Japan Glossary
Aware: Sensitivity, Sadness

Ancient Japan
The Heian Period
Nara Buddhism
   The Heian period (794-1192) in Japan enjoyed an unprecedented security and peace (Heian means "peace and tranquillity") because of the shrewd control of centralized power by the Fujiwara clan. Life began to revolve around the emperor's court in Heian (now Kyoto) and the society around the court began to invent what we now call classical Japanese culture. Foremost among these were the women's communities which included Lady Murasaki, who wrote the undisputed masterpiece of Japanese literature, Genji monogatari (The Tales of the Genji), and Sei Shonagon, who wrote the classic Pillow Book . A group of poets collected in the book Manyoshu as well as the Shingon Buddhist monks, who turned to art as part of their religion, on Mt. Hiei just outside the capital were also key in this invention of Japanese culture.


Ancient Japan
The Flowering of Japanese Literature
   Perhaps the most crucial piece of cultural vocabulary to come out of this period is aware, which was originally an expression of surprise, somewhat like "Oh my!" in English. When it is used in the Heian, it means "sensitivity," and in particular, sensitivity to the sadness of impermanence. The Manyoshu poets use the term whenever they talk about the songs of birds or the falling of leaves, which evokes in the poet an abiding sense of the sadness of the world. It is this sadness at impermanence that pervades the battle scenes in the Battle at Mikusa from the Heike monogatari. In a wider sense, aware is used to describe any deep emotion evoked by some external object.



Tokugawa Japan
Tokugawa Japan
Motoori Norinaga

Japan Glossary
Kokugaku
   During the Tokugawa period (1603-1868), aware would be raised to a central principle of Japanese culture by the scholars of kokugaku, or "Native Studies" (or "Japanese Studies"). The kokugakushu set themselves the task of separating off what they felt to be genuine Japanese culture from the foreign accretions, namely Chinese and European, that had covered over this original Japanese culture. The greatest of these scholars, Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), by basing his research on readings of the Manyoshu poets, would elevate aware to mono no aware , "sensitivity to things," and declare this sensitivity to be absolutely central to the Japanese national character. Although aware now means "miserable" in modern Japanese, the ideal of mono no aware is still a dominant and dynamic cultural value in Japan.

Richard Hooker



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1994, Richard Hooker
Updated 7-2-97