Complexities of Culturally Constructed Gender Roles: Masculinity and Femininity in Taiko and “Tree With Deep Roots”

So-Yi, an important female character in "Tree With Deep Roots" who challenges gender roles

So-Yi, an important female character in “Tree With Deep Roots” who challenges gender roles

The male and female characters in Taiko and “Tree With Deep Roots” challenge gender roles of modern western civilization as well as the traditional roles of men and women in Japanese and Korean cultures, demonstrating the complexity of gender as a subjective cultural construct.


Though East Asian culture typically represents patriarchal societies, gender roles are not always clear. There is a general complexity regarding gender, which is evident in both male and female characters in Eiji Yoshikawa’s Taiko as well as the television K-Drama series “Tree With Deep Roots.” In contrast with the modern Western view of masculinity, male characters in Taiko and “Tree With Deep Roots” show their power through intellect and emotion, balancing physical strength and discipline. Those who do not demonstrate a sense of self-control or understanding are seen as much less powerful figures. According to Vladimir Tikhonov, “any attempt to construct an image of unchanging, singular, traditional masculinity will likely be an exercise in essentialist overgeneralizing” (1037). The same holds true for femininity; while the typical role of East Asian women in the time period can be defined as dependent, submissive and reserved, both works feature women who challenge these roles, which further complicates East Asian philosophies regarding gender. Both male and female characters serve rather untraditional roles in the context of their genders, not only in comparison with Western culture but also within the confines of Japanese and Korean cultures, denoting the true complexity of gender as a social and cultural construct.

Masculinity in Taiko

According to Donald Levine, “the Japanese have traditionally referred to those who behave with untamed violence, not as real men, but as barbarians or wild beasts. The attitude toward a man who manifests physical strength alone is just as negative as that toward an effete courtier” (Levine 167). While gender role is a malleable concept in Eiji Yoshikawa’s Taiko, male characters still demonstrate their masculinity through physical and emotional brutality; however, the most influential male figures express an intellect defined by their ability to balance emotional vulnerability with harsh stoicism, recognizing where each is appropriate. Thus, masculinity is defined much differently than in Western culture, revealing that there is more to a man than his physical strength; power develops from intellect and the ability to show emotion.

It is clear that the world of Taiko is a culture mainly run by men, where female characters have little say in the direction their lives take. Tokichiro notes in Book Two that a woman’s “happiness depends on the man she marries” (141), explaining the power associated with masculinity. When Oichi reunites with her brother (Nobunaga), she refuses to acknowledge Nobunaga as anything “more than the enemy general who had killed her husband” (421). Oichi’s outburst of emotion for her late husband infuriates Nobunaga, causing him to display his (and his sister’s lack of) power by sending Oichi away. Nobunaga’s authoritative masculinity is evident in his ability to denounce his sister and disregard her emotions entirely. In this way, Nobunaga demonstrates an unsympathetic masculinity, acting out of passionate distaste rather than evaluating the situation with understanding or intelligence. Yoshikawa paints a vivid picture of masculinity regarding physical strength insomuch as the samurai is the archetype of masculinity, thus correlating violence with the quintessential man.

However, it is not just physical or emotional severity that make a man, nor is it mere masculinity that allows a man to successfully rule over and protect a group of people in Japanese culture. The most powerful men are those with incredible intellect, which is apparent when considering military strategists and the art of war.  Though the shogun Yoshiaki was born into power and represents masculinity as a military leader, he lacks the intellect necessary to earn respect as a male figure. When Nobunaga wants to kill Yoshiaki out of rage, it is Hideyoshi who evaluates the situation and deems it inappropriate to act on emotional disturbances, though he acknowledges and validates Nobunaga’s anger.

Portrait of Hideyoshi

Portrait of Hideyoshi

Hideyoshi demonstrates intellectual stoicism even when he makes a promise to commit seppuku if he is unable to finish building the castle wall in three days. While Nobunaga and others are worried he will not be able to finish in time, Hideyoshi knows not to waste time feeling anxious, Instead, he designs a plan to “make the laborers on the construction site work hard… using their strength to the full” in order to complete the task (157). Rather than utilizing threats or violence, Hideyoshi uses his intellect to inspire the workers. Despite his ability to drop emotion and fearlessly take on a life-or-death situation, Hideyoshi is not invulnerable to emotion; the scene in which he reads and cries over a letter from his mother is not an exceptionally masculine representation of him, because “it was the upbringing of a samurai not to let anyone see his tears” (149). However, it is noteworthy that Hideyoshi chooses this particular scene, which does not have high-stake implications, to become vulnerable. Still, he does not allow his vulnerability to negatively affect his work. Taiko presents an insightful perspective of the impact intellect and emotional control have on masculinity and power in Japanese samurai culture, which makes way for Hideyoshi’s rise to power as Taiko.

