Mono no Aware - A Sensitivety to Things

Motoori Norinaga

Self-portrait of Motoori Norinaga

Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) was a scholar of Chinese and Japanese philology and one of the kokugakusha. This group of scholars saw as its main goal the purification of Japanese culture from foreign influences. In order to effect this, the kokugakusha concentrated their studies on cultural practices that did not originally come from outside Japan, which meant they had to ignore most of then current Japanese culture and limit themselves to studying early Japanese poetry and the Shintō religion. In his efforts to define what is truly Japanese both in language and in sensibility, Norinaga turned to the Manyōshū. From this oldest collection of Japanese poems, compiled in the Nara period (710-794) and containing poems written between 347 and 759, he derived the concept of mono no aware, which can be translated as the ‘sensitivity to things’. Mono means things, and aware comes from the ancient Japanese exclamation ‘Ah(a)!’. In early Heian times (794-1185) aware became a noun designating a profound and individual emotion that one experiences in communion with the transient beauty of a person, an event, a natural object or a work of art. Aware is sometimes called the ‘ah!-ness of things’ you feel when confronted with beauty and at the same time are conscious of the transience or incompleteness of this beauty. Aware transcends the feelings of sadness and joy and merges these into a new, profound emotion. Despite Norinaga’s determination to ignore influences from outside Japan in his definition of mono no aware, at least a partial debt to the Buddhist notion of the fleeting nature of all existence and the evanescence of things is clear. The great Heian novel The Tale of Genji, seen by some as a Buddhist parable, is full of aware, the word occurs no less than 1018 times on its pages, and the Genji scholar Kitayama Keita derived the following seven definitions for aware from this book: (i) poor, pitiful, wretched, miserable, unfortunate; (ii) lovable, charming, beloved; (iii) sad, mournful, woeful; (iv) happy, pleased; (v) compassionate, benevolent; (vi) effective, charming, tasteful, pleasing, interesting, intriguing, impressive; (vii) exceptional, praiseworthy. We can discover aware in the feelings inspired by a bright spring morning and also in the sense of sadness that overcomes us on an autumn evening. Its primary mood, however, is one of gentle melancholy, from which it can develop into real grief. Aware was, and is, a feeling reserved for delicate and sensitive people. It never turned into a wild outburst of grief and has therefore nothing in common with the turbulent romantic emotions we know so well in the West. The ability to understand this type of aesthetic emotional experience became a defining trait of a refined character and was referred to as mono no aware wo shiru. It was limited to the upper classes and can be regarded as the equivalent of moral virtue in other societies. To say of someone that he does not ‘know’ mono no aware is a serious defamation of character. The concept of mono no aware has a great influence on thinking of Japanese culture to this day.


Virgil holding a copy of the Aenid. He is flanked by the muses Clio (history) and Melpomene (tragedy). Mosaic from the Hadrumetum in Sousse, Tunisia (3rd century A.D.).

But how uniquely Japanese is the emotion of aware and how right was Norinaga to come up with mono no aware as the defining emotion in Japanese culture? Do foreign cultures have nothing comparable to the feeling a Japanese has when he sees the cherry blossoms in spring or views the moon on an autumn night? Some scholars have come up with Virgil, who, in his novel Aeneid (written BC 29 to 19) had Aeneas, confronted with the murals that depict battles of the Trojan War and deaths of his friends and countrymen, exclaim: ‘Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.’ This is translated by Robert Fagles as ‘The world is a world of tears, and the burdens of mortality touch the heart.’ The expression lacrimae rerum started its own life and became known as ‘the tears (or pathos) of things’. This comes close to mono no aware.
In the 12th and 13th centuries Southern France saw the troubadours turning their feelings of love, what they called fin’amor, into exquisite poetry. The basis of fin’amor was an emotion called joy. Joy caused an ecstatic experience in which the lover appreciated simultaneously the happiness as well as the sadness, the gaiety as well as the pains, of loving. The same is true for mono no aware, where an object, person or situation can cause a feeling encompassing happiness as well as sadness, and where experiencing both elements is essential to the emotion. When one experiences fin’amor one forgets all about oneself. One can live life without the obstructions from one’s self-created ego and enjoy every component of one’s emotions, be they happy or sad. This comes close to the aim of Zen Buddhism. Buddhism had a great influence on the culture and philosophy of the Heian period, in whose literature aware features so prominently.
And what to think of melancholy, the enjoyable feeling of sadness in Elizabethan England, best exemplified in John Dowland’s immortal Pavana Lachrimae? Is there not some mono no aware, a mixture of joy and sadness, in this music?

Here are a few examples to give you a taste of mono no aware. Comparing these refined displays of this subtlest of feelings, do we perhaps have to conclude Norinaga was right in saying mono no aware is a uniquely Japanese emotion after all, and not to be compared with Virgil’s lacrimae rerum, the fin'amor of the troubadours or Elizabethan melancholy? I will leave you to draw your own conclusions.

A poem from the Manyōshū, written by it’s editor Ōtomo no Yakamochi (718?-785):

uraura ni
tereru haruhi ni
hibari agari
kokoroganashi mo
hiroti shi omoeba

In the tranquil sun of spring
A lark soars singing;
Sad is my burdened heart,
Thoughtful and alone.

(translation from Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkokai)

Excerpts taken from the Seidensticker translation of The Tale of Genji:

Chapter 7: Momiji no Ga - An Autumn Exersion

Genji and Tō no Chūjō danced “Waves of the Blue Ocean.” Tō no Chūjō was a handsome youth who carried himself well, but beside Genji he was like a nondescript mountain shrub beside a blossoming cherry. In the bright evening light the music echoed yet more grandly through the palace and the excitement grew; and though the dance was a familiar one, Genji scarcely seemed of this world. As he intoned the lyrics his auditors could have believed they were listening to the Kalavinka bird of paradise. The emperor brushed away tears of delight, and there were tears in the eyes of all the princes and high courtiers as well. As Genji rearranged his dress at the end of his song and the orchestra took up again, he seemed to shine with an ever brighter light.

Chapter 10: Sakaki - The Sacred Tree

It was over a reed plain of melancholy beauty that he [Genji] 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. Not wishing to attract attention, he had only ten outrunners, men who had long been in his service, and his guards were in subdued livery. He had dressed with great care. His more perceptive men saw how beautifully the melancholy scene set him off, and he was having regrets that he had not made the journey often. A low wattle fence, scarcely more than a suggestion of an enclosure, surrounded a complex of board-roofed buildings, as rough and insubstantial as temporary shelters.

Chapter 11: Hana Chiru Sato - The Orange Blossoms

The house of the lady he had set out to visit was, as he had expected, lonely and quiet. He first went to Reikeiden’s apartments and they talked far into the night. The tall trees in the garden were a dark wall in the light of the quarter moon. The scent of orange blossoms drifted in, to call back the past. Though no longer young, Reikeiden was a sensitive, accomplished lady. The old emperor had not, it is true, included her among his particular favorites, but he had found her gentle and sympathetic. Memory following memory, Genji was in tears. There came the call of a cuckoo-might it have been the same one? A pleasant thought, that it had come following him. “How did it know?” he whispered to himself.

     “It catches the scent of memory, and favors
     The village where the orange blossoms fall.”

David van Ooijen 2009

For this article I have borrowed freely from many publications, most notably from The World of the Shining Prince by Ivan Morris (OUP, 1964).

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