Mono No Aware

Culture, Language, The Economy

In September of last year Jonathon Delacour wrote eloquently about the role of sadness” in Japanese aesthetics:

It’s this aesthetic empathy of things and feelings” connected with time’s passing that the eighteenth century literary scholar, Motoori Norinaga, defined as mono no aware, which I’ve seen variously described as

  • deep impressions produced by small things
  • sympathetic sadness
  • an intense, nostalgic sadness, connected with autumn and the vanishing away of the world
  • a serene acceptance of a transient world
  • a gentle pleasure found in mundane pursuits soon to vanish

In his popular novel, Musashi, the story of Japan’s best-known swordsman, Yoshikawa Eiji writes describes mono no aware from the warrior’s perspective:

In the case of the samurai there is such a thing as an appreciation of the poignancy of things… a real samurai, a genuine swordsman has a compassionate heart, he understands the poignancy of life.

One of the reasons for my strong interest in Japanese literature and aesthetics is this acceptance of sadness as an essential ingredient of life. And (perhaps mistakenly) I’ve always regarded Jefferson’s assertion that the pursuit of Happiness is an unalienable Right as a kind of denial of the rightful place of sadness in human experience—that in pursuing happiness we are simultaneously fleeing sadness.

At the time I responded by placing Jefferson’s use of the term happiness” in its historical context. Now, reading this post by Mark Liberman on LanguageLog made me think of think again of the relationship between the pursuit of private property (what I argued Jefferson really meant) and sadness. This is because drug companies are now marketing the concept of depression” as an illness in order to sell anti-depressants in Japan. Liberman quotes Kathryn Schulz’s NY Times article:

For 1,500 years of Japanese history, Buddhism has encouraged the acceptance of sadness and discouraged the pursuit of happiness — a fundamental distinction between Western and Eastern attitudes. The first of Buddhism’s four central precepts is: suffering exists. Because sickness and death are inevitable, resisting them brings more misery, not less. Nature shows us that life is sadness, that everything dies or ends,” Hayao Kawai, a clinical psychologist who is now Japan’s commissioner of cultural affairs, said. Our mythology repeats that; we do not have stories where anyone lives happily ever after.” Happiness is nearly always fleeting in Japanese art and literature. That bittersweet aesthetic, known as aware, prizes melancholy as a sign of sensitivity.

This traditional way of thinking about suffering helps to explain why mild depression was never considered a disease. Melancholia, sensitivity, fragility — these are not negative things in a Japanese context,” Tooru Takahashi, a psychiatrist who worked for Japan’s National Institute of Mental Health for 30 years, explained. It never occurred to us that we should try to remove them, because it never occurred to us that they were bad.”

It makes you wonder what Ozu movies would have been like if he’d been on Prozac?