Among many stark differences between Eastern and Western cultures, one that stands out most prominently is that of traditional gender roles. Through the exploration of Eiji Yoshikawa’s Taiko and the television series Tree With Deep Roots, readers are able to challenge the traditional Western definition of masculinity and the power ascribed to such attributes.
According to “The Cultural Politics of Masculinity,” masculinity is socially constructed, and its definition is dependent upon many factors including one’s geographic location: “various ‘geographies of masculinity’… historical and regional specificity, and spatial structures support particular forms of gender identity” (207). If asked to describe the attributes of true masculinity, one would likely reference those that are similar of the iconic manifestation of masculinity: John Wayne, the American cowboy. This Western construct of masculinity primarily values physical strength, a rogue behavior, and a stoic sense of emotional detachment. In Eastern cultures, quite the contrary is true. Jason Karlin goes so far to argue that Eastern masculinity and nationalism has its roots in the rejection of Western culture: “displays of manliness expressed through the rejection of Western material culture became a way of demonstrating one’s commitment to the nation” (42).
In relation to the novel Taiko, stereotypically Western feminine traits can be found in the diction surrounding the positive attributes of Hideyoshi that makes him a successful leader and samurai. Evidence of the value of emotion, intellect, and discipline can also be found in attributes of Sejong in Tree with Deep Roots. Though one cannot determine a type of masculinity as greater than another, it is evident that traditionally feminine attributes embodied in the Eastern archetype of masculinity are more advantageous to both Hideyoshi and Sejong than a strictly masculine, Western construct would allow. This evident overlap of Western femininity and Eastern masculinity forces the readers of Taiko and viewers of Tree With Deep Roots to deconstruct the reasoning for why power is ascribed to the traditional Western version of masculinity.
SEPPUKU: A MASCULINE SUICIDE?
The connotation towards suicide in most cultures has often been one of cowardice and submission to defeat. In Taiko, Hideyoshi frequently utilizes the threat of seppuku as a way to attain respect from others by showing the utmost loyalty for his values, which consequently asserts his role as a dominant male.
To meet death fearlessly shows unwavering commitment to ideals, a rare sight in a modern context. One of the most prominent examples of Hideyoshi’s display of this behavior can be found in Book Three when he tries to meet Hanbei, a great leader who lives at the top of Mount Kurihara. He states to Hanbei’s sister, “’If I see that it will be impossible to complete my lord’s order, I’ll commit seppuku right here by this swamp” (285). Hideyoshi merely wishes to speak with a man who refuses to acknowledge him. Though by threatening to kill himself, Hideyoshi is able to attain the respect he desires by Hanbei. Another example of this fearless commitment to values and his leaders can be found in Book Five. Hiding from his enemies, the narrator claims that Shikanosuke “had one great hope: to get close to his mortal enemy… and die stabbing him to death… after he had snatched away Kikkawa’s life, he would rejoice to meet his former lords in the afterworld” (473). In this culture, it seems that dying for one’s leader is the ultimate reverence for whoever is in command.
Although there is evident honor and commitment in these men, they are not necessarily greeting death without caution. Their reasons are carefully constructed. Hideyoshi displays his prudence when he approaches Nobunaga in Book Five: “‘I don’t want a single soldier to die in vain’” (468). Although these men are obviously committed to a certain code of honor, they are not careless in their decisions when it comes to approaching death. The sense of honor inherent in this reverence for leadership ultimately empowers Hideyoshi, securing his higher position of authority and earning the respect from his male superiors.
Warriors of feudal Japan show total commitment to their values through a fearless acceptance of death. This perspective on the act of seppuku, an act that could be perceived as an act of cowardice, actually shows a great deal of courage, and thus greater masculinity.
HIDEYOSHI: THE MASCULINITY OF EMOTION
One prominent attribute in the Western construct of masculinity is the detachment from one’s emotions. In Taiko, Hideyoshi frequently displays his emotions, allowing for better interpersonal connections as well as leadership capabilities.
