I Award You No Points

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Mono no Aware

Posted at — Dec 11, 2020

I don't write blog posts often, I'm too busy with school and work to really sit down and dig into a topic the way I'd like to for a good post. So, I've decided to publish some of the papers I've written in school so far. This is a bit embarrassing, but I did get good grades on these papers, so I suppose they're decent.

The first one I am choosing to post is one I wrote for a Japanese history class I took. Japanese is my minor, and I have set myself a goal of becoming fluent, so it holds a dear spot in my evil little heart. This paper is called “Mono no Aware” (物の哀れ) - in English it translates as “the pathos of things”. Please enjoy it!

    While the Tokugawa Shoguns imposed their will on the government of Japan and elevated the samurai to the highest echelons of society during the Edo period, much of what people think of today as being uniquely Japanese was perfected or invented. This was in large part thanks to the Edo period scholar Motoori Norinaga’s rediscovery of ​mono no aware​, which found its wide adoption during this period and is central to Japanese society to this day. The phrase ​mono no aware is translated loosely as the Japanese love of impermanence or sometimes as the love of simple things. While no single period of Japanese history can be solely responsible for Japanese society as we know it, the society of the Edo period and its adoption of the ethos of mono no aware was able to help the transition of the art and culture of earlier periods into the modern age. Everything from haiku to ukiyo-e found refinement and completion as art forms during this period, and while the political structure of the shogunate no longer exists in Japan, the ideals and morals of this period are strong influences on Japan even today. This helped to ensure that the Japanese and their unique cultural heritage became inseparable despite the upheavals of the Meiji and Showa periods that followed.

    The various social, cultural, and political changes that happened in Japan during the Edo period are well-known to most Japanese on a visceral level. Of major importance here are the social classes, art forms, architecture, and Neo-Confucianism which all took hold in Japan during the Edo period. Japan learned much about itself and its unique culture during this time, which set the stage for the improbable fusing of Japan’s culture with the ever-accelerating march of progress that would be at their doorstep soon enough. The arrival of the West was bound to happen sooner or later, and although Japan was not prepared for it politically thanks to the National Exclusion Policy of the Tokugawa Shogunate, her people gained a solid grounding in what it meant to be Japanese that would help to carry them through the rocky later ages while still maintaining their strong cultural heritage of ​mono no aware.​

    When discussing the Edo period of Japanese history one must also realize the rigid social structure that existed at this time, many aspects of which still inform much popular Japanese culture to this day. To be a samurai during the Edo period was to be a living contradiction; often poor and forced to farm, samurai also had the absolute respect of the remaining classes and a free license to carry out punishment on them for the slightest offense. A samurai must also have this same respect for his lord and emperor, and must be willing to die for them at any time. The Japanese salaryman’s samurai-like stoicism and devotion to their company is well-known if a bit of a stereotype, and comparisons of salarymen to samurai are often made in modern Japanese popular culture due to these similarities. Farmers in the Edo period were next on the pecking order, but again were also often poor, while the lower classes of artisans and merchants enjoyed unprecedented economic growth. To this day, the simple lives of samurai or farmers are held up to be the ideal of the Japanese, who enjoy the beauty of simple things and understand the joys of hard work.

    The tea ceremony, haiku, woodblock prints, and other cultural achievements of the Edo period all still thrive in Japan today. It’s not unusual to see Japanese youth wearing t-shirts that portray the famous woodblock artist Hokusai’s work, and even in America elementary school children write haiku in class. People all over the world study the Japanese tea ceremony and obtain certifications as official tea ceremony practitioners. Kabuki is still enormously popular in Japan, with kabuki actors gaining as much fame as their counterparts who appear on television or in the cinema. The traditional Japanese room, which contains the paper walls called shoji, tatami floors, and the often austere tokonoma alcove was also perfected during this period. Most Japanese houses still contain a Japanese room to this day and as a matter of fact, the rooms in houses and apartments are still measured by how many tatami mats it takes to cover the floor. With all of these mediums, again we see the joy Japanese people take in everyday things and their propensity for turning them into subtle and poignant works of art.

    The Tokugawa government’s embrace of Neo-Confucianism as their favored ideology still infuses Japanese culture today. The Neo-Confucian focus on social order and harmony is a useful tool in a country of over 125 million that has less land area than the state of California. The trains are on time and people are polite almost to a fault while in public spaces thanks to Neo-Confucianism; it’s the essential lubricant of a vibrant and oftentimes chaotic Japanese society. Meanwhile the Neo-Confucian rigid social order and structure of the Japanese can be also be observed by watching them cheer for the home team at a baseball game. Filial piety, one of the hallmarks of Neo-Confucianism, is not something Japanese have a monopoly on, but it’s influence is very strong amongst the Japanese. It was this propensity toward reverence of one's elders and the emperor that helped the fascist government exercise its power during World War 2, for example. However, this misleadingly simple ideology is again a celebration of the pathos of things, in this case the passion one must have for their superiors and for the harmony of Japan.

    Japan has successfully captured the imagination of the West for well over a hundred years now, and while this was not always for good reasons, it’s not unusual to say that Japan’s unique culture is widely respected and in some cases revered. The remarkable resilience of the Japanese way of life through the Industrial Revolution and two World Wars, one of which left much of Japan in ruins, has as its genesis the central ideal of ​mono no aware developed during the Edo period. While solemn or even sad, it’s also beautiful, and strikes a chord with most modern day people the world over who may at times feel aimless. Many Japanese themselves almost certainly also feel this same aimlessness, and thanks to the Edo period’s revival of the ideal can enjoy looking at life through the lens of ​mono no aware,​ allowing them to find the heightened beauty of things thanks to their impermanence.

A big thank you goes out to Ketenchian-sensei at LACC for advising me on this paper. ケテンチアン先生、ありがとうございました。失礼しました。

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