Suicide is not an act generally encouraged or praised in modern society. Taiko explores the nuances of this act in feudal Japan and distinguishes between genuine acts and polite gestures. On the other hand, the kdrama Tree with Deep Roots rejects suicide in favor of violent revenge and martial arts.
Seppuku is essential to the cultural and Confucian code of honor in feudal Japan. This code defines many ruler/ruled and friend/friend relationships as a way of showing respect and more importantly, loyalty and self-respect. Vowing to commit Seppuku is the most effective way of proving loyalty to a cause or person in a way that gains honor after death. However, Seppuku may not be as genuine as it seems. Many times Seppuku is promised without the true intention of following through, but rather as a gesture of loyalty and commitment. Suicide is very unique to Japan because, as we see in Korea as portrayed in Tree with Deep Roots, revenge against our enemies and mastery of martial arts is favored over self-harm. It is clear that samurais in Fuedal Japan value tradition and ideals more than warriors or guards in Korea who see mastery of skills and revenge as more effective and rewarding. Exploring the favorable ways of showing loyalty and honor in these different cultures illuminates the role of death and its perception among samurais in Fuedal Japan and government in Korea. I argue that the presence of Confucianism in Japan and Korea has evolved in different ways, therefore resulting in different methods of dying, and different portrayals of death in their societies.
As a modern American reader, getting a grasp of the Seppuku portrayed in Taiko took some time and an open mind. Hideyoshi, future Taiko, is one of the most frequent promisers of Seppuku in a way that most likely demonstrates a gesture, not sincerity. In the same way that someone might offer his or her last piece of gum to a friend knowing that the friend will (and should) politely decline, Hideyoshi offers his life in order to demonstrate his loyalty with the confidence that the receiver of this vow will prohibit him from doing so. The first time that Hideyoshi vows Seppuku is, essentially, over a bet to finish the Kiyosu castle wall in three days. However, it is made clear that Nobunaga does not readily accept this gesture; “Even Lord Nobunaga acted as if he didn’t want [Hideyoshi] to commit Seppuku over this” (157). Later, Hideyoshi yet again promises Seppuku if he is unable to coax Hanbei down from Mount Kurihara. Although he doesn’t claim to be disgenuine with his offer, Hideyoshi acknowledges that “it had slipped out almost unconsciously, from his own zeal” (285). Suicide is a common form of showing loyalty and dedication to a cause or person, but in certain contexts, is not considered to be a binding agreement. In these cases, Seppuku is serving as a polite gesture without the necessary commitment to follow through.
Taiko does not only offer examples of Seppuku as a gesture. In other situations, Seppuku is given as a punishment or is genuinely offered in dire circumstances, particularly in war, as a way of preserving honor and dignity. For example, the Oda Clan is waging war on Odani Castle, which has increasingly become hopeless for Nagamasa and his family. Instead of agreeing to surrender, Nagamasa arranges and hosts his own funeral while he is alive, and then proceeds to commit Seppuku. In this instance, the promise to die by one’s own hand is seen as more honorable and loyal than giving in to the enemy. Even though Seppuku is perceived, especially during war, as being violent and dramatic, it is held to the highest degree of respect and only the worthy should be allowed such a death. An example of this is when Nobunaga is discussing Yoshiaki’s exile, he exclaims, “Excuse my rudeness, but I suspect you don’t even know the proper way of cutting open your own stomach” (391). In this sense, keeping someone alive to live in shame is a harsher punishment than allowing someone to commit suicide. Suicide is not seen as an escape from life, but as an opportunity to prove one’s worth.
II. Tree with Deep Roots
In Tree with Deep Roots, Ddol Bok, (later Kang Chae Yun), is part of the impoverished slave class in Korea during King Taejong‘s rule. This is a very violent time for the low-class people and mass killings are used as a way for royalty and the government to assert dominance over the helpless slaves. Ddol Bok’s father is mentally handicapped, and therefore is incapable of fully comprehending the severity of social oppression. Although he is sent to deliver an important message that ultimately gets him killed by the government, his mental disability earns him no special treatment during a time of senseless violence. This injustice does not go unnoticed in Ddol Bok’s childhood memories, and eventually, seeking revenge becomes the only motivation for staying alive. Rather than feeling shame for allowing his father to die and wanting to commit suicide like characters in Taiko would prefer, the violent thoughts are pushed outward onto other characters in order to show loyalty to the innocent deceased father. However, it is neither easy nor likely that he will be in a position in which killing King Sejong is probable. Because of this, Kang Chae Yun dedicates his life to learning martial arts (being trained by a notorious and well-respected martial artist) and gaining power within his soldier ranks. Below is a clip from Episode 7 of the kdrama series that depicts a fight between Kang Chae Yun and Yoon Pil (1:04:32). Both have learned “the leap” and other advanced martial arts practices with the ultimate goal of being able to assassinate enemies effectively and without equal.