Female Characters in Taiko

 While Hideyoshi presents a nontraditional paradigm of masculinity, the female characters of Taiko further complicate the matter of gender. The first female character mentioned, Hideyoshi’s mother Onaka, presents a version of femininity very different from what is expected in that her marriage to Yaemon undergoes extenuating circumstances. Onaka serves a more important role, taking care of her two children and taking on all the household duties because her husband Yeamon, a samurai who was injured in battle, is utterly useless. This goes against the historically “reinforced notion of patriarchal authority” (Hsia and Scanzoni 311) because she has more power in the household than her crippled husband. However, she does not simply take on a purely masculine personality; “the thought of war made her shudder” (Yoshikawa 7), showing that she does not have the violent tendencies of a masculine figure. Nevertheless, Onaka “had one bright hope; to bring up Hiyoshi and make him the kind of son who would grow up quickly and be able to present her husband with at least a bit of sake every day” (Yoshikawa 7). Onaka aims to make her son’s life the best it can be; however, she complicates her motherly role when she remarries after Yaemon passes away. While her marriage to the abusive and alcoholic samurai Chikuami shows that she can endure hardship in order to provide financially for her children, an indication of strength, so too does it show that she plays the role of a submissive wife. The juxtaposition of her two roles in marriage complicates her womanhood.

A depiction of Hideyoshi with his wife.

A depiction of Hideyoshi with his wife.

Another female character in Taiko who displays an ambiguous femininity is Nene, Hideyoshi’s first wife. While Nene presents the portrait of a lovely, feminine woman whose father has a say in her marriage and future, she also serves an important role as Hideyoshi’s wife throughout his rise to his position as Taiko. Before they are married, Hideyoshi thinks of Nene in the context of someone who will be kind to his mother and someone who would “help [him] behind the scenes, look after [him] with devotion, and excuse [his] faults” (Yoshikawa 216). Though this is his romanticized idea of Nene as a wife, it is true that she assists him in all this when she does take on the role of his wife. “She works hard and she’s gentle” (Yoshikawa 216), proving that though she is a traditionally feminine character, she also has leadership qualities that are emblematic of masculine figures.

Masculinity in “Tree With Deep Roots”

King Sejong in "Tree With Deep Roots," showing emotion.

King Sejong in “Tree With Deep Roots,” showing emotion.

The television K-drama series “Tree With Deep Roots” further pushes the boundaries of traditional gender roles in an East Asian society; male characters follow the Korean tradition that “legitimate violence was the last resort for Confucian virtue (Tikhonov 1045). This challenges the notion that physical strength and brute force are important qualities for a masculine leader because the transition from the harsh King Taejong to the intellectual King Sejong proves to be a positive step toward a more masculine and favorable leader. King Sejong is the perfect example of a leader who maintains power via intellect and humility. His desire to give power to the common people by creating a new Korean alphabet called Hangul shows that he does not wish to simply keep all the power to himself, but would rather distribute power among the masses, proving his loyalty to his people. In the opening episodes of “Tree With Deep Roots,” Taejong tells Sejong that he should develop a way to keep power to himself, showing that he is selfish. Additionally, Taejong demonstrates the violent behaviors of a traditionally masculine figure, but exemplifies why pointless violence and brutality do not denote a strong, masculine leader.

While King Taejong views Sejong’s desire to distribute power as a weakness, Sejong’s masculinity is evident in that he does not fear sharing power; a weak king fears that power will be taken from him, while a strong king can distribute power while still remaining in control. In episode 19, King Sejong meets Jeong Gi Joon, the leader of the secret society of scholars called “Hidden Root” and discusses why he wants to give power to the people. While both men are intellectual leaders, Jeong Gi Joon shows weakness in acknowledging his fear that the common people might want to take over, challenging the notion that all intellectuals are masculine. However, the fact that the two most powerful and masculine men in the series (Sejong and Jeong Gi Joon) both owe their influence not only to the families they were born into but also to their intellectual abilities speaks to the importance of intelligence. Therefore, masculinity is not easily defined, but rather a concept constructed based on multiple societal ideals.

