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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I’ll Make a Man Out of You: Explorations of Masculinity in Taiko and Tree with Deep Roots

Samurai from feudal Japan

Samurai from feudal Japan

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 RootsKing 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.

King Taejong tells Sejong that he must be the only one with power

King Taejong tells Sejong that he must be the only one with power

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. 

Ddol Bok

Ddol Bok

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.

Jung Gi Joon

Jung Gi Joon


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.


Works Cited:

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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The Unlikely Candidates: Why Hideyoshi and Sejong Make Good Leaders, Despite Their Strange Temperaments

King Sejong of Korea, young and old, from "Tree with Deep Roots"

King Sejong of Korea, young and old, from Tree with Deep Roots

Many leadership theories today posit that picking a leader out of a group is easy; they stand out above the rest. Both Taiko and Tree with Deep Roots initially portray their leaders, Hideyoshi and Sejong, as somewhat ill-suited to lead. However, as they grow, both come to exemplify trait, style, and situational leadership approaches through their seemingly-odd behavior.

Trait Leadership

Trait leadership theory (which you can learn more about here) describes the idea that a few key traits can be used to distinguish a leader from a non-leader. After aggregating the seminal studies on trait leadership, it can be concluded that the five key traits of leadership, if ascribing to the trait theory, are intelligence, self-confidence, determination, integrity, and sociability (Northouse 23). Hideyoshi and Sejong both display all of these in varying degrees, though integrity and self-confidence are especially prominent in Hideyoshi, and intelligence and determination are particularly evident in Sejong. (Find out how you score on a more in-depth trait leadership questionnaire here!)

Seppuku, or ritual suicide, traditionally committed by a samurai as atonement for sins

Seppuku, or ritual suicide, traditionally committed by a samurai as atonement for sins

The Integrity of Hideyoshi’s Beliefs

Hideyoshi sometimes seems to rush into things and is often given to jumping to violence as a solution, particularly in his earlier days. A great example of this is his frequent willingness to commit seppuku, or ritual suicide, for the smallest offenses. On multiple occasions and to multiple people, Hideyoshi offers this punishment as atonement for sometimes the simplest of mistakes, which at first glance might indicate that he doesn’t really mean what he’s offering. For instance, when Nobunaga orders Hideyoshi to kill General Osawa, and Hideyoshi reveals the plot, he offers to apologize by disembowelling himself (Yoshikawa 271). Here, it seems that Hideyoshi was just using the offer of seppuku to manipulate Osawa into killing himself, rather than making Hideyoshi do it. But if we look deeper, we see that Hideyoshi is really very serious, and this leads to the belief that he is incredibly courageous, sometimes to the point of apparent foolishness, but he sticks to his convictions. He would give his life willingly if it were in the service of his master or in the name of greater honor, dying a samurai’s death. What at first glance seems like impatience or squeamishness suddenly takes shape as strong conviction in his beliefs and a desire to deliver on his promises; these combined with his constant quest for a samurai’s honor indicate integrity and self-confidence, characterized in the trait approach by “feel[ing] assured that his… attempts to influence others are appropriate and right,” (Northouse 24) and “tak[ing] responsibility for [his] actions” (Northouse 25).

One of the scholars that died for Sejong's alphabet research in autopsy

One of the scholars that died for Sejong’s alphabet research in autopsy

Sejong’s Persistence

In Tree with Deep Roots, King Sejong’s commitment to Jip Hyun Jun and his Joseon is evident from the very minute he stands up to his father, but at times, he seems rather foolish and stubborn in his commitment. Beginning in Episode 4, the series shows scholars being killed systematically and mysteriously while doing the work of the king. Murders of the people doing your work might be cause to stop and reevaluate for most men, but Sejong persists with his work, despite the clear and present danger. This concerns many of his scholars, as well as his trusted advisor Mu Hyul, who, after just the first death, says that if, “Go In Sul was killed because of ‘that'” – that meaning Sejong’s alphabet research – “this is quite serious… The killer tried quite hard to mimic an accident. It was a planned murder. And he wanted… [the] Scroll of Biba. He must have known our plan,” (Episode 4, 34:00). Despite this, Sejong forges ahead, achieving his goal despite the losses. This looks reckless at first glance, as though Sejong has no care for who dies for the cause, but on the flip side, it demonstrates his determination. Couple this with the skill and creativity it took to conceive and create this alphabet, and Sejong appears as one of the most intelligent leaders in history. These two traits are especially key to the trait approach to leadership, demonstrating his “initiative… and… [his] perseverance in the face of obstacles” (Northouse 25).