One of the first instances in which Hideyoshi displays such emotion occurs when he is invited to dinner at Mataemon’s home and attempts to court his daughter, Nene. Hideyoshi is described as stiff with embarrassment, that “here he was nothing more than a shy young man… he blushed when he realized that he himself was far more aware of his behavior than Nene was” (140). Hideyoshi continues to blush in front of Nene and her father when Mataemon attempts to discuss the proposition of marriage with the two of them. The reader learns that Hideyoshi’s love for Nene extends far into his past. With love letters, gifts, and an overall shy nature around this woman, Hideyoshi prominently displays his reverence for this woman, hiding none of his true feelings. Although the way in which he shows his love for Nene is traditionally feminine, this openness with his emotions and vulnerability ultimately leads Nene to trust him and engage in a strong and happy relationship with her.
In addition to enhancing Hideyoshi’s personal relationships, his openness and vulnerability allow him to be respected as a leader. For example, when Hanbei dies, Hideyoshi is outraged and openly weeps on the battlefield. This outright display of intense grief forces Hideyoshi’s soldiers to confront the importance of Hanbei’s leadership. As a result, his army mourns with him to show reverence, unity, and respect for the current leadership.
Although there are evident benefits to Hideyoshi’s openness with his emotions, it is important to note that he utilizes these emotions deliberately for personal gain. A contrasting character for this trait would be Nobunaga. He is a man who uncontrollably displays his fiery temperament in an effort to squelch his emotions altogether. An example of this behavior can be found when he opens the letter from Nobumori (517), attempts to hide his anger, and explodes later on. Hideyoshi’s ability to display and remain in control of his emotions shows exceptional self-control, powerful leadership capabilities, and a sense of heightened masculinity.
Hideyoshi’s ability to access his emotional side clearly empowers him from a personal and societal standpoint, though it still abides by stereotypical gender roles as a leader and samurai. Some psychoanalysts argue that this type of masculinity displayed by Hideyoshi is one of complicit masculinity, as opposed to the hegemonic (or the typical Western conception of masculinity: “Men who received the benefits of patriarchy without enacting a strong version of masculine dominance could be regarded as showing a complicit masculinity” (Connell and Messerschmidt 832). Regardless of how one defines masculinity, it is evident even in a modern context that men are perceived as inferior for showing their emotions. Hideyoshi, though abiding by other traditionally masculine standards, still remains powerful and respected even as his actions oppose the traditional version of masculinity.
MASCULINITY AND HIDEYOSHI’S MOTHER
Traditionally speaking, males of both Western and Eastern cultures adopt the role of providing for one’s family. In Taiko, it is apparent that women have more freedom than western women to assume male responsibilities, given the respect for Hideyoshi’s mother from her family members and the response (or lack thereof) from her surrounding society.
In Taiko, Hideyoshi’s mother assumes the role of the family provider while maintaining the respect of her family and her surrounding society. When Yaemon is injured in battle, it is up to his wife to provide for the rest of the family. Yoshikawa writes, “Help had come from a woman’s hand… Yaemon’s wife had picked mulberry leaves, plowed fields, threshed millet, and warded off poverty all these years” (7). Such responsibility for a woman would never have been allowed in western cultures. If the providing male were to die or become incapacitated, the families would suffer drastically. Such instances occurred frequently in 18th century England, when women were forced into prostitution or homelessness since women were so restricted socially, even for survival.
In addition to the societal acceptance of Yaemon’s wife’s role as the sole provider, her family delivers the utmost respect to her. This can be found through Yaemon’s admonishing of Hideyoshi when he acts out towards his mother and sister: “Don’t be a nuisance to your mother…Think of the impression you make. What should your conduct as a man be, and how should you behave toward women, who are to be protected?” (9). Yaemon’s confrontation with his son shows how much respect is given towards the women in this time period. This confrontation also challenges Hideyoshi’s masculinity: the balance he must achieve between domineering and protective, and submissive and respectful towards the women in his life.
