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Mono No Aware in Japanese Literature

Reflecting on the past can be surreal. Memories can feel like a lifetime ago, almost as if they belong to a different person and to a different world.

'Was that really me?', you ask yourself.

The present quickly sinks into the past and is gone. Often forgotten. The unstoppable progress of time marches on – leaving us with a gentle sadness that aches at the heart.

Spirited Away 

The Japanese words – mono no aware (物の哀れ) – speak to this.

Mono no aware refers to our awareness of the impermanence of things, and the powerful emotions this stirs within us. A sad kind of beauty, or pathos, from our awareness of both the transient lives we lead and the moments contained in them.

 

Japan’s awareness of transience

Mono no aware is felt during Japanese spring: when many soak in the sight of beautiful cherry blossoms (sakura) before they wilt and fall only a week after full bloom. An awareness of the impermanence of things coincides with the passing of the seasons and forms a part of Japan’s consciousness.

cherry blossoms

Consequently, a sense of mono no aware comes through all Japan’s artistic mediums: anime, film, music, art – and literature.

 

Mono no aware in Japanese Literature

Motoori Norinaga, scholar during Japan’s Edo Period (1730-1801),  declared it the task of literature to reflect mono no aware. He believed that:

‘To know mono no aware is to discern the power and essence, not just of the moon and the cherry blossoms, but of every single thing existing in this world, and to be stirred by each of them’.

A message that although life’s moments come and go, the beauty of something lies precisely in its ephemeral nature. Temporality, the bittersweet feeling of change, the ‘ahh-ness’ of life – these should all be embraced.

Mono no aware in literature then followed. In Kōbō Abe’s existentialist The Woman in the Dunes (1962), a man must continually shovel away sand-dunes to protect a local village. Kōbō uses this setting to highlight the unavoidable and irretrievable passing of time – leaving a powerful sense of life’s transience.

‘If from the beginning you always believed that a ticket was only one-way, then you wouldn't have to try so vainly to cling to the sand like an oyster to a rock.’

Time is relentless. The past quickly gobbles up the present, which slips through our fingers often much quicker than we’d like. But we must accept this. Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (2005) reinforces this notion, but encourages us to keep moving forward.

‘There’s no turning back the clock now. One can’t be forever dwelling on what might have been’.

This is a call to action. We must make new memories instead of turning back to watch what has been.

 

When do we feel mono no aware?

Sei Shōnagon, Japanese author of The Pillow Book (based on her experiences as a court lady in 1000AD Japan), believes that reflecting on our time with past lovers brings forth a powerful sense of mono no aware. She pinpoints the moment:

‘When one has stopped loving somebody, [and] one feels that he has become someone else, even though he is still the same person.'

Yet awareness of the pathos of things can arise at any moment. Perhaps during a reflective train ride, while staring at rain dripping down your window, or simply as one acknowledges the passing of time.

Watch this goosebump-stirring clip for a taste of mono no aware.

 

Murakami’s mono no aware

Haruki Murakami provides a powerful example of mono no aware in Sleep, a short story in his Elephant Vanishes (1993) collection. An unnamed female narrator simply can’t sleep. She’s stunned by the ‘lack of demarcation between the days’ of her life and consequently abandons her efforts to keep a diary.

In a chilling moment of mono no aware, she tells the reader:

‘my footprints were being blown away before I even had a chance to turn and look at them.'

She then dashes to the mirror and stares at her face intently for 15 minutes to gain an awareness of her present reality; desperately trying to feel grounded in the present in her fight against transience.


Similarly, our narrator remembers reading Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina as a teenager. But as she now re-reads it through the night, it feels like a new book.

‘Without my noticing, the memories of all the shuddering, soaring emotions had slipped away and vanished… What, then, of the enormous fund of time I had consumed back then reading books? What had all that meant?’

 

Feel your feet touch the ground

All of us feel a sense of mono no aware during our lives. But we must not despair. Although we might wish to cling on, remember the richness and beauty of moments would be diluted if it lasted forever. Like Japan’s cherry blossoms, we must watch them fade and be stirred by them.
 
Japan’s sense of mono no aware urges us to feel our feet as they touch the pavement. A call to cherish every moment and enjoy the journey you make for yourself.

 

Thank you for reading. If you would like to read exceptional Japanese authors like those mentioned above, browse our Osusume Book Packages and select by genre. We send readers stunning translated novels (with a few literary surprises included) every month.

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