‘Mono no aware’ and Japanese mentality

As I researched Japanese ancient poems *Hyakunin Isshu’ 百人一首  and keep creating my encaustic mixed media art series that is related to it by investing my emotions and imagination, I started to feel a ‘Mono no aware’ feeling/mentality is in some of those classical poems.

*‘Hyakunin Isshu’ 百人一首 is the collection/anthology of 7th-13th century Japanese waka (poem); 100 poems by 100 authors. As Japanese, we were told to memorize those phrases in school when we were small, mostly without knowing much of the meaning of each poem as a child. We also (including adults) play cards with Hyakunin Isshu Karuta traditionally particularly in New Year’s holiday in Japan in family. (How much you memorized affect the Karuta game to win! 🙂 But, again, most people don’t even care about the meaning of each poem because the words/phases are ancient Japanese and we don’t understand much.

Mono no aware’ is like Wabi-Sabi (explanation of Wabi-Sabi as follows at the bottom), it is originally unique concept that is based on the Japanese ancient way of life and its mentality.

But, NO Translation for ‘Mono no aware’ in English?

Mono no aware’ is considered difficult to be translated into other languages. Even many Japanese people cannot explain well in Japanese what Mono no aware means. We don’t use the word or term anymore in our daily life. Yet, we somehow learn in school (maybe junior high) in an ancient Japanese class a little bit. So, we know of the term, but there is not much consciousness about its meaning among most people. We may feel Mono no aware and we probably understand as subtle or vague feeling without even realizing it, though.

image of the art, Cry For LIFE -Lamentation (detail left) by MisakoOBA“Cry for LIFE – Lamentation C,” (detail) Misako OBA.
Original:  W38xH12xD1inch = approx. 96.5×30.5×2.5cm. Encaustic mixed media

I heard that an instructor in an interpreter/translator school in Japan one day asked students how to translate ‘Mono no aware.’ One of the top students who is Japanese-American and is truly bilingual answered, “I cannot translate.” The instructor nodded, “Correct.”  I have been pondering… Why?  It seems that because the meaning or usage of the term involves the natural environment such as topography and climate of Japan including the four seasons as well as Japanese way of thinking/history/culture, the instructor concluded Western people would not understand.  They normally don’t know about the way of ancient life in Japan, either. Therefore,  they don’t have experience or concept with that kind of situation/emotion/feeling or at least would have a hard time to understand.

However, as I have lived in the both countries, US and Japan, and traveled to many other countries and have close friends from different countries, I still believe or want to believe non-Japanese people would understand it. Maybe not everyone – each person in the world and their background is different- but some of them would understand. Some country even have a similar term, concept, and/or emotional state/feeling. Although it is quite characteristic of the Japanese world, it could also be found in other cultures….I assume. Perhaps not exactly, but as a similar emotional state as a human being.

I am not a linguist, so I found some references from books, dictionaries and online….and from my own experience. I feel challenged to explain, but will try. Some of my art pieces in Beyond Time & Space are created with emotion related to the Mono no aware’ feeling.

Cry For Life-Lamentation C, Misako OBA“Cry for LIFE – Lamentation C,” Misako OBA. Original: W38xH12xD1inch = approx. 96.5×30.5×2.5cm. Encaustic mixed media. Reflected poems #99, #68, #96, and #93 with re-written calligraphy. (As a triptych with two more pieces on the top, it will be W51x H26x D1 inch = about 130cm x 66cm x 2.5cm)

Definitions of ‘Mono no aware’

There are some different descriptions, but mostly it has the same or similar meaning. I selected some sources/references. Since the original descriptions are in Japanese, I personally translated the meaning as close as I can.  I hope those would at least help you a little to understand the term.

The word Mono no aware (もののあはれ/ 物の哀れ) is literally, “[4] pathos/pity of things,” but actually means:

– It is a profound or calm feeling/emotion/sentiment/atmosphere beyond description that seeps into the bottom of your heart that would occur when you are inspired by seeing, touching, or hearing things.  (=しみじみとした情趣: Commonly from multiple sources.)
Things that make you feel like you will forget your breath.

– Profound emotions/mood/feeling/atmosphere that naturally come up in the heart when touched on things or provoked and inspired by what one sees or hears.  Human beings affection. Elegant and delicate aesthetic philosophy gained by observing nature and life. (旺文社 古語辞典 [1] )

According 新明解 古語辞典 [2] , Mono no aware means:
-1. Atmosphere of things. People’ emotions.
-2. It is a literary term. A feeling/emotion that comes by touching the human heart and the beauty of natural objects. It is also a feeling/emotion/sentiment/atmosphere that seeps into the bottom of your heart.