The Blake-Mouton Managerial Grid of Style Approach to Leadership

The Blake-Mouton Managerial Grid of Style Approach to Leadership

Stylistic Leadership

The style approach to leadership emphasizes the behavior of the leader, rather than the personality. It posits that “leadership is composed of two general kinds of behaviors: task behaviors and relationship behaviors,” (Northouse 75). Its defining tool for measurement, Blake and Mouton’s Managerial Grid, explains “how leaders… reach their purposes through two factors: concern for production and concern for people,” (78). Sejong starts out as a recipient of his father’s Authority-Compliance Management (which you can read more about on the grid link) but quickly discovers that this is not the way, while Hideyoshi changes his style of leadership in order to further himself, which is known as opportunism.

The empty lunchbox Taejong sends to Lee Do, essentially a suicide order

The empty lunchbox Taejong sends to Lee Do, essentially a suicide order

Sejong’s Battle of Wits

At the beginning of the series, Sejong, known at this point as Lee Do, hides from his father and his responsibilities by playing Sudoku. Clearly, he’s intelligent, but he’s too afraid for it to do any good: not a great quality for a leader. When his father sends him this empty lunchbox, it’s all the push he needs. He sees his Sudoku game in the lunchbox, and not only is he able to solve the game in the box, he solves his giant puzzle on the floor. He’s found his own way, through this math game and his game of wits with his father, to rule, rather than using his father’s way. Before sending the box, Taejong ridicules his son for his games and gave Lee Do his advice: “Remove every number except the one,” (paraphrased from Episode 2, 01:01:15), which is to say, keep all the power to yourself, and then you win. Lee Do decides his Joseon requires balance between politics and intelligence. He uses his father’s suicide order not only to beat the game but to throw off his father’s tyrannical leadership. It is here, through this battle of wits, that Lee Do begins to discover his particular style of leadership, Team Management (according to the Management Grid in the style approach to leadership) in his leading of Jip Hyun Jun.

Hideyoshi rides into battle

Hideyoshi rides into battle

Hideyoshi’s Questionable Growth

Over the course of Taiko‘s events, it is clear that Hideyoshi grows and changes as a leader. However, according to the style approach of leadership, these changes may not be for the better. Opportunism is defined as “us[ing] any combination of the basic five styles for the purpose of personal advancement… adapt[ing] and shift[ing] his… style to gain personal advantage, putting self-interest ahead of other priorities,” (Northouse 82). It’s clear that Hideyoshi’s style begins as almost Paternalistic (a “benevolent dictator” style, where the leader acts graciously but for the furthering of task achievement); this is best exemplified in his leading of the wall construction at Nobunaga’s castle. He yells at the men, but insists on better working conditions so that they will work harder but happier. He gave them mandatory rests, and at dinnertime, “sake and food had been put into piles as high as mountains… [Hideyoshi]… raised his cup,” (Yoshikawa 162) and set an example for the men, encouraging them to drink. Here, we already see him morphing into a Team Management-style leader, which continues into his leading of his first group of soldiers in the first battle; later, when Nobunaga gives him control of three entire armies to fight the Mori clan, he switches back to a Paternalistic style, evident in his treatment of the pages. He’s also not afraid to use a more task-oriented style at times, likely classified as Authority-Compliance, and with each new change of style, Nobunaga seems to reward him. Each switch is calculated specifically for personal gain; whether this is “strategic” in a positive light, or “cunning” in a more negative light is up to whose side you take.

