The exact timing does vary considerably depending on where in the country they happen to live, but the end of last month and beginning of this are the time when most people in Japan get to see what is arguably the grandest expression of their culture. It is certainly on the grandest scale. For centuries, the Japanese have assiduously planted in attractive spots and around public buildings across their land the masses of trees that burst into spectacular bloom at this time of year and that the Japanese have claimed as their cultural own. The trees are of course cherry trees, and nobody, but nobody, loves those trees’ blossoms like the Japanese.
Magnificent though the sight of the pale-pink flowers may be and beyond their role as a symbol of the country, there is in fact a good deal more to the blooms than their breathtaking appearance. The sudden flowering of the cherry into brilliant life, existing in exquisite bloom for a couple of weeks and then the petals sadly falling to the ground is regarded as a metaphor for the transience of human life. And as such, the blossoms are closely identified with the notion of mono no aware.
That phrase is based on aware, one of many untranslatable words used to characterize Japanese aesthetics. Aware has a wide range of meanings, including “moving,” “pathetic” and “beautiful,” and when used together with mono (“things”) it may be translated as “the pity of things” or “the pathos of human existence.” The nineteenth-century British scholar William George Aston referred to mono no aware as “the ah-ness of things,” and it bears some similarity to the lacrimae rerum (“tears of things”) of Virgil in his great classic the Aeneid. Mono no aware amounts to an appreciation of the fleeting nature of life’s beauty, and it is for this reason that the fragile, short-lived splendor of the cherry blossom came to be seen as its expressive symbol.
The notion of mono no aware dates back to the Heian period (794–1185), when it emerged as a literary and aesthetic ideal. It was through his study of the Heian literary masterpiece the Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu that the eighteenth-century classical scholar Motoori Norinaga recognized mono no aware as an important concept in the literature of those times. As evidence of the growth in its importance, the word aware appears fully 1,044 times in the Tale of Genji, whereas it occurs only nine times in the similarly vast work of the Man’yoshu, Japan’s oldest anthology of Japanese classical poetry, which appeared three centuries earlier.
Mono no aware pervades all Heian literature, though it is particularly conspicuous in the Tale of Genji, where Motoori identifies it as the prime emotion that moves the reader. In the book, mono no aware defines the pathos inherent in this world’s beauty, whose fate is inevitable disappearance—just as it is the fate of the observer. It is for that reason that autumn, whose images poignantly evoke the sorrow of human existence, is the dominant season in the Tale of Genji.
The only great rival to Murasaki Shikibu in Heian letters was Sei Shonagun, who, like Murasaki, was a woman. In her great work, the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagun, Sei wrote with lively humor about the fascinating period in which she lived and notably detailed the sexual license that prevailed among the nobility then. As in other areas of Heian literature, the lover’s departure in the morning is a recurring them in the Pillow Book. Because it is more evocatively poignant, more expressive of aware—though decidedly less beguiling to the male ego—women writers of that era dwell at far greater length on the lover’s leave taking than on his arrival in the evening or the time spent with him. In the section dealing with “Hateful Things,” Sei provides full details on how a man can spoil all that has preceded through lack of requisite social taste upon leaving in the morning. But she also extols the sorrowful departure when that is clearly not the case: “The lady watches him go, and this moment of parting will remain among her most charming memories.”
David Capel is a journalist living in Tokyo.
This article first appeared in the April 2014 issue of the Japan Journal.