Representation of Women in Historical Media

So-Yi, a principal character from "Tree with Deep Roots"

So-Yi, a principal character from “Tree with Deep Roots”

When presented with historical media, we might expect to see a lot of men. This is not unusual for any kind of medium (book, television, or otherwise) that is from a nation that may be considered, for the most part, patriarchal. However, despite that, there are some forms of historical media that are fair to the representation of women during that time period in that they show women in both domestic and power-based settings. Taiko and “Tree with Deep Roots” may not be dominated with female characters, but do represent women as they would have likely appeared in their respective timeframes.


It is clear that women in Taiko and “Tree with Deep Roots” are not frequently addressed and are not typically present, and this is likely because of the societal role that women play during these time periods. However, we are presented with a variety of women in Taiko that all vary in personality, from modest, to reluctant, to aggressive, and to fiercely loyal. Such characters that ought to be addressed include Hideyoshi‘s mother, who even without a name carried a lot of work on her shoulders (metaphorically speaking) raising both her son and daughter with an abusive husband. Others from Taiko include Nene, Hideyoshi’s first wife and lady Tsukiyama, Ieyasu Tokugawa‘s wife, as well as others who defy the stereotype of all women of this timeframe being passive. It may appear from a western feminist standpoint that few women in a story is limiting to them- and it can be-, however, despite how many women in Taiko appear to be in a domestic setting, this does not limit their character. This is also the case for “Tree with Deep Roots,” where we are once again given few female characters, but they are not spared any dynamics in their personality. Characters such as So-Yi and even Queen Soheon give us a spectrum of personalities to work with. Given the time that these series take place, many might find some things in common with these women, however, there are still distinguishable traits to tell them apart and recognize that each one has importance in the story, even if their role is small.


Edo beauties: 'The Cultivation of Polychrome Prints, a Famous Edo Period Product'.

Edo beauties: ‘The Cultivation of Polychrome Prints, a Famous Edo Period Product’.

The Mother’s Duty

The first woman we see in Taiko is Hideyoshi’s mother. She was first married to Kinoshita Yaemon, a samurai. Even unnamed, we read about how hard she works to raise her children: “Taking the two children with her, Yaemon’s wife had picked mulberry leaves, plowed fields, threshed millet, and warded off poverty all these years” (Yoshikawa, 7). When her husband dies due to sickness, she remarries to keep the family financially afloat. Hideyoshi’s mother is shown as a stern but caring mother who worries her son may take an interest in following his first father’s steps in becoming a samurai. She is depicted as able to argue freely with Yaemon, who seems less concerned with Hideyoshi (at the time Hiyoshi) being able to play with a sword.


Her characterization in the story shifts as she marries her second husband, Chikuami, after the death of her first husband. Due to Chikuami’s abusive nature, she is left weaker and unable to help Hiyoshi if he is beaten. Considering the situation, one may wonder why Hideyoshi’s mother even chose to remain with Chikuami at all with how much she and the family suffered. Even in modern day Japan, financial ties are at times necessary to maintain shaky marriages. “Economic considerations are, of course, the predominant reason why many women stay in a marriage; those who depend on their husband financially, have little choice but to continue to live with him” (Sugimoto). All of this is important as Hideyoshi’s mother becomes a factor in Hideyoshi’s decision to go on his path- he wishes to make a better life for his mother who has suffered on what he believes is his behalf. In turn, Hideyoshi’s mother also has the end-goal of making a better life for her son when she can: “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. The thought made her feel better” (Yoshikawa, 7).

The Wife’s Duty

What is expected of women in Japan during this time period has changed over the many years between when Taiko takes place and the modern day era, but some themes remain even when reading Taiko. There is a sort of structure that is typical in Japanese families that is referred to as Ie, which is the Japanese word for “house.” Sugimoto elaborates, “Ie represents a quasi-kinship unit with a patriarchal head and members tied to him through real or symbolic blood relationship.” The role of a mother and the role of a wife tend to appeal to men in the family, especially the family head. This is also what we see when Hideyoshi begins to pursue Nene.


Nene’s characterization is shown as pure, modest, and loyal. Hideyoshi romanticizes her when they first met, and hopes that their relationship will also help aid his mother in the long run: “She [Nene] works hard and she’s gentle. Surely my mother would be happy with her. And Nene wouldn’t mistreat my mother just because she’s a farm woman. His love was transformed into lofty thoughts right through his passion. We’ll endure poverty. We won’t be caught by vanity. She’ll help me from behind the scenes, look after me with devotion, and excuse my faults” (Yoshikawa, 216). Nene is later shown to mirror this idealization, supporting Hideyoshi through future endeavors as he grows to be Taiko. She may not appear as frequently as men appear in the novel, but her support is shown in the scenes that she does appear in. However, not all wives are shown to be this way. One woman may conform to what is expected and be accepted, despite the fact she may not be seen as “important” (though she is- she’s doing a lot more than we are shown), but another may react differently to the norm.


We are not presented much of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s wife, lady Tsukiyama, but we are told she defies the norm: “Ieyasu’s wife was a woman who thought of nothing but herself. She was completely indifferent both to affairs of state and to her husband’s situation. Nothing entered her head other than her own daily life and the attentions of her husband” (Yoshikawa, 178). She is one of the women shown that is written as bitter and focused on matters of the self. Women in this time period were often depicted as selfless and modest. The writing in this chapter reflects her as a woman that does not appear to prefer this role, and reluctantly accepts it despite the pain and sacrifice it takes to be in it. Her relationship with Ieyasu is not as romanticized as Hideyoshi’s was with Nene when they first met despite the apparent age of Ieyasu at the time of this chapter- he was still a young man then.