The Situational Leadership Model, depicting the four different styles

The Situational Leadership Model, depicting the four different styles

Situational Leadership

The premise of situational leadership is “that different situations demand different kinds of leadership… that leaders match their style to the competence and commitment of the subordinates,” (Northouse 99). According to this model, there are four different styles of leadership – directing, coaching, supporting, and delegating – which you can find out more about here. Hideyoshi and Sejong are both great situational leaders, in that they each use at least three of the four different styles.

Hideyoshi climbs Mount Inaba

Hideyoshi climbs Mount Inaba

Hideyoshi’s Sixth Sense

Hideyoshi has a strange knack for giving just the right responses and playing just the right role in order to make someone react in a way that favors him – in short, he’s manipulative. Traditionally, this is not a positive quality in a leader. He shows people what he wants them to see, especially his adversaries. One of the best illustrations of this is Hideyoshi convincing Koroku and his ronin to join Nobunaga‘s forces. Even Koroku himself warned Hideyoshi against such a foolish argument: “You’re just making your opponent angry, and I really don’t want to get angry at a youngster like you. Why don’t you leave before you’ve gone too far?” (Yoshikawa 255). But by some clever convincing on Hideyoshi’s part, and maybe a little luck, Koroku agrees to his former servant’s proposal. This encounter really shows Hideyoshi’s insight on how to get what he wants out of people. In this particular instance, Hideyoshi is using a directing style of leadership, where he uses high directive (task-oriented) and low supportive (relationship-oriented) behaviors to influence Koroku. However, there are other times throughout the book where he uses a coaching style, which requires both high directive and supportive behaviors, as with his soldiers, and a supporting style, using low directive and high supportive behaviors, as with some peers that he finds beneath him, like Ranmaru (Yoshikawa 451). His willingness to adapt to his audience really shows off his situational style of leadership.

Sejong reveals his alphabet to some of his scholars

Sejong reveals his alphabet to some of his scholars

Sejong’s Deceit

In Tree with Deep Roots, King Sejong’s ultimate plan is to create and distribute a brand new Korean alphabet to more widely and fairly distribute the power and wealth throughout his kingdom. However, while he is in the process of creating it, he has to lie to many people, even those close to him, to conceal his plans before he is ready to reveal them. Lying isn’t exactly a traditionally positive indicator of someone’s leadership ability. In Episode 9, Sejong reveals his secret to a few of his scholars, both of whom have been unwittingly assisting him in building his language. Immediately, they are appalled that their king would hide such a large, important project from them, especially when they are supposed to be assisting him! Sejong’s lies actually demonstrate a delegating style of situational leadership – low directive and supportive behaviors – that, in this case, was actually a very smart choice. It kept his plans from being revealed before he wanted them to be, and it minimized a lot of the danger in which Sejong put both himself and his scholars. Throughout the series, he also uses a supportive style, highly supporting but rarely directing So Yi, a directing style, highly directing but rarely supporting his counsel, and a coaching style, highly supporting and directing his scholars by day at Jip Hyun Jun. Sejong is clearly a very intelligent, discerning situational leader, despite his questionable actions in doing so.


Though they may make some questionable decisions and harbor some nontraditional traits, both Hideyoshi and Sejong meet and demonstrate the main points of trait leadership, style leadership, and situational leadership incredibly well. Some may disagree with some of their choices as leaders, both in their times and today, but it must be acknowledged that they were both great leaders who changed their kingdoms in monumental ways and accomplished incredible things.


Northouse, Peter. Leadership: Theory and Practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2013. 19-27, 75-83, 99-103. Print.

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. 1st. New York City: Kodansha, 2012. Print.

Image Citations (in order of appearance):










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Power in Eastern Masculinity

Samurai warrior, displaying ultimate authority and the height of Eastern masculinity

Samurai warrior, displaying ultimate authority and the height of Eastern masculinity

 Among many stark differences between Eastern and Western cultures, one that stands out most prominently is that of traditional gender roles. Through the exploration of Eiji Yoshikawa’s Taiko and the television series Tree With Deep Roots, readers are able to challenge the traditional Western definition of masculinity and the power ascribed to such attributes.



