Naval Ensign

Viewing Taiko and Tree with Deep Roots through the lens of Japanese Imperialism

Russo-Japanese War

Rise of an Empire: Soldiers of the Emperor and the Czar clash in a pitched battle during the Russo-Japanese War. Japanese victory in this affair launched them to a position as a great power in Asia.

Taiko author Eiji Yoshikawa uses the story of Toyotomi Hideyoshi to emphasize the strength and importance of Japanese warriors in history, hoping this narrative would unite Imperial Japan in the spirit of conquest, whereas Tree with Deep Roots depicts the Korean alphabet as its historical rallying cry.

The rapid militarization of Japan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a direct result of contact with western imperialism and industrialization. After first meeting Spanish and Portuguese missionaries and traders and being introduced to firearms in the sixteenth century, fears grew in Japan over the growing influence of these outsiders. Worried, “the Tokugawa family, who ruled on behalf of the Emperor,” following the events of Taiko, imposed “a policy known as kaikin or sakoku from 1635: on pain of death, no Japanese were permitted to leave the country, and foreign trade was heavily restricted with Dutch, Chinese and Korean traders permitted only on the artificial island of Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor and on outlying islands,” (Mitter 28). This reclusive Japanese state continued existence in this manner for another two centuries until being forcibly opened to the outside world by American warships in the 1850s. Japan now stood at a crossroads as its sovereignty was threatened by Western powers eager to expand their colonial holdings in the Pacific. The old ways, it seemed, could not continue if Japan was to hope to survive, and so following a “short civil was in 1868, the Tokugawa were replaced by a very different sort of aristocratic elite, who decided that the way to repel Western imperialism was to embrace wholesale modernization,” hoping that by adapting to this new world their nation could thrive (Mitter 34).

While these were reforms were carried out “in the name of the emperor,” they were in fact “nothing less than a revolution,” completely transforming the very fabric of Japanese society (Ibid). What had been a “feudal aristocratic society, largely agrarian [and] with little foreign contact,” had by 1900 become a nation with “a disciplined, conscripted army, and a constitution and parliamentary system,” and emerged as “Asia’s most heavily industrialized society, exporting goods around the world,” (Ibid). This rapid rise quickly put Japan in conflict with its neighbors, touching off the newly industrialized nation’s first war in 1894, as “Japan went to war with China, ostensibly to guarantee Korea’s independence from [China],” but with the real aim of expanding Japanese influence (Crowley 124). The affair was a stunning success for Japan, and “after routing an ill-equipped Chinese Army in only six months, Tokyo dictated stern peace conditions: [China] had to keep its hands off Korea, cede Taiwan to Japan, pay a $177 million war indemnity, and lease the Kwangtung Peninsula to Japan,” affirming Japan’s status as not only a sovereign nation, but an imperial power as well (Ibid). In 1905 war came once more, as the Japanese Navy crushed the Russian Pacific Fleet, a victory that represented “the first time that an Asian power had overcome a European one,” a fact that “drew admiration from colonized and vulnerable peoples around the world,” (Mitter 35). War and conquest were now intrinsic parts of this new Japanese Empire.

In the early twentieth century, after a series of victories over their Pacific rivals in the First Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War, the militant imperialism that took hold of Japan in the previous century had propelled the country to a position as a global power. The rural, feudal nation where Taiko is set in the sixteenth century looked nothing like this new Japan, as its “miraculous transformation into a modern power during the reign of Emperor Meiji,” had rapidly industrialized the country after his ascension to the throne in 1867 (Chang 181). Japan was now not only a modern nation, but one boasting a formidable military with expansionist aims. By the time Eiji Yoshikawa began writing Taiko in 1937, the Korean peninsula, Taiwan, virtually all of Manchuria and several cities along the Chinese coast – including Shanghai, the financial heart of China – were under the control of Tokyo. This was also the year that the Second World War began in the Pacific, with China and Japan again going to war. Though Japan long had eyes on further conquests on the Chinese mainland, this war began after “an unplanned local conflict,” in July outside Beijing – now called the Marco Polo Bridge Incident – quickly “escalated into an all-out war between the two great nations of East Asia,” that would not end for another eight years (Mitter 5). The tenets of the samurai Bushido creed and its emphasis on the warrior spirit would prove useful for the propaganda machine of the empire.

Soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army with captured Chinese battle flags taken during the fight for Nanking

Soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army with captured Chinese battle flags taken during the fight for Nanking.

