing denotes secrecy to the viewer and helps to disguise them from other characters in the event that they are caught.

Assassin Pyung in Ninja-like Clothing

Assassin Pyung in Ninja-like Clothing

This is not to say that the clothing obscures the wearer’s identity through obstructing the faces, fingerprints, or other stereotypical markers of identification on characters. In “Tree with Deep Roots,” the anonymity of ninja garb is used to obscure characters’ social identity. Only one man, Yoon Pyung, wears a mask in addition to his ninja-like clothing; the rest of the characters who dress as ninjas do not obstruct their faces. The disguise here is social; dressing in unmarked, dark clothing eliminates the social markers that typify some of the other clothing choices in the K-drama. The bright red uniforms of Kyum Sa and the bureaucrats’ headgear—any color-coded or occupation-specific garments of the scholars, bureaucrats, and servants—are replaced with clothes in ninja-like muted colors when characters engage in illicit, illegal, and/or potentially violent activities. Ninja garb could be seen as the social equalizer; everyone wearing it has (relatively) equal potential for action, though clearly some are more talented at fighting than others.

Similarly, the assassin, first seen by viewers in Episode Five, always wears nondescript black or un-dyed clothing much like the garb used by Sung Sam-moon and Park Paeng-nyeon previously mentioned above. Yoon Pyung, as we find out the assassin is called in Episode Seven, is perhaps the only person in “Tree with Deep Roots” who truly functions as an acting-ninja for the show’s entirety. (I say “perhaps” because it never becomes clear how he is affiliated with Hidden Root, whether he is a member or actually a kind of hired killer.) This character provides the clearest example of how ninja-like clothing can obscure someone’s societal identity; because Yoon Pyung wears the nondescript black or un-dyed clothing we typically associate with ninjas, viewers and other characters are unable to situate him within the cultural hierarchy of Joseon. Whereas, when they are normally clothed, it is possible to distinguish scholars like Park Paung-nyeon and Sung Sam-moon from officials like Jo Mal Saeng and Lee Shin Juk based on their typical attire, it is impossible to know where Yoon Pyung belongs because his clothes do not give this away. His social anonymity further impedes the investigation into the mysterious murders seen earlier and the violence he commits against the roving band of beggars in Episode Twenty-Two, and the nondescript clothing helps Yoon Pyung remain anonymous while he carries out his violent missions for the duration of the show.

Chae-Yoon in ninja-like garb

Chae-Yoon in ninja-like garb

When Chae Yoon is the member of Kyum Sa investigating the murders carried out by Yoon Pyung, he wears the traditional garb of those soldiers. After Sae Jong essentially gives So-Yi to Chae Yoon and set them both free in Episode Thirteen, Chae Yoon leaves his soldier’s garb and dresses all in black, ninja-like clothing in order to temporarily. In Chae Yoon’s case, the ninja garb first indicates a freedom from attachment, or a lack of loyalty to any entity. Even after the pair returns and Chae Yoon is reemployed with Kyum-Sa, he repeatedly dons the ninja garb and functions as an acting-ninja for the duration of his work helping Sae Jong distribute and publish his letters. There is a shift here, once Chae Yoon begins working in conjunction with/for Sae Jong; his new reason for wearing ninja garb is not freedom from attachment, but anonymity. It would not do for a Kyum Sa soldier to be running around questioning people, getting in fights, or attracting attention to the servant women while they secretly try to distribute the language (Episodes 20-22). A young man in black clothing, however, attracts much less attention than a palace soldier. Through this line of reasoning, it becomes clear that Chae Yoon—as well as Choo Tak and Park Po, when they accompany him or the servant girls—dress in ninja garb in order to avoid identification or profuse attention (Episode 21).

By nature of the secretive, conscious anonymity employed by characters who wear ninja-like clothing, these characters’ actions are viewed as suspicious and dishonorable. Characters in ninja-like clothing are questioned or derided by those whose clothing clearly denotes their rank, as when Chae Yoon is detained by soldiers before brandishing the king’s seal (Episode 22). The dishonor here lies not in the type of actions characters in ninja-like clothing are likely to commit, but in their disassociation from the socio-cultural hierarchy of Joseon. This Confucius-revering culture whose rigid structure provides much of the tension within the text is not forgiving of those who do not clearly denote where they are situated within the country’s class system. People in ninja-like clothing are able to move about relatively unnoticed but, as in the case of Chae Yoon and the soldiers in Episode 22, interactions with anyone of social standing are difficult because those wearing ninja-like clothing have obscured their social rank and are thus treated as lower-class citizens. Such is the culture as depicted by this text: one may easily shed one’s signifiers of rank and dress anonymously, but in doing so one temporarily sheds one’s social class and the honor, duty, and/or education with which it is associated.

The role of the ninja and dishonor: a conclusion

Both the Japanese culture depicted in Taiko and the Korean culture depicted in “Tree with Deep Roots” revere honor as an important character trait. Ninja in Taiko are vilified as dishonorable, the proverbial scapegoats for immoral behavior because their ultimate goal is not the death and honor for which other samurai risk themselves (Ikegami 1352). The vilification of ninja-like characters in the K-drama is much more subtle, but these characters are nonetheless viewed as less honorable, and less important, when their identities are disguised by ninja-like clothing. Because ninja and ninja-like characters cannot exist completely outside of these cultures and thus exist within them, their honor is dictated by what is seen as honorable by the cultures. As such, the role of the ninja inhabits a dishonorable space.

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