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Mono no aware

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  • Japanese: 物の哀れ (mono no aware)

Mono no aware is a phrase frequently used to refer to a particular aesthetic, or aesthetic element, in Japanese traditional culture, particularly Nara and Heian period literature. Usually translated as "the sadness of things," or "pathos," the term is generally said to refer to a gentle sadness for the impermanence of beauty, or otherwise for an aesthetic of being emotionally moving.

Referencing Motoori Norinaga's thoughts on the subject, one scholar [1] has suggested that "a sensitivity [for] things" might be a better description of the aesthetic. What is being demonstrated, or celebrated, in this genre of writing, this interpretation suggests, is an awareness of, and appreciation for, various sights and sounds and feelings, particularly of the garden and of the seasons. This aesthetic relates to a poet's heightened sensitivity for the world around him (or her), and a certain hint of sadness that comes as a result.

The term aware itself originated as a mere exclamation of delight or surprise, later developing into an expression used when something was interesting or pleasant; one early Western scholar described this as the expression employed when reacting to the "ahness" of things.[2] Already by the 760s, however, the term aware began to be used especially in association with the melancholy calls of birds and other animals, and with subjects such as the spring rain, and thus came to be associated with a certain hint of sadness. Commoners continued to use the word as a mere exclamation for a time, but the court aristocracy quickly came to use the word for this more complex, perhaps more subtle, aesthetic or emotional sort of meaning.

By around 1200, the term came to used quite extensively in discussions about the Tale of Genji and other Heian period writings. The aesthetic of aware, which we might translate as a passage or line or chapter being "moving," or "having pathos," came to be the most dominant, most lauded, aesthetic element or aspect for a work to possess. Here it can refer to a passage being beautiful not only in its content, i.e. in what narratively occurs within that passage, but also in its language or structure, or in the scene it describes. Any of these can be "beautiful," or "moving." Any of these can possess, or express, aware.

References

  • “The Vocabulary of Japanese Aesthetics I,” in William Theodore de Bary et al eds. Sources of Japanese Tradition 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia U. Press, 2001), pp. 197-204.
  1. “The Vocabulary of Japanese Aesthetics I,” 198.
  2. “The Vocabulary of Japanese Aesthetics I,” 197.

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