According to “The Cultural Politics of Masculinity,” masculinity is socially constructed, and its definition is dependent upon many factors including one’s geographic location: “various ‘geographies of masculinity’… historical and regional specificity, and spatial structures support particular forms of gender identity” (207). If asked to describe the attributes of true masculinity, one would likely reference those that are similar of the iconic manifestation of masculinity: John Wayne, the American cowboy. This Western construct of masculinity primarily values physical strength, a rogue behavior, and a stoic sense of emotional detachment. In Eastern cultures, quite the contrary is true. Jason Karlin goes so far to argue that Eastern masculinity and nationalism has its roots in the rejection of Western culture: “displays of manliness expressed through the rejection of Western material culture became a way of demonstrating one’s commitment to the nation” (42).

In relation to the novel Taiko, stereotypically Western feminine traits can be found in the diction surrounding the positive attributes of Hideyoshi that makes him a successful leader and samurai. Evidence of the value of emotion, intellect, and discipline can also be found in attributes of Sejong in Tree with Deep Roots. Though one cannot determine a type of masculinity as greater than another, it is evident that traditionally feminine attributes embodied in the Eastern archetype of masculinity are more advantageous to both Hideyoshi and Sejong than a strictly masculine, Western construct would allow. This evident overlap of Western femininity and Eastern masculinity forces the readers of Taiko and viewers of Tree With Deep Roots to deconstruct the reasoning for why power is ascribed to the traditional Western version of masculinity.


Depiction of a samurai committing seppuku

Depiction of a samurai committing seppuku


The connotation towards suicide in most cultures has often been one of cowardice and submission to defeat. In Taiko, Hideyoshi frequently utilizes the threat of seppuku as a way to attain respect from others by showing the utmost loyalty for his values, which consequently asserts his role as a dominant male.

To meet death fearlessly shows unwavering commitment to ideals, a rare sight in a modern context. One of the most prominent examples of Hideyoshi’s display of this behavior can be found in Book Three when he tries to meet Hanbei, a great leader who lives at the top of Mount Kurihara. He states to Hanbei’s sister, “’If I see that it will be impossible to complete my lord’s order, I’ll commit seppuku right here by this swamp” (285). Hideyoshi merely wishes to speak with a man who refuses to acknowledge him. Though by threatening to kill himself, Hideyoshi is able to attain the respect he desires by Hanbei. Another example of this fearless commitment to values and his leaders can be found in Book Five. Hiding from his enemies, the narrator claims that Shikanosuke “had one great hope: to get close to his mortal enemy… and die stabbing him to death… after he had snatched away Kikkawa’s life, he would rejoice to meet his former lords in the afterworld” (473). In this culture, it seems that dying for one’s leader is the ultimate reverence for whoever is in command.

Although there is evident honor and commitment in these men, they are not necessarily greeting death without caution. Their reasons are carefully constructed. Hideyoshi displays his prudence when he approaches Nobunaga in Book Five: “‘I don’t want a single soldier to die in vain’” (468). Although these men are obviously committed to a certain code of honor, they are not careless in their decisions when it comes to approaching death. The sense of honor inherent in this reverence for leadership ultimately empowers Hideyoshi, securing his higher position of authority and earning the respect from his male superiors.

Warriors of feudal Japan show total commitment to their values through a fearless acceptance of death. This perspective on the act of seppuku, an act that could be perceived as an act of cowardice, actually shows a great deal of courage, and thus greater masculinity.


Crying Samurai Painting

Crying Samurai Painting


One prominent attribute in the Western construct of masculinity is the detachment from one’s emotions. In Taiko, Hideyoshi frequently displays his emotions, allowing for better interpersonal connections as well as leadership capabilities.

