Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Mono No Aware, Aesthetics of Sensitivity to Transience by Milly Peng


Have you ever sighed, upon seeing a lone dandelion seed floating down, gently landing on the golden ground paved with fallen leaves, and realised that the season of sky-filled dandelions has quietly left? The sigh contains only a subtle sorrow and acceptance, for you know that in the flow of time, the only thing that never will change is the change itself. Yet there is something beautiful still, in the touch of a past summer: a beauty that blooms and will soon wither, but it is there.

Aesthetic sensibility of this kind has an academic name: mono no aware. It is, according to the Edo Period scholar, Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), the essence of Japanese classical literature.

In celebration and consciousness of nature rooted the Japanese aesthetics. Mono no aware means “sensitivity to things”, sometimes translated literally as the “pathos of things”. It describes a bittersweet awareness of the impermanence of all things, and a gentle melancholy and feeling of loneliness at their passing, the perishable beauties of nature. Mono no aware captures the Shinto teaching of resonating with the natural world, and aestheticises the Zen Buddhist notion of mortal angst or suffering when facing the unavoidable evanescence in transitory nature. Furthermore, mono no aware reflects a traditional Japanese belief that beauty is not inherent in the object. Instead, it comes into being only when evoked by the subject.

In History

Mono no aware flourished as a highly regarded aesthetic value within the Heian imperial court. During the Heian period (794-1185), the Japanese aristocratic culture reached its peak. In this age of peace and harmony under the imperial authority of the Fujiwara clan, cultivation of beauty became extremely significant. Aristocratic men and women were expected to profess in one or more forms of art, and as beauty was seen as an internal quality from one's soul, social reputation could be made by skills in poetry composition.

Mono no aware is closely connected to a preeminent aristocratic aesthetic ideal, miyabi, “elegance” or “courtly refinement”. Miyabi mirrors a Japanese fundamental preference for the graceful, the polished, the restrained, and the subtly suggestive. In poetry, this oldest and most enduring aesthetic value in Japan's classical age was first codified in the poems of the Kokinshu, an anthology of poetry compiled upon imperial order in 905. The preface of Kokinshu, written by a Heian courtier Ki no Tsurayuki (868-946), is a statement of the aesthetic standards that guided the courtly taste. According to Tsurayuki, poets should be inspired to versify at the proper time, and in the proper mood, such as when they:

“...looked at the scattered blossoms of a spring morning; when they listened of an autumn evening to the falling of the leaves; when they sighed over the snow and waves reflected each passing year by their looking glasses; when they were startled into thoughts on the brevity of life by seeing the dew on the grass or the foam on the water when, yesterday all proud and splendid, they have fallen from fortune into loneliness; or when, having been dearly loved, they are neglected.”

Tsurayuiki assigned high value to the emotional side of human nature in artistic engagements. He believed, when moved by beauties of nature or feelings of people, the capacity to respond spontaneously and intuitively would lead to aesthetic expression.

Poems from Kokinshu

when the snow crystals
fall on the sleeping trees and
grasses there bloom wild
flowers that are never seen
on branches or stems in spring

Ki no Tsurayuki

this is which fades
away as easily as
the dye of the moon
flower the heart of man in
the midst of this world of love


taller than I waves
from the broad sea crash upon
the shore and return
once again I come forlorn
to the bay where seafolk dwell


Although grounded on the awareness of all is fleeting, the philosophy underlying mono no aware is not nihilism. Rather, the poets focused on the grasping of beauty before it vanishes, and its power is strengthened by its fragility. A mind of mono no aware is essentially tranquil and controlled, the sadness should not turn into a wild turbulent grief or anguish.

Mono no aware is also exemplified in Tale of Genji, a classic Heian novel written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu (978-1016). The novel depicts the life of a prince of exceptional beauty, his love affairs, his rise and his fall. Tale of Genji unveils the historical livelihood of the Heian aristocracy, whose pursuit of aesthetic ideals was not only in art but within living itself. For instance, in letter writing, a form of everyday communications, poetry, calligraphy, choice of paper and a blossom to be attached with the letter were all regarded as direct extension of one's soul. Genji lives a life pierced through with feelings of delicate wistfulness. He contemplates the brevity of nature, from the smallest observation of autumn flowers and human relationships, to life itself, all but a flash of beauty. In fact, the word “aware” occurs no less than a thousand times on the novel's handscrolls.

Tale of Genji, 10. The Sacred Tree
It was over a reed plain of melancholy beauty that he made his way to the shrine. The autumn flowers were gone and insects hummed in the wintry tangles. A wind whistling through the pines brought snatches of music to most wonderful effect, though so distant that he could not tell what was being played.

12th century illustrated handscroll of Tale of Genji

In Contemporary Art

In the present day, mono no aware lingers in all aspect of the Japanese culture. Murakami Haruki's literary masterpiece and quasi-autobiography, Norwegian Wood, is a simple, nostalgia story of the coming-of-age of a youth in 1960s Tokyo. It is difficult to give it a theme, for a slice of one's life cannot be classified. The novel, however, is surrounded with air of loneliness, a sense that there is nothing in life one can cling to, even with most sincere hearts. Characters struggle to cope with disappointments and losses, some are broken, some determine to resist it, some become coldly independent, and the narrator, Watanabe Toru, chooses to live on with serene, poignant acceptance: “death exists, not as the opposite but as part of life.”

Finally, mono no aware can also be found in lyrics, as encapsulated in Hyde's sentimental solo single, Evergreen, from the album Roentgen:

I lie awake beside the windowsill
Like a flower in a vase
A moment caught in glass

The rays of sunlight come and beckon me
To a sleepy dreamy haze
A sense of summer days

If only I could stop the flow of time
Turn the clock to yesterday
Erasing all the pain

I've only memories of happiness
Such pleasure we have shared
I'd do it all again

This scenery is evergreen
As buds turn into leaves
The colours live and breathe

This scenery is evergreen
Your tears are falling silently

So full of joy you are a child of spring
With a beauty that is pure
An innocence endures

You flow right through me like a medicine
Bringing quiet to my soul
Without you I'm not whole

This scenery is evergreen
I need you far too much
I long to feel your touch
This scenery is evergreen
You've always been so dear to me

This scenery is evergreen
It sorrows at the sight of seeing you so sad
This scenery is evergreen
I wish that I could dry your tears

The bells have rung the time has come
I cannot find the words to say my last goodbye
This scenery is evergreen
You've always been so dear to me


Morris, Ivan, The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan, Harmondsworth: Peregrine, 1969.

Translated by Rodd, Laurel R., Henkenius, Mary C., Kokinshu, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Varley, Paul, Japanese Culture, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 4th edition, 2000.

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