Societal norms often vary across cultures. Traditionally, Western ideals of masculinity encourage stoicism and physical strength. East Asian texts and popular media, such as Taiko and Tree with Deep Roots, challenge these norms, asserting an East Asian view of masculinity that values emotion and intellect over reckless and repressed behavior.
Both Taiko and Tree with Deep Roots present depictions of masculinity that challenge Western norms of what it means to be a “real man.” Readers of Taiko see characters like Chikuami, who has physical strength but lacks emotional stability (he is an alcoholic), juxtaposed with Hideyoshi and Nobunaga, who seem to balance both aggression and emotional intelligence relatively well. In Tree with Deep Roots, King Sejong is portrayed as an emotional and intelligent man, both of which give him strength as a leader; his father, on the other hand, relies solely on brute force and is portrayed as a negative example of masculinity. Discovering and analyzing the representations of masculinity in these works is an important aspect of cross-cultural understanding that directly impacts our interpretations of both these texts and texts that we encounter in our own Western culture.
Toward the beginning of Book Two, Tokichiro becomes quite emotional after receiving a letter from his mother. Yoshikawa claims that “Tokichiro cried and read the letter over and over. The master of the house was not supposed to let his servants see him cry. Moreover, it was the upbringing of a samurai not to let anyone see his tears. But Tokichiro was not like that” (149). This description of Tokichiro’s highly emotional state at first seems to claim that samurai, as paragons of masculinity, should avoid displays of emotion. However, readers are presented with other examples of samurai emotion later in the text. At the conclusion of Nagamasa’s funeral ceremony, for instance, Yoshikawa writes: “Someone began to weep, and soon everyone was affected…the armored men hung their heads and averted their eyes. Not one of them could look up” (405). In this situation, one in which warriors are faced with the death of their leader and their clan, the role of the retainer in mourning seems to take precedence over that of the stoic samurai. Similarly, Tokichiro’s emotions upon receiving his mother’s letter are acceptable because of the value placed on family relationships. While both Tokichiro and Nagamasa’s men clearly have physical strength and knowledge of the art of war, they are viewed in an even more positive light when these attributes are coupled with emotional intelligence; they are not indulgently emotional, but rather they know when and how to properly display their feelings.
Readers of Taiko are also presented with foil characters that serve to emphasize ideals of masculinity in Japanese culture. Chikuami, Hiyoshi’s stepfather, is characterized as a man who cannot balance his own physical strength with intellect and emotion. He was once a samurai but, as his story unfolds in the first few books of the text, he struggles with a drinking problem and an inability to provide steady income. In his case, brute strength is not enough to make him a true man; he is not respected by many people, especially his wife and his stepson. Readers also see the shogun, Yoshiaki, as a less than respectable male character. He has military and political power by virtue of his birth into the shogunate, but he lacks emotional maturity and virtuous intellect. His masculinity is not one to be idolized, and it can be argued that this contributes greatly to his downfall. By providing these examples, Yoshikawa seeks to highlight the positive aspects of masculinity that other characters (Tokichiro, Nagamasa, etc.) possess.
Donald Levine argues that these Japanese cultural norms are dependent on historical and social factors that have shaped societal expectations throughout Japan’s history. As a country almost constantly on guard against colonial powers, both from Europe and from Asia, Japan has often needed to develop a mentality of “martial readiness” for war and defense (Levine 164). This explains not only the presence of the samurai class in Japan, but also the pervasive mentality of the samurai as seen in Taiko; Levine says that men who prepare themselves constantly for war must learn that physical aggression cannot be a constant and that values such as honor, diligence, and politeness emerge as natural counterparts. In this way, masculinity in Japan became linked to military strength and the ability to effectively maintain and manage one’s near-constant sense of war. This theory also helps readers understand the downfall of characters like Chikuami, who has been removed from his samurai status and is therefore dealing with misplaced aggression and no sense of honor or dignity to counterbalance it.
Tree with Deep Roots:
In the Korean television drama Tree with Deep Roots, viewers are exposed to many male characters who exhibit various characteristics of masculinity. In the first episode, Lee Do (Sejong) openly displays his emotions to both the men and women around him. When he learns that his father-in-law is going to be killed by King Taejong for dissention, he is distraught over the choice he must make between stopping his father’s actions and allowing him to kill his wife’s family. Sejong never cries openly, but his eyes are clearly full of tears, and he is unafraid of embracing the fact that he is upset by the situation. At approximately 1:55 in the following clip, we see his emotion and hesitation as he goes to speak to his wife:
While some characters see Sejong’s emotional nature as a detriment to his leadership abilities, it is clear that his value for intellect and thought over brute force make him a powerful leader.
