The concept of “honor” is central to both Taiko and Tree With Deep Roots. However, it is clear in both texts that a strict adherence to honor puts many characters in jeopardy and in some cases, can even be a threat to their lives.
Although both are sources of entertainment, neither Eiji Yoshikawa’s Taiko nor the Korean Drama series Tree With Deep Roots attempt to shy away from tackling greater social and cultural issues. Despite their intentions as fictitious entertainment, both contain characters, settings, and cultural principles that fit historically with the time in which they take place (16th and 18th century Japan and Korea- respectively). This is also true for the importance of “honor” as a principle of tradition in Asian samurai culture, and how its emphatic adherence governed the lives of those that tried desperately to follow it. Japanese scholar Inazo Nitobe, in his historical novel An Exposition of Japanese Thought, makes note of this historical importance, writing- “the sense of honor could not fail to characterize the samurai, born and bred to value the duties and privileges of their profession” (Nitobe, 72). He ties this highlighted existence of honor to the concept of Bushido, or the honor code of the samurai, and how its usage in the upbringing of Japanese children, and more specifically those who were to become samurai, was incredibly important to instill positive values- “a recourse to his honor touched the most sensitive spot in the child’s heart, as though it had been nursed on honor while he was in his mother’s womb; for most truly is honor a pre-natal influence, being closely bound up with strong family consciousness” (73).
As Nitobe’s cultural analyses come from his work at the turn of the 19th century, it seems clear that the centrality of honor to Japanese culture stands unwavering through time; and that its existence in both the present and the past, where it is frequently acknowledged in Taiko and Tree With Deep Roots, is equally important. It should come as no surprise then, that in the grand scheme of both texts, “honor” as a complex concept seems to be encountered on a daily basis; or in the case of our two primary texts- in every subsequent episode or chapter. Of course, the issue is not that characters face “honor” or the inability to ingratiate it into their lives; rather- the issue is that its usage is so apparent and culturally ingrained, that characters often find themselves dealing with jeopardizing and conflicting situations; in which an adherence to “honor” might be dangerous or even life-threatening. In these instances, characters in Taiko and Tree With Deep Roots must often make a difficult choice; that is- to protect oneself and potentially bring shame or dishonor to oneself and the family, or to make an “honorable” choice that might involve humiliation, injury, seppuku (self-sacrifice), or even death. If this is the case, how truly “honorable” can we say that honor even is? The answer might be “not much.”
The Dishonor of Honor in Taiko
These conflicting compensations for honor are primarily addressed in Yoshikawa’s epic military novel Taiko, where we see a lower class man named Hideyoshi eventually rise through the ranks to become a samurai and eventually, the ruler of a united Japan. The novel is rife with references to honor, where many characters, and mostly notably the protagonist Hideyoshi, must learn how to respond to situations where honor is questionable. One instance comes in Book Two, where Nobunaga’s Oda clan must fight the rival Imagawa clan, who outnumber them by the thousands. Although outnumbered and sure about his impending death, Nobunaga nonetheless rallies his troops- “Will you all give your lives to a fool like me?” with the response being a universal reminder of Japanese honor reflected in the troops response- “Should our lord die alone?…To the death! To the death!” (Yoshikawa, 199). As one of Nobunaga’s troops however, Hideyoshi defies these cries, as he personally questions the supposed “honor” of marching to one’s death- “Could people really just toss their lives away like this? (198). This scene is important, as it forces us to question whether the Japanese cultural expectation to sacrifice ones self for “honor” is really necessary. This decision is questionable, as it shows an entire army ready to die at the hands of Nobunaga’s spontaneous actions. The only exception is Hideyoshi, whose refusal to voice his discordant thoughts only further emphasizes how taboo it is to even think about making a “dishonorable” choice by potentially refusing to fight.
As Taiko continues, we see slow but obvious changes in the ways that “honor” is justified in the face of questionable and dangerous situations. In his social review of “honor culture” in Japanese society, Eiko Ikegami places a major emphasis on “shame” or kanji and how its influence, both as a representation of the individual and his surrounding family, “can be a powerful public concept” that is “related to concern for one’s social reputation” (Ikegami 1351, 1352). “Shame,” as we will see, is unsurprisingly seen as one of the resulting products of dishonor in Japanese culture, as Ikegami notes its historical importance to the lives of the samurai; just like the ones we see in Taiko– “The Japanese concept of shame was closely connected to the rise and transformation of the samurai elite and their political institutions. Yet, a sense of shame was a criterion of honorific autonomy and trust-worthiness of individual samurai” (1351). This historical understanding of “shame” may serve as a further justification for why a strict adherence to “honor” is so persistent in Asian culture, but it hardly compensates for the still ever-present problems that Taiko presents, where characters find themselves in dangerous situations from the possible threat of acting dishonorably. At this point, “Honor” is now hopelessly paired with the further embarrassment of “shame,” which will likely just worsen the initial problems that force characters (as the subsequent paragraph will show) into jeopardizing situations and the possibility of death.