Jeong Gi Joon, a powerful intellect and leader of "Hidden Root"

Jeong Gi Joon, a powerful intellect and leader of “Hidden Root”

Female Characters in “Tree With Deep Roots”

 Though male figures make up the majority of characters in the television series “Tree With Deep Roots,” there are notable female characters who push the boundaries of traditional gender roles, specifically So-Yi. While So-Yi demonstrates the traditional ideals of a Japanese woman insomuch as her demeanor is quiet, demure and ladylike, she is far from conventional regarding her significance and commitment toward furthering the development of the Korean alphabet. At the end of the first episode, So-Yi blames herself for contributing to the death of Sejong’s father-in-law after reading a letter that is switched out for a letter of condemnation. Realizing her mistake in judgment, So-Yi vows to remain mute. The punishment she gives herself adheres to the traditional description of femininity in that it is nonviolent and causes her to seem submissive. However, she shows great self-control and power in her ability to stick to her word, a quality typically demonstrative of a strong male leader. According to Vladimir Tikhonov, Korean masculinity is characterized by “Confucian values of self-discipline and sacrifice” (1036); therefore, So-Yi’s sacrifice of her own voice is more of a masculine quality than it is feminine. While going mute is not the same as committing seppuku, So-Yi makes a sacrifice as a consolation for her mistake. She does this on her own account rather than as a result of being ordered to do so, showing honor and self-discipline, proving that she is not a standard symbol of femininity.

Scene from Episode 6 when King Sejong and So-Yi engage in an emotional confrontation.

Scene from Episode 6 when King Sejong and So-Yi engage in an emotional confrontation.

According to Donald Levine, “proficient calligraphy was the main” aspect of “personal culture” that contributed to the ideal male leader in East Asian culture (Levine 168), which confuses So-Yi’s gender role due to her intellectual prowess and ability to write. As a close advisor to King Sejong, So-Yi goes on to utilize her unique memory, ability to read and write, and overall incredible intelligence to carry out secretive missions and to assist King Sejong in his pursuit to create the Korean alphabet. So-Yi shows that whether male or female, loyalty goes a long way and provides power. Additionally, she exhibits emotional strength; in the middle of episode six, So-Yi writes to King Sejong that it is not his fault that her family was killed. While she remains calm in this scene, Sejong is overcome with emotion, becomes angry and cries. So-Yi demonstrates a sense of stoicism that violates the traditional reaction expected for women at the time. While So-Yi challenges gender roles as a woman in Korean society by holding a leadership position and demonstrating masculine qualities of self-control, power and stoicism, Queen Soheon, the wife of King Sejong also serves a nontraditional female role.

In the first episode of “Tree With Deep Roots,” Queen Soheon asks King Sejon to spare her father’s life, going against his own father’s corrupt orders. In doing so, she displays great courage and shows that a woman can request a favor from a man, which goes against the stereotype that women must be submissive and silent. In the second episode, the two converse about the fate of her father. While it is notable that she has influence on her husband’s actions and intentions, he poses a question: would she rather save her father or maintain her power as queen? Though not an easy decision, it is significant that she has the option of making the decision for herself at all regarding her own position as well as the life of another man. She utilizes her female qualities of loyalty toward her husband and her ability to keep calm and quiet as a means of maintaining her power. Her feminine compassion for her father drives her to behave in a more masculine way, imposing her influence on her husband to try to save lives. In doing so, she contributes to the fact that So-Yi is still alive; thus, Queen Soheon is a critical aspect of the development of the Korean alphabet insomuch as without her perseverance toward saving her father, So-Yi might not be alive to help King Sejong.


According to Jason Karlin, “within gendered representations, masculinity and femininity serve as signifiers of difference. Representations are inflected masculine or feminine as a way of expressing judgments related to questions of power and politics” (42). While this serves as a starting point for understanding gender in the contexts of Taiko and “Tree With Deep Roots,” it is clear that no character can completely represent all that is masculine or feminine due to the fact that each character is nuanced in their behaviors and attitude related to power as well as their manner of achieving it. Thus, gender roles are extremely complicated to define, especially when there are so many varying ideas of what the socially accepted gender roles are.


Works Cited

Hsia, Hsiao-Chuan and John H. Scanzoni. “Rethinking the Roles of Japanese Women.” Journal of Comparative Family Studies 27.2 (1996): 309-329. JSTOR. Web. 8 May 2014.

Karlin, Jason G. “The Gender of Nationalism: Competing Masculinities in Meiji Japan.” The Society for Japanese Studies 28.1 (2002): 41-77. JSTOR. Web. 8 May 2014.

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. 8 May 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. 8 May 2014.

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

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

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