-Mono no aware is one of the literary and aesthetic philosophy that are essential for knowing/understanding the dynasty literature during the Heian period (794- ca.1185) in Japan.
-A melancholic feeling or pathos by being aware of impermanence or transience of things.
-It is life ideal born from the hearts of the dynasty women who suffered and felt anguish. It is the ideology that influenced aesthetic sense and values ​​in Japanese culture. (Japanese Wikipedia[3] 

At the same time, feeling appreciative of [being sensitive to] the beauties of nature [things], and it has a positive meaning.

Lamentation and Mono no aware

Cry For Life-Lamentation (diptych AB detail), Misako OBA“Cry for LIFE – Lamentation”  (detail of diptych), Misako OBA. Original: W51x H12x D1 inch = approx.130cm x 30.5cm x 2.5cm.  Encaustic Mixed Media on braced wood panel. Reflected poems #34, #83, #84, #66 and #11 with re-written calligraphy. (As a triptych with one more piece ‘Cry for LIFE – Lamentation C’ to the bottom, it will be W51x H26x D1 inch = about 130cm x 66cm x 2.5cm)

I titled this work ‘Cry For Life  – Lamentation’ because the Hyakunin Isshu poems that I enclosed with the re-written calligraphy in the work are exclusively about life, and the contents of those poems feel to me like lamentation.  The authors of those poems expressed a state of  sorrow and pathos that seems to lead to the idea that the life in this world is in vain as their conclusion after having lived for long enough to recognize things in this world/life. They somehow depict feelings of despair and desolation.  One day, I found the word ‘Lamentation’ in the Old Testament.  There is a Book of Lamentation in the Bible and I felt it has a similar state of mind… sort of.   Lamentation in the Bible seems simpler or more straight minded for the ‘lament’ and seems to have nothing or little to do with Mono no aware, though.  Yet, those feelings are part of human nature.

It seems some authors of Hyakunin Isshu felt Mono no aware with regard to life in general.  While they expressed life as vain and poured their negative and pessimistic feelings (negativity) into the poem, I still feel they included or implied the beauty of transient nature/life (positivity) at the same time, which is Mono no aware mentality. – It has both sides. They also describe the nostalgic feeling for the time each author had experienced in their earlier life.

Cry For Life-Lamentation (diptych detail), Misako OBACry for LIFE – Lamentation”  (detail of diptych), Misako OBA. Encaustic Mixed Media on braced wood panel.
Original: W51x H12x D1 inch = approx.130cm x 30.5cm x 2.5cm.

To translate those poems into modern Japanese or into English is also very hard since there are some unwritten facts, feelings or the background of the situation that are behind each poem. But, here are some examples:

Poem #66: もろともに あはれと思へ 山桜 花よりほかに 知る人もなし
(Morotomoni Aware to omoe Yama-zakura Hana yori hoka ni Shiru hito mo nashi).
Miss me as well as I miss you, wild cherry blossoms. In such a heart of a mountain, it is only I that know how beautiful you are and it is only you that know how lonely I am.

Poem #83: 世の中よ 道こそなけれ 思ひ入る 山の奥にも 鹿ぞ鳴くなる
Oh, this world doesn’t have any escape! Hearing a deer crying, even such a deep heart of a mountain, which I have come into with determination, seems to have bitterness and sadness too.

Poem #84: 永らへば またこのごろや しのばれむ 憂しと見し世ぞ 今は恋しき
I’m wondering whether I could look back on these bitter days with nostalgia if I live long, as well as I miss now the past time when I had much grief.

Poem #99 :人もをし 人もうらめし あぢきなく 世を思ふゆゑに 物思ふ身は
It is a matter for regret that I am lost in thought variously because of taking this world unworthy, sometimes loving people and sometimes hating people.

Poem #66, 83, 84, and 99: Translation by SIG English Lounge

…and more. Altogether, I put the 10 poems in my art in the Part 2: Cry for LIFE.
I categorized 10 poems out of 100 that would belong to ‘about life’;  used the nine into ‘Cry For Life I – Lamentation’ and one into ‘Cry For Life II’  with layering calligraphy.
Like the meaning of Wabi, the poems also referred to the loneliness of living in nature, remote from society; Sabi, originally meaning “withered,” is an aesthetic sense and beauty whereby you can feel deep things and rich things naturