Japan Glossary

Mono no aware: Sensitivity to Things

Ancient Japan
The Flowering of Japanese Literature
Shinto

Tokugawa Japan
Tokugawa Japan

Japan Glossary
Kokugaku

   The most energetic cultural project of the Tokugawa period (1603-1868) was almost certainly the attempt to define the basic Japanese character by the scholars and poets who called themselves the kokugakushu , or National (or Japanese) Studies scholars. This diverse movement, which affected Japanese poetry and music and led to a revival of Shinto and later, in the Meiji period, the revival of Tennoism, saw as its main goal the purification of Japanese culture from foreign accretions. In order to effect this, the kokugakushu refused to study all cultural practices, from government to art to poetry to philosophy, that they believed derived from China, Korea, Southern Asia, India, or Europe. In the end, the artifacts that they believed most defined Japanese character were early Japanese poetry, represented by the Manyoshu poetry (the first collection of poetry in Japan) and by the Shinto religion. Shinto, however, had been greatly influenced by Buddhism to the point where it was not possible to extract Shinto from Buddhist ideas and practices.


Ancient Japan
Heian Japan

Tokugawa Japan
Motoori Norinaga

Japan Glossary
Aware

   The most influential of the kokugakushu was Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), a literary and linguistic scholar. He invented the crucial concept of mono no aware to define the essential of Japanese and Japanese culture. The phrase, derived from aware , which, in Heian Japan meant something like "sensitivity" or "sadness", means "a sensitivity to things." Motoori wanted to show that the unique character of Japanese culture (and he considered Japanese culture to be the "head" of the world; other nations were the "body") was the capacity to experience the objective world in a direct and unmediated fashion, to understand sympathetically the objects and the natural world around one without resorting to language or other mediators. The Japanese could understand the world directly in identifying themselves with that world; in addition, the Japanese could use language to directly express that connection to the world. This, for Motoori, is the aesthetic which lies behind the poetry of the Manyoshu . The poetic and historical texts present the "whole of life," which has meaning because all of nature and life is animated by the "intentions" of the gods. People experienced this wholeness of life by encountering things (mono); these encounters "moved" or "touched" them ("aware")—hence the unique Japanese character: "sensitivity to things" (mono no aware ). This concept became the central aesthetic concept in Japan even into the modern period.

Richard Hooker



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1994, Richard Hooker
Updated 7-4-97