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Mono No Aware: The Gentle Sadness of Things


The significance of the Japanese phrase mono no aware implores us to understand the transitory nature of things with a sense of beauty and finiteness.

If a person did not dissolve, did not disappear as smoke, things would lose their power to move us. The most precious thing about life is its uncertainty. In Japanese Buddhist philosophy, in contrary to what Plato wanted and what permeates us, there is no concept of the stable kingdom in or behind reality. But rather basic reality is understood as impermanence. And that is where its incomparable appreciation for beauty lies. Instead of causing some kind of nihilistic desperation, being aware of the fundamental transitory nature of existence is, for the Japanese, a call to vital activity in the present moment. To the hyper-nuanced appreciation of things and the phenomena of the world. The term mono no aware is one of the most beautiful and panoramic concepts that illustrate this aesthetic of understanding.

Pregnant with nuances and connotations, the term mono no aware inevitably loses something in translation, but the direct meaning, “the sadness or pathos of things,” is the starting point. It refers to the bittersweet feeling of seeing things change. It is, as Sei Shonagon said in the 10th century, “when one has stopped loving somebody, [and] one feels that he has become someone else, even though he is still the same person.” The diminutive pain that accompanies a flower when it withers, and the finite nature of everything.

The translation of aware as “sadness” is due more than anything to the lack of a better word, because the essence of aware suggests the experience of being deeply moved by emotions that can include joy and love, but which are always colored by the finite nature of things, or by pain. What better than cherry blossom to understand that concept?

Two young Japanese women sit under a cherry tree.

The most frequently cited example of mono no aware in contemporary Japan is the traditional love for cherry blossom, manifested in the crowds that venture out each year to look at the Sakuras and have a picnic beneath them, and which are valued for their transitory nature. They usually begin to fall after flowering for a week and it is precisely the evanescence of their beauty that evokes the feeling of melancholy and joy of mono no aware in the observer.

A traditional Japanese home with red tea pot on floor and small table.

Another great example (and which we especially recommend) is in the films of Ozu Yasujirō, considered the most “Japanese” of Japanese directors. In his work there are a series of memorable exercises that impeccably transmit mono no aware: Ozu expresses feelings through objects instead of actors. A jug placed in the corner of a room where a father and his son sleep; two fathers contemplating the rocks in a garden, their postures imitating the forms of the rocks, a mirror reflecting an absence… All are images that express the pathos of things.

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