One of the first instances in which Hideyoshi displays such emotion occurs when he is invited to dinner at Mataemon’s home and attempts to court his daughter, Nene. Hideyoshi is described as stiff with embarrassment, that “here he was nothing more than a shy young man… he blushed when he realized that he himself was far more aware of his behavior than Nene was” (140). Hideyoshi continues to blush in front of Nene and her father when Mataemon attempts to discuss the proposition of marriage with the two of them. The reader learns that Hideyoshi’s love for Nene extends far into his past. With love letters, gifts, and an overall shy nature around this woman, Hideyoshi prominently displays his reverence for this woman, hiding none of his true feelings. Although the way in which he shows his love for Nene is traditionally feminine, this openness with his emotions and vulnerability ultimately leads Nene to trust him and engage in a strong and happy relationship with her.

In addition to enhancing Hideyoshi’s personal relationships, his openness and vulnerability allow him to be respected as a leader. For example, when Hanbei dies, Hideyoshi is outraged and openly weeps on the battlefield. This outright display of intense grief forces Hideyoshi’s soldiers to confront the importance of Hanbei’s leadership. As a result, his army mourns with him to show reverence, unity, and respect for the current leadership.

Although there are evident benefits to Hideyoshi’s openness with his emotions, it is important to note that he utilizes these emotions deliberately for personal gain. A contrasting character for this trait would be Nobunaga. He is a man who uncontrollably displays his fiery temperament in an effort to squelch his emotions altogether. An example of this behavior can be found when he opens the letter from Nobumori (517), attempts to hide his anger, and explodes later on. Hideyoshi’s ability to display and remain in control of his emotions shows exceptional self-control, powerful leadership capabilities, and a sense of heightened masculinity.

Hideyoshi’s ability to access his emotional side clearly empowers him from a personal and societal standpoint, though it still abides by stereotypical gender roles as a leader and samurai. Some psychoanalysts argue that this type of masculinity displayed by Hideyoshi is one of complicit masculinity, as opposed to the hegemonic (or the typical Western conception of masculinity: “Men who received the benefits of patriarchy without enacting a strong version of masculine dominance could be regarded as showing a complicit masculinity” (Connell and Messerschmidt 832). Regardless of how one defines masculinity, it is evident even in a modern context that men are perceived as inferior for showing their emotions. Hideyoshi, though abiding by other traditionally masculine standards, still remains powerful and respected even as his actions oppose the traditional version of masculinity.

Here a Japanese woman manages the household duties, presumably gathering the food and tools for survival as Hideyoshi's mother had done for her family.

Here a Japanese woman manages the household duties, presumably gathering the food and tools for survival as Hideyoshi’s mother had done for her family.



Traditionally speaking, males of both Western and Eastern cultures adopt the role of providing for one’s family. In Taiko, it is apparent that women have more freedom than western women to assume male responsibilities, given the respect for Hideyoshi’s mother from her family members and the response (or lack thereof) from her surrounding society.

In Taiko, Hideyoshi’s mother assumes the role of the family provider while maintaining the respect of her family and her surrounding society. When Yaemon is injured in battle, it is up to his wife to provide for the rest of the family. Yoshikawa writes, “Help had come from a woman’s hand… Yaemon’s wife had picked mulberry leaves, plowed fields, threshed millet, and warded off poverty all these years” (7). Such responsibility for a woman would never have been allowed in western cultures. If the providing male were to die or become incapacitated, the families would suffer drastically. Such instances occurred frequently in 18th century England, when women were forced into prostitution or homelessness since women were so restricted socially, even for survival.

In addition to the societal acceptance of Yaemon’s wife’s role as the sole provider, her family delivers the utmost respect to her. This can be found through Yaemon’s admonishing of Hideyoshi when he acts out towards his mother and sister: “Don’t be a nuisance to your mother…Think of the impression you make. What should your conduct as a man be, and how should you behave toward women, who are to be protected?” (9). Yaemon’s confrontation with his son shows how much respect is given towards the women in this time period. This confrontation also challenges Hideyoshi’s masculinity: the balance he must achieve between domineering and protective, and submissive and respectful towards the women in his life.