“Shame” as a product of dishonor becomes central to Taiko as the story progresses. Little by little, we see conflicts and power struggles arise that cause many characters (even samurai) to behave dishonorably if only for the ironic desire to survive. In this sense, we see certain characters begin to override the codes of honor that they have grown up with, choosing instead to protect themselves. These two conflicting sides (remaining honorable in the face of danger versus being dishonorable as a mode of safety) clash in Book Seven, where two cousins, Mitsuhide and Mitsuhara, argue over whether Mitsuhide should murder their lord retainer (Nobunaga). Mitsuhara argues that the act is blasphemous, and although it might end up saving lives, it would still be inherently “dishonorable” and “shameful” not just to Mitsuhide, but to his entire family- “Would you stain the honor of our ancestors? And what of your own children and their descendants? Think of the shame you’ll heap on endless generations” (Yoshikawa, 633). The decision is clearly difficult, particularly with the further bushido-drivenpressure that committing a dishonorable act would negatively affect Mitsuhide’s entire family. Regardless, it becomes clear that while both cousins wish to preserve their honor, there is still the distinct possibility that NOT killing one’s lord (because of Nobunaga’s brash military decisions) could result in their own death. Both options, it seems, place an overwhelming burden on Mitsuhide- “I know I would not be this distraught if I had not been born a samurai.” (633).
As Taiko comes to a close, we finally see characters begin to fully question the role that “honor” plays in their life as a samurai. Some characters override the dangerous risks that being too honorable can bring while others remain steadfast in its adherence. In both cases however, risk does not elude our characters, and while “honor” remains central to the lives of the characters in Taiko, it consistently carries with it a looming possibility of danger. One thing that runs parallel to the dangers of adhering to honor is seppuku. This concept, which involves a samurai committing self-disembowelment and suicide, is often seen as a last-ditch effort for a samurai who has been dishonorable to die honorably and without shame. This is an obvious concern, as it further justifies reasons as to why an individual would not wish to be forced into following a strict bushido honor code and thus, not wish to become a samurai. After all, who wants to be forced into committing seppuku? This issue is seen constantly throughout Taiko, where committing the “honorable” seppuku comes into direct conflict with not committing it, and therefore bringing shame and dishonor on oneself and one’s ancestors.
A clip from The Last Samurai (2003) demonstrating Seppuku
Book Eight challenges this concept, as Hideyoshi, in a rash attempt at forming a peace treaty with the threatening Mori clan, calls for their military leader Muneharu to commit seppuku or otherwise face an Oda invasion. The two clans disagree on this bargain, but nonetheless act the same as they both attempt to fit the samurai code of honor to justify their respective viewpoints. The Mori clan fights for Muneharu’s life, claiming, “if we allow Muneharu to die, we are not living up to the Way of the Samurai” (676) while Hideyoshi feels the opposite- “Muneharu should gladly give his life. His death, after all, will save the lives of the men in the castle and save the Mori from destruction” (676). Although the Mori’s opinion may seem selfish and Hideyoshi’s opinion may seem cruel, it becomes clear that both sides, essentially, are in the wrong. While attempting to use the samurai honor code in the dispute, both sides knowingly jeopardize the lives of others, which only forces us to wonder why, if anyone, must be put at risk in order to reach a peace while simultaneously being sure that the honor code is not broken. If anything, this notion seems un-peaceful, as Hideyoshi’s plan would cause Muneharu to die and the Mori’s plan would cause many of their own troops to die. These concerns then, run full circle, as they show that by trying too hard to appear honorable, both sides inevitably end up putting individuals at risk.
