At the heart of classical Japanese literature and poetry is the aesthetic ideal of mono no aware, pronounced roughly as “moh-noh noh ah-wah-ray”. Mono no aware implies a “sensibility,” the awareness of and responsiveness toward something: an inanimate object or living thing, or an emotional response in another person. Through the years it became known as a refined sensitivity toward the sorrowful and transient nature of beauty. Cherry blossoms are the prototypical mono no aware objects. They explode in beauty after winter’s doldrums, trumpeting life for only a few days before they die.
As Professor Imai in Oh! explains: mono no aware is about the hidden corners of things, the deeper meanings, not the superficial reactions we might have to something that affects us. A mono no aware event is not sentimental or symbolic, but rather a true feeling that floats calmly through the mind and body. It is a rare moment when thoughts and feelings become fully formed, the heart of poetry. It is what we feel when we experience something that makes us exclaim “oh!” and express our feelings in poetry, prose, art, or song.
Motoori Norinaga and The Tale of Genji
The poetic use of mono no aware was most thoroughly studied by the Japanese scholar, Motoori Norinaga, who lived from 1730 to 1801. Norinaga, a physician and expert in Chinese classical studies, was a leader of the national revival movement (“National Studies” or “National Learning”), which focused on studying ancient Japanese texts to rediscover the intrinsic values in Japanese life. “Intrinsic” refers to that which is more purely Japanese, before the great influence of foreign, primarily Chinese, ideas.
In his work, Norinaga especially referred to The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari) and Myriad Leaves (Man’yôshû), the oldest collection of Japanese poems, as examples of written works that were examples of mono no aware. Genji was written in the eleventh century by Murasaki Shikibu, the court name of the author, a woman distantly related to the powerful Fujiwara family who ruled Japan in the name of Heian-period emperors. Genji is largely about the romantic encounters of “the shining prince,” and is rich with poetic metaphors of longing, passion and sadness. Genji is one of the world’s first novels, as we know the genre today. In it, the word aware appears on average once per page-a total of 1,044 times. The poems in the Myriad Leaves, some 4,500 of them collected over more than 130 years ending in the middle of the eighth century, are mostly love poems. At the time they were written, men and women had much more of an equal status, at least compared with the later feudal period. Open expression of emotion was not frowned upon as it was later.
Current thought on mono no aware
According to the Japan Zone website, mono no aware is still considered central to the Japanese psyche though it’s not so easy to see in the Japanese of today. I asked a friend, Professor Takahisa Furuta of Gunma University, what contemporary Japanese think of mono no aware. Professor Furuta asked several colleagues and students if they ever used or heard the term mono no aware. No one could recall using or hearing it, and he concluded that modern Japanese do not use the term explicitly in daily conversations any longer. His understanding of the concept, at least its original meaning, is the feeling you have when something calmly sinks into your mind.
Today, the concept seems to have changed to mean “wretched,” although Japanese, even under age twenty, have mono no aware feelings when they see something collapse into ruin. To the professor, modern Japanese have forgotten the spirit of mono no aware. One possibility for the change, he hypothesizes, is that the modern Japanese need a strong stimulus to be moved: their minds are blunter, or more dull, than they used to be one thousand years ago in the Heian period. Japanese are inundated with media, perhaps even more so than in North America.
Modern Japanese may just be too busy to appreciate the concept. Young people in Japan are dwindling not only in number but also in spirit, and few become interested in the time-intensive traditional arts or aesthetics. Also, the Japanese haven’t fully recovered from economic recession yet. The average Japanese has become very used to negative news and being disappointed in the last ten years and longer. Their hopes have been dashed for so long. The salary workers who are in debt with large housing loans and education expenses, remnants from the bubble economy of the 1980s, who are now getting laid off, seem particularly representative of modern mono no aware.
Now, Professor Furuta believes, most Japanese want to experience yutori, or calmness, a bit of leisure, in their lives. When they have recovered yutori, maybe then they can appreciate mono no aware again.