This brief yet exceptionally important interaction between Hideyoshi, Yaemon, and Yaemon’s wife shows the accessibility of stereotypically gendered roles by both males and females within Eastern societies. According to Geng Song, the Eastern
Construct of gender is different from the Western construct… Scholars have argued that ‘gender’ in the Chinese space may provide people with more choices than the dichotomy of male/female and masculinity in pre-modern China was primarily power-based rather than sex-based (405).
Such research proves that by adopting a traditionally male role, Yaemon’s wife rejects Western masculinity, adopting an Eastern masculine role which is rooted in power and not her sex. Hideyoshi’s mother assumes the higher position of power within her family, which consequently affects Hideyoshi’s perspective of familial survival and perspective of women later on.
MASCULINITY: COOL TEMPERS AND INTELLECT
In episodes 17 of Tree With Deep Roots, King Sejong utilizes his intellect and cool nature to achieve his goals as opposed to forceful coercion and brutality, the common and expected nature of a masculine power figure.
In an attempt to keep power within higher social classes, King Sejong’s officials argue for the eradication of Hangul and the preservation of the Chinese language. Their reasoning asserts that the Chinese language is inherently infused with Confucianism, and to utilize another language would undermine the values of their culture altogether. For most men in power, it would be easy to kill those who disagree with you, especially those whose disagreements are for greedy and selfish reasons. Instead, King Sejong examines every possible point of view his officials present to him. King Sejong states that all people should have the ability to communicate, be educated, and speak the language. He argues that the Confucian relationship between father and son (or in this case government to its people) would be harmed if his people could not effectively communicate to him.
For nation undergoing the threat of imperialism from the West and even its surrounding nations, it is extremely difficult to preserve peace and provide order domestically without the use of brute force. Although there are specific scenes within episode 17, such as the aforementioned interaction between King Sejong and his high officials, King Sejong displays a rational and controlled temper throughout the show. He is consistently threatened by members of the Hidden Root, his government officials are greedy and somewhat corrupt, and an entire nation is crumbling from disease and extreme poverty. King Sejong’s consistent display of rationality and use of intellect to resolve these matters proves that masculine power can be achieved through stereotypically female qualities of a subdued and nonviolent nature.
Through the exploration of masculine power within Taiko and Tree With Deep Roots, there is an evident rift between Eastern and Western constructs of masculinity. Many factors such as religious influence, geographic location, and time period have an enormous impact on the way in which masculinity is defined and how it is valued. Although most Western powers during the setting of the novel and TV show had not colonized or attempted to imperialize within the developing nations of Japan, Korea, and China, there are early sentiments of rejection to Western influence, which is intrinsic to the definition of Eastern masculinity according to Geng Song. Certain Western characteristics that are typically feminine such as nonviolent argument and openly displaying emotions show not only the overlap of Eastern masculinity with Western femininity, but also the cultural differences between how one defines power. Perhaps the rejection of the macho Western masculine man is a rejection to Western culture overall, and the resentment of Western imperialism prevails in a modern context through the ways in which the Eastern man achieves his own power.
Connell, R. W. and James W. Messerschmidt. “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept.” Gender and Society 19.6 (2005): 829-859. Print.
Jackson, Peter. “The Cultural Politics of Masculinity: Towards a Social Geography.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 16.2 (1991): 199-213. Print.
Jung-Myung, Lee, Kim Young-Hyun, and Park Sang-Yeon. “Episode 17.” Tree with Deep Roots. Dir. Jang Tae-Yoo and Shin Kyung-Soo. Dec. 2011. Television.
Karlin, Jason G. “The Gender of Nationalism: Competing Masculinities in Meiji Japan.” The Society for Japanese Studies 28.1 (2002): 41-77. JSTOR. Web.
Song, Geng. “Masculinities Revisited: Male Images in Contemporary Television Drama Serials.” Modern China 36.4 (2010): 404-34. JSTOR. Web.
Yoshikawa, Eiji. Taiko: An Epic Novel of War and Glory in Feudal Japan. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1992. Print.
Power In Eastern Masculinity by Laurel Wiebe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.