Just as Chikuami and Yoshiaki serve as foils to Hideyoshi and Nobunaga in Taiko, King Taejong serves to contrast Sejong’s emotional intelligence in the first few episodes of Tree with Deep Roots. The King is reckless and harsh, demanding death and punishment without much explanation and without consideration of those who will be affected by it. He denies the validity of Sejong’s alphabet and argues that his puzzles and games will never make him a great king, saying that instead Sejong should focus on consolidating power to himself and using it to get his way.
This is the kind of masculinity that Taejong advocates for, in direct contrast to Sejong’s subdued, intelligent ways. As the drama continues, we see that Sejong’s rise to power and prominence are aided by his willingness to show emotion and pursue the creation of Hangul. He understands the power that words have, both in conversation and throughout a culture, and he seeks to reunite his people by giving them words that they can use for themselves. This theme of an intelligent man who values knowledge and respectable rule continues throughout the drama and is discussed explicitly in episode 19, when King Sejong meets Jung Gi Joon in person.
Tree with Deep Roots also presents us with the character of young Ddol Bok early on in the drama to establish a sense of untamed aggression and masculinity. The young boy who constantly defends his father by beating up anyone who talks poorly of him is seen as wild and unruly, someone to be feared and not respected. Ddol Bok must learn to harness his anger and control it, tempering it with age and intelligence when he becomes Kang Chae-yoon and begins investigating Tree with Deep Roots. The transformation that we see in Ddol Bok is meant to demonstrate the power of not only age but also emotional stability: the young boy is never able to accomplish much other than beating people up and getting in trouble, whereas his older, more stable self is capable of much greater and worthy deeds.
As Vladimir Tikhonov reminds us, we must be careful when attempting to construct a singular image of Koren (or any) masculinity; such an attempt, he claims, would be “an exercise in essentialist overgeneralizing” (1037). Instead, examining the complexities of masculinity presented in Tree with Deep Roots allows us to understand more of the dynamics that exist between different groups and the ways in which they exhibit masculinity. For example, the perception of Hidden Root can be quite different among viewers, especially when considering the ways that members display their own maleness. In some ways, Jung Gi Joon and the Hidden Root are similar to Sejong; they seem to balance both strength and power with their own intellect, understanding Confucian ideals and the necessity of temperance over action in some cases. While they are meant to be seen as “the enemy” of the drama, their somewhat-noble masculinity makes them difficult to hate entirely. Compared to a man like King Taejong, who sets an early example of negative leadership and masculinity, some members of Hidden Root could be considered respectable. This makes the interactions between King Sejon and Jung Gi Joon in episode 19 interesting, as we see two variations of essentially ideal masculinity interacting and discussing power, leadership, and the role of language.
It is difficult to discuss masculinity in broad terms. The idea of maleness is nuanced, accompanied by centuries of cultural norms and expectations that cannot be easily understood without a great deal of context. In some East Asian cultures, these norms are influenced by a history of colonization and religious change that created a need to simultaneously value power and emotional stability over singular brute force. The Japanese novel Taiko demonstrates this through characters like Hideyoshi and Nobunago, who, while not perfect, are meant to be examples of a balanced masculinity. Both rulers are capable militarily and know the value of physical force; however, their status as samurai impacts the ways they use this power and causes them to temper it with honor, dignity, and politeness (in some cases). In this way, they defy many of the norms we know of what it means to be male. Similarly, the Korean television drama Tree with Deep Roots provides viewers with a complex perspective of masculinity. Characters range from the tyrannical King Taejong, who sees consolidation of power and lack of emotions as strength, to King Sejong, who values language and intelligence as a necessary complement to his political and military power. Through the complexity of their characters, these pieces of Japanese and Korean culture paint a picture of masculinity that is more than what we typically see in Western ideals.
Levine, Donald. “The Masculinity Ethic and the Spirit of Warriorhood in Ethiopian and Japanese Cultures.” International Journal of Ethiopian Studies 2.1/2 (2006): 161-177. JSTOR. Web. 12 March 2014.
Tikhonov, Vladimir. “Masculinizing the Nation: Gender Ideologies in Traditional Korea and in the 1890s–1900s Korean Enlightenment Discourse.” The Journal of Asian Studies 66.4 (2007): 1029-1065. JSTOR. Web. 27 March 2014.
Yoshikawa, Eiji. Taiko: An Epic Novel of War and Glory in Feudal Japan. Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd., 1992. Print.
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