Victories came fast for the attacking Japanese, and by “October 1937 the Nationalist government of China had announced it could no longer defend the existing capital at Nanjing,” instead retreating westward to Chongqing (Mitter 1). Though the battle was won by the Japanese, the war was now clearly one of attrition, and despite their technological advantages over the Chinese, the forces of the Emperor could ill-afford such a bloodletting against their numerically superior foe. The Japanese fighting spirit, it was decided, would be the decisive factor if the war was to have a favorable outcome. In the face of the collapsing shogunate four centuries earlier, the young samurai who would become Taiko spurred on his comrades during their own time of crisis. To the Ronin assembled around him Tokichiro said “the nation is changing; a new era is dawning. We will no longer be fighting for ourselves, but rather for our children and grandchildren. You have a chance…to become real warriors following the true Way of the Samurai. Do not let this moment pass you by,” (Yoshikawa 259). To readers in late 1930s Japan the parallel to their own time would have been obvious; it was now their turn to preserve the greatness of Japan for their children and grandchildren, and to seize the moment and fight with the zeal of a Samurai.

While allied with both fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, “there was no single figure in Japan, no Duce or Fuhrer, whose personal megalomania lay at the heart of foreign policy,” and acting as a driving source toward war. What brought Imperial Japan to this cataclysmic moment was “a toxic situation where most of its politicians, military and public, had become infected by ‘war fever,’” spurned on by further victories over China in a brief war in 1931 no doubt (Mitter 84). Critical to this lust for conquest was the Japanese media, which “publicized the idea that Japan was being surrounded by hostile powers who wished to prevent its rise,” and it was of this group that Eiji was a part. Though recognized even after the war as “the master writer of historical fiction of the adventurous and moral type,” Eiji was never more popular than in the war years of the 1930s and early 1940s, as his tales of Japanese heroism excited a populace thirsting for just that (Yamagiwa 9). This writing style, focusing on “heroes [that] are strong men in times of crisis,” fit with the propaganda being pumped out by the Imperial Government that called for sacrifice from all citizens to some degree so as to better serve the emperor and the state (Ibid 13). As the Japanese Empire went to war with the world, the words of Eiji Yoshikawa’s Taiko were ringing through its ears.

While certainly an entertaining novel, it is important to remember the context in which Eiji was writing Taiko. Imperial Japan was not only a nation devoted to war, it was a nation that was ready and willing to silence all those who did not march in lock-step. As the military gained greater power, “writers previously devoted to liberal, progressive, and radical ideas were converted to orthodox thinking,” either by their publishers, the government or simply their wallets (Ibid 3). When the shooting began “in the late thirties and during World War II the few writers who still nurtured leftist ideas were completely silenced,” either by imprisonment, execution or exile to the army (Ibid). Eiji found it more prudent who contribute to the war effort, and thus great defenders of Japan like Toyotomi Hideyoshi were given top-billing in his stories about Japanese greatness. As a consequence of all this sabre rattling and the slow progress of the war in China after 1937, “Japanese politics had become increasingly dominated by the inability to end the China war,” and so the decision was made to “raise the stakes yet further,” and broaden the war (Mitter 234). A new bill calling for national mobilization was created which “gave the government ‘total war control’ over,” Japanese heavy industry, and by 1940 this full mobilization “was making itself felt in all aspects of Japanese life,” (Ibid).

This was becoming a “holy war” for the Japanese, a sentiment that made “the possibility of backing down from Japan’s imperial ambitions…ever more remote,” especially as the war fever gained steam (Ibid). Self-sacrifice became the trademark of Japanese soldiers throughout the Pacific as the gains they made in early 1942 were gradually rolled back under the weight of the American war machine. Famous reports from American soldiers of Japanese banzai charges – a last-ditch attack made en masse by Japanese soldiers wielding swords and bayonets and always ending in the death of nearly all the attackers – can be seen plainly to have their inspiration in the pages of Taiko. For instance, Eiji takes the reader to the Battle of Takato Castle, where Nobumori, son of the famed General Shingen, is mounting a defense of his castle from the forces of Nobunaga. When defeat seems an inevitability, Nobumori thinks only of a glorious death, saying to his men “the season is giving us a beautiful day to die…so go out! Force your way through the gates…and bravely show them how the mountain cherry blossoms fall!” an order that does not fall on deaf ears (Yoshikawa 562). As Eiji further describes “the responding shouts of the fierce warriors, proclaiming that they would do exactly as he commanded, were like a whirlwind,” as the matter, for them, “was not a question of living or dying,” but rather “was a desperate rush toward death,” for that very purpose (Ibid). This act epitomizes the spirit of banzai.

Zeros in flight

A squadron of Imperial Japanese Navy fighters (known as “Zeros” to American pilots) in flight over the Pacific.