This brief yet exceptionally important interaction between Hideyoshi, Yaemon, and Yaemon’s wife shows the accessibility of stereotypically gendered roles by both males and females within Eastern societies. According to Geng Song, the Eastern

Construct of gender is different from the Western construct… Scholars have argued that ‘gender’ in the Chinese space may provide people with more choices than the dichotomy of male/female and masculinity in pre-modern China was primarily power-based rather than sex-based (405).

Such research proves that by adopting a traditionally male role, Yaemon’s wife rejects Western masculinity, adopting an Eastern masculine role which is rooted in power and not her sex. Hideyoshi’s mother assumes the higher position of power within her family, which consequently affects Hideyoshi’s perspective of familial survival and perspective of women later on.

King Sejong

King Sejong



In episodes 17 of Tree With Deep Roots, King Sejong utilizes his intellect and cool nature to achieve his goals as opposed to forceful coercion and brutality, the common and expected nature of a masculine power figure.

In an attempt to keep power within higher social classes, King Sejong’s officials argue for the eradication of Hangul and the preservation of the Chinese language. Their reasoning asserts that the Chinese language is inherently infused with Confucianism, and to utilize another language would undermine the values of their culture altogether. For most men in power, it would be easy to kill those who disagree with you, especially those whose disagreements are for greedy and selfish reasons. Instead, King Sejong examines every possible point of view his officials present to him. King Sejong states that all people should have the ability to communicate, be educated, and speak the language. He argues that the Confucian relationship between father and son (or in this case government to its people) would be harmed if his people could not effectively communicate to him.

For nation undergoing the threat of imperialism from the West and even its surrounding nations, it is extremely difficult to preserve peace and provide order domestically without the use of brute force. Although there are specific scenes within episode 17, such as the aforementioned interaction between King Sejong and his high officials, King Sejong displays a rational and controlled temper throughout the show. He is consistently threatened by members of the Hidden Root, his government officials are greedy and somewhat corrupt, and an entire nation is crumbling from disease and extreme poverty. King Sejong’s consistent display of rationality and use of intellect to resolve these matters proves that masculine power can be achieved through stereotypically female qualities of a subdued and nonviolent nature.



Through the exploration of masculine power within Taiko and Tree With Deep Roots, there is an evident rift between Eastern and Western constructs of masculinity. Many factors such as religious influence, geographic location, and time period have an enormous impact on the way in which masculinity is defined and how it is valued. Although most Western powers during the setting of the novel and TV show had not colonized or attempted to imperialize within the developing nations of Japan, Korea, and China, there are early sentiments of rejection to Western influence, which is intrinsic to the definition of Eastern masculinity according to Geng Song. Certain Western characteristics that are typically feminine such as nonviolent argument and openly displaying emotions show not only the overlap of Eastern masculinity with Western femininity, but also the cultural differences between how one defines power. Perhaps the rejection of the macho Western masculine man is a rejection to Western culture overall, and the resentment of Western imperialism prevails in a modern context through the ways in which the Eastern man achieves his own power.


Connell, R. W.  and James W. Messerschmidt. “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept.” Gender and Society 19.6 (2005): 829-859. Print.

Jackson, Peter. “The Cultural Politics of Masculinity: Towards a Social Geography.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 16.2 (1991): 199-213. Print.

Jung-Myung, Lee, Kim Young-Hyun, and Park Sang-Yeon. “Episode 17.” Tree with Deep Roots. Dir. Jang Tae-Yoo and Shin Kyung-Soo. Dec. 2011. Television.

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

Song, Geng. “Masculinities Revisited: Male Images in Contemporary Television Drama Serials.” Modern China 36.4 (2010): 404-34. JSTOR. Web.

Yoshikawa, Eiji. Taiko: An Epic Novel of War and Glory in Feudal Japan. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1992. Print.
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Power In Eastern Masculinity by Laurel Wiebe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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

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