The Dishonor of Honor in Tree With Deep Roots
The Korean television drama Tree With Deep Roots also contains, to a lesser extent, situations where honor comes into conflict with the jeopardizing of an individual and occasionally with their life. “Honor” in the series is reflective of “honor” as a concept in Taiko, where losing ones life to a cause is often considered more honorable than saving yourself with the risk of being “dishonorable.” One example of this concept is in Episode 15, where Ddol-Bok tries to uncover the secrets of Lee-Do’s new alphabet from the scholar Seong Sam-Mun. In this scene, Ddol-Bok is threatening Sam-Mun’s life if he does not offer the whereabouts of the king’s alphabet. He points his sword at Sam-Mun, warning him- “Your life is at stake here!” Sam-Mun however, is willing to risk his life for his king, as he responds with a refusal- “No, I have King Take Jong’s blood inside me.” In this sense, Sam-Mun’s refusal to give up the secrets of his King seem incredibly honorable, particularly when his words are put up against the dangerous threats of the skilled and serious warrior Ddol-Bok. But again, this scene simply highlights the inherent flaw with “honor” as viewed by characters in both of our texts. By remaining “honorable” from not betraying his king, Sam-Mun is potentially (and unnecessarily) throwing away his life.
What may be most shocking about many of these scenes is how relaxed the characters facing the “honor” dilemma seem to be. After all, it would take a great deal of patience for somebody to risk his or her life calmly for a king’s alphabet for example, or for a warrior to commit seppuku while remaining meditative and fearless. Inazo Nitobe references this cultural ideal in his Exposition of Japanese Thought, as he writes that the traditional Bushido honorcode of the samurai “was strongly counterbalanced by preaching magnanimity and patience.” He then references the great samurai Iyeyasu (who is also found in Taiko)- “ Haste not…Reproach none…forbearance is the basis of length of days” (Nitobe, 76). So as the pairing of “patience” with Bushido “honor” seems historically relevant, it would be safe to assume that Tree With Deep Roots, as a dramatized reflection of Korean history, would present characters who reflect this notion, and who are just as patient as they are honorable.
One example of the pairing nature of “honor” and “patience” is seen in episode 16 of the series. In one scene, we see a hidden root assassin, Yoon Pyeong; turn himself in to King Lee-Do. During the interrogation, Lee-Do is relentless in his threats to execute and torture Pyeong for his dishonorable deeds, yelling, “I will extinguish even the cousins of your cousins!” Meanwhile, Lee-Do appears patient (as Nitobe previously noted) and calm, as he remains quiet during the entire ordeal while kneeling in a self-sacrificial stance. The threats do not shock Pyeong, who likely feels that his execution is warranted for his “dishonorable” acts, and must act accordingly. Furthermore, we once again see characters faced with the additional dilemma that honor extends past the individual and can affect relatives as well. Fortunately, Lee-Do does not murder Pyeong in this scene. However, it still serves as a stark reminder that by following strict codes of honor, as Pyeong feels he has violated through his job as an assassination, can put characters in situations where their lives are in danger. After all, Pyeong seems to have few concerns for dying at the feet of Lee-Do. He feels, in a sense, that his execution might somehow justify the crimes that he has committed.
It seems natural for us to question why, exactly, is unnecessary killing in the face of honor adherence actually necessary to the individuals that perpetuate it. Although both Taiko and Tree With Deep Roots are meant, first and foremost, as sources of entertainment, they none the less can provide us with important perspectives on Korean and Japanese culture that allow us to question, in more ways than one, what “honor” really means. And although it would be unfair for us to criticize a culture that has traditionally been seen as honorable and good, it might be wise for us to think critically about what concepts of “honor” really mean, and understand that if the jeopardizing of people’s lives come with them, that they might not really be that “honorable” at all.
Tree with Deep Roots. SBS. South Korea. 5 Oct. 2011. Television.
Yoshikawa, Eiji. Taiko. New York, NY: Kodansha USA, 2012. Print.
Nitobe, Inazo. Bushido, the Soul of Japan: An Exposition of Japanese Thought. New York, NY: The Knickerbocker Press, 1905. 72-. Print.
Ikegami, Eiko. “Shame and the Samurai: Institutions, Trustworthiness, and Autonomy in the Elite Honor Culture .” Social Research. 70.4 (2003): n. page. Web. 31 Mar. 2014. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/40971973>.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi. 2009. Photograph. flickriverWeb. <http://www.flickriver.com/photos/rekishinotabi/4157118315/://static.flickr.com/39/81823242_71d3b3cf33_o.jpg>.
TWDR12. 2011. Photograph. photobucket.comWeb. <http://s630.photobucket.com/user/dramabeans/media/drama/2011/TWDR12/TWDR12-00361.jpg.html>.
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