A preference for projecting violence on others does not mean that the characters in Tree with Deep Roots do not make personal physical sacrifices in order to show loyalty or gain honor. In Episode 15 of the kdrama series, King Sejong’s son is taken as a hostage with the ultimatum of stopping the development of a new Korean alphabet. Kang Chae Yun uses the son’s life as collateral to see how much the King values an individual’s life when placed against the greater good of the impoverished learning how to read. His son is aware of this ultimatum and is more than willing to sacrifice his life in a grand motion of loyalty to his father and his father’s project. Similarly, King Sejong is willing to sacrifice his son’s life to the kidnappers because he knows that creating the alphabet will do greater good than keeping his son alive. Although an individual’s life is still sacred, it is clear that it would be honorable to die for a worthy cause and shameful to preserve one’s life at all costs when there are greater gains to be made. Sacrifices from both parties (the King and his son) show a willingness to remain loyal to a society and leader rather than being selfish and valuing one’s life above all else.
Part of the reasoning behind the prevalence of Seppuku in feudal Japan is the attitude towards death. Japanese culture embraces death as a part of life, and more specifically as a part of samurai culture. The Shogun in Taiko states, “That is the duty of a samurai, after all. It’s really nothing more than arranging flowers at a funeral” (389). Similarly, this belief that “your body is not just your own”, aids an individual’s willingness to commit their life to honor or to the preservation of their people. This attitude towards death is deeply embedded in Asian culture. For example, Neuberger writes for the British Medical Journal that Asian societies embrace death as a part of life in a way that makes them unafraid of the afterlife, and therefore better able to care for the old and sick. However, we see this idea challenged in Tree with Deep Roots where others are forced to die, but never ourselves. Similarly, in Taiko it is the way of the samurai to embrace death and Seppuku but there are different paths of life in feudal Japan with different values, such as the ninja. Ninja’s portrayed in the book, and in Tree with Deep Roots live with the intention of being hidden and preserving their lives at all costs in order to continue serving their master.
Killing oneself or another is also a method of garnering attention from those around or invested. Dunn studied how Hirade Kiyohide, a retainer of Nobunaga, committed Seppuku as political defiance, stating “suicide is a noble gesture to escape a life that has become burdensome” (84). Hirade was not agreeing with the way that Nobunaga was leading the Oda Clan and because a life is so cherished in this time period, sacrificing a life in order to gain something means that it automatically deserves consideration of the deceased’s desires. Hirade was so passionate about how he believed governmental policies should exist that he sacrificed his life to show loyalty to the old ways of functioning and hopefully to incite change in Nobunaga. In this instance, the sacrifice of one’s life is a tool used for the progression of another cause. In Taiko, leaders of castles being taken over will commit suicide, like Nagamasa mentioned earlier, in an act of defiance of a new leader, like Hideyoshi, coming in with an army. Accepting Hideyoshi’s terms and conditions would lower Nagamasa’s status and be shameful compared with his previous power and control. Seppuku preserves his dignity and honor.
Although Seppuku can be used for a variety of functions in Japanese society, there is not blind moral and ethical acceptance of the act. McMullen questions the role of Seppuku as to whether it truly does align with Confucian values or not. His research suggests that Seppuku in Japan actually points to an underlying value of Confucianism that favors political values over filial ones. Traditionally, Chinese Confucianism rejected violence so an evolution of violence to oneself (like in Taiko) versus violence against others (like in Tree with Deep Roots) seems to be the evolutionary result of abiding by Confucianism but fulfilling all relationship loyalty. Ddol Bok on the other hand, is originally favoring filial values until he becomes willing to sacrifice everything for the political well-being of Joseon. Ultimately, violence and dying has evolved in two separate paths in the two countries, resulting in an interesting juxtaposition of death, Confucianism and loyalty.
Death is an integral part of life in feudal Japan, whether one is a samurai or not. Embracing death through samurai loyalty and cultural honor creates a society that used Seppuku not only as a gesture, but also with genuine intentions. In the Korean drama Tree with Deep Roots, a varied way of showing loyalty through death and violence of other people is portrayed. Ultimately, the end goal makes a grand gesture that can leave a person honored in life and death.
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Yoshikawa, Eiji. Taiko. Trans. William Scott Wilson. New York: Kodansha USA, 2012.