Further parallels can be drawn to the desperate final years and months of the war for the Japanese and events depicted in Taiko. At the fall of Takeda Castle to the forces of Nobunaga-Hideyoshi, a grisly scene unfolds among the remaining women in the keep. Surrounded and with no hope of victory, the women chose suicide, which Eiji describes thusly: “Katsuyori’s wife did not wait for the man’s blade, and pressed her own dagger straight into her mouth as she recited the sutra. The instant the figure of his wife fell forward, one of her attendants began to encourage those left behind,” to kill themselves as well (Yoshikawa 568). And so they did, until “crying and calling to each other, the fifty remaining women were soon scattered like flowers in a garden blown by a winter storm,” (Ibid). Such scenes are eerily reminiscent of the events that played out on the island of Okinawa in the final months of World War II. As American soldiers advanced into the towns and villages that dot the small island, the almost exclusively female populace (all fighting age males had by 1945 been drafted into military service) began committing mass suicide rather than fall into the hands of the invaders. US Marines reported seeing mothers leaping from cliffs with small children in hand, such was the value placed on honor among the Japanese. For Koreans the story of the twentieth century is much different than that of Japan, and yet no less violent.

As can be seen in Tree with Deep Roots, the struggle to create and implement an efficient and accessible alphabet for the Korean language was no small undertaking. King Sejong, who ruled the Korean peninsula in the first half of the fifteenth century, implemented the Hangul alphabet in order to elevate the status of his people and give them a viable means of expressing their culture without having to master Chinese, then the official writing form in Korea. Sejong gave Koreans an official identity, as use of the Chinese alphabet had the effect of controlling Korean affairs. In episode 15 of Tree with Deep Roots the ease of implementation of hangul is demonstrated, as even a simple farmer can master it in a matter of days or even hours. Episode 19 gives some insight into Sejong’s motivations, as he speaks about his desire to see hangul give a voice to the people and a way to participate in their governance without having to go through corruptible bureaucratic channels. When Sejong ultimately prevails over the Hidden Root secret-society seeking to prevent the rise of hangul, a Korean national identity is formed, one which the Japanese seek to rip away after absorbing Korea into their empire in 1910.

King Sejong

King Sejong remains an immensely popular figure in contemporary Korea.

After the wars of 1894-95 and 1905, “Japanese leaders believed that her success, and her sacrifices in [these] two wars, gave her the right to control Korea,” and promptly began acting on this position (Lone 145). In 1910 this was made official, as “a treaty of annexation transferring all rights of [Korean] sovereignty to Japan’s emperor,” making the peninsula a colony ruled by Imperial Japan (Brundnoy 161). For Korea, “a small country with no armed force worth the name,” and no international support forthcoming, “the obvious course seemed to be to accept Japanese control,” (Lone 172). At first the Japanese were relatively benevolent, choosing to at least pay lip-service to equality among Koreans and Japanese (while brutally crushing signs of resistance). By 1938, now embroiled in war with China once more, Japan began its barbarity in Korea in earnest, “placing emphasis on Japanization of Koreans,” through an “attempted annihilation of Korean consciousness,” (Brudnoy 186). To destroy the identity King Sejong had created some 500 years earlier the Japanese attacked hangul itself, as “the government abolished Korean-language instruction in all primary and secondary schools… [and] the use of Japanese became mandatory there and on the streets,” with harsh penalties meted out to violators (Ibid). This attempt by the Japanese to erase the essence of what it is to be Korean during their imperial period is still a major source of tension for the two countries today, and makes Tree with Deep Roots all the more poignant for Korean audiences.

While modern Japan has largely abandoned the nationalistic zeal that drove it to conquest in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the echoes of these actions have reverberated through the region into the present. Writing during what was both the apex and rapid decline of Imperial Japan, Eiji Yoshikawa used Taiko to spur on his compatriots in a time of war. Contemporary Koreans likewise draw nationalist inspiration from Tree with Deep Roots, though in a much more civil manner.


Works Cited

Brudnoy, David. “Japan’s Experiment in Korea.” Monumenta Nipponica 25.1/2 (1970): 155-195. JSTOR. Web. 18 Mar 2014.

Chang, Jung. Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. Print.

Crowley, James B. “An Empire Won and Lost.” Wilson Quarterly (1976-) 6.1 (1982): 122-132. JSTOR. Web. 18 Mar 2014.

Lone, Stewart. “The Japanese Annexation of Korea 1910: The Failure of East Asian Co-Prosperity.” Modern Asian Studies 25.1 (1991): 143-173. JSTOR. Web. 18 Mar 2014.

Mitter, Rana. Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. Print.

Tree with Deep Roots. Writ. Lee Jung Myung. Dir. Jang Tao Yoo and Shin Kyung Soo. SBS, 2011. DramaFever.

Yamagiwa, Joseph K. “Fiction in Post-War Japan.” Far Eastern Quarterly 13.1 (1953): 3-22. JSTOR. Web. 18 Mar 2014.

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

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