When Norms Are Broken

Taiko also depicts women aiding in combat, though these moments are rare as well. In particular, during the seventh book when Oda Nobunaga is attacked by Akechi, he calls for more arrows to fight off the warriors. The one who aids him is a court lady named Ano, who appears only during this scene. However, despite this being her only appearance, Ano is shown to be someone who is willing to stand and die with Nobunaga: Just then, a woman wearing a red silk headband and gallantly trussing up one sleeve of her kimono carried in an armful of arrows and raised one to his hand. Nobunaga looked down at the woman. “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, 658).


There appears to be a stereotype, not only from this text at times, but in general Japanese culture that women must be passive and modest (Molony). If a woman fits this idea, she is usually accepted as apart of society, but women who do not fit this sort of norm tend to stand out. It ought to be obvious that not all women will fit this mold, but we may assume that all the women in the text of Taiko may fit this way when they do not. Some do, but Japanese society- as well as many others- has a driving force that has certain expectations of women. Their lives during this time period may focus on the importance of their families, their husbands, and their children, but that does not mean they are weak-willed or unable to stand up, for their loyalty and dedication is also admirable. It is important to remember this as we also think about the women in “Tree with Deep Roots,” who also vary in their role and power in the main storyline.


The Court Lady and the Queen

The Korean Drama “Tree with Deep Roots”, like the novel Taiko, has fewer principle female characters, however, has more “active” women in the main storyline. Women in “Tree with Deep Roots” do not serve a certain time and place- such as domestic tasks- but appear to take on more leadership roles and this shows how women were able to have different roles in this period in Korea. It is also important to note that women in this drama tend to be more emotionally grounded than the men in this series, something that is not typically seen in western media. So-Yi is a woman who is most present among all the female characters in this show, and appears to be the best for representation of women. However, this does not detract from the fact that other women in this series such as Queen Soheon play an important part.


So-Yi as she faces Chae-Yoon for an interrogation.

So-Yi as she faces Chae-Yoon for an interrogation.

So-Yi plays a crucial role in the drama’s story and is portrayed as well-rounded character. While So-Yi is one of the only series’ female characters, she is often shown and it is clear she has a defined role and job. She has a crucial role in developing Hangul, the Korean letter system due to her eidetic memory. She is sent by the king to complete dangerous jobs, contacting people in secret in his name. In episode 6, So-Yi is sent to Ban Chon to find the scholar Jang Seong-Soo despite the fact that it could be dangerous for him and for her. This counters the idea that women in this time period were restricted to roles of domestic life. While it would not be countering the idea of feminism to simply have women in domestic roles- they can be important no matter what they do- it is important to see what role that So-Yi takes in the story. Here, she is active in that she does jobs for Sejong. She is actively contributing and supporting the creation of Hangul for the sake of people she was once apart of.


So-Yi is also shown to be someone that emotionally balances other men. This is to say, it is her presence that helps bring sense and guidance to characters she is with. This is not just limited to her childhood relationship with Chae-Yoon (Ddol Bok) but also with King Sejong (Lee Do). In episode 5, her relationship with the king is elaborated as to portray the two of them almost like kin to one another. It is also made clear that Sejong blames himself for the death of So-Yi’s family, as well as many others, but So-Yi tries to tell him that it is not his fault (these events happen in episode 6 at 34:29). The portrayal of this relationship shows that Sejong and So-Yi are on equal respectable ground, where she can speak her mind- well, write her mind at that point- and be unafraid to challenge the king’s thoughts. This counters the idea that women are usually the emotional ones- in that scene that is being referred to, Sejong is the one getting angry and is the one who cries first. A western idea of masculinity cannot be used to define how men and women interact in this setting.

Queen Soheon as depicted in Tree with Deep Roots.

Queen Soheon as depicted in Tree with Deep Roots.

Queen Soheon only appears in the first two episodes of the series, but is shown to have an influence and say in what occurs. She does not have as much of a role in the development of Hangul, but is responsible for the one who helped Hangul to come about. That is, she helped save So-Yi’s life. Women in a position of power may be portrayed or viewed as someone with visible influence, however in comparison to King Sejong, she does not seem to have as much say in matters. Yet, this does not impact the fact that she is valued by Sejong- as shown through their scene together in the second episode– and the fact that there is even a place for a queen to begin with. Soheon is a character who is both warm and emotional, but also has clear influence. She is a leader, even if she is not shown making actions of leadership in the series.


Historical media gives off the impression that if women appear, they may fit into certain niches or characterizations as it is expected that women were a certain way. At times, this may be true, but at others, not at all. Representation is critical for women in all media forms simply because at any time in history, women- or even men for that matter- were not all the same. Taiko and “Tree with Deep Roots” do not fall into these holes, even if women do not frequently appear as much as the men do. Historical media created in the modern day needs to consider how women may view these mediums and take it to heart, considering history is often focused on men.


Works Cited

Bardsley, Jan. “Spaces For Feminist Action: National Centers for Women in Japan and South Korea.” NWSA Journal 11 (1999): 136-149. Web. 12 Mar. 2014

Kaufman, Gayle and Taniguchi, Hiromi. “Gender and Martial Happiness in Japan.” International Journal of Sociology of the Family, 35.1 (2009). 69-87. Web. 12 Mar. 2014

Molony, Barbara. “Japanese Women: New Feminist Perspectives on the Past, Present, and Future.” NWSA Journal 9.1 (1997): 117+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 12 Mar. 2014.

Sugimoto, Yoshio. An Introduction to Japanese Society. Cambridge University Press: New York. 2010. Print.

Yoshikawa, Eiji. Taiko: An Epic Novel of War and Glory in Feudal Japan. New York: Kodansha USA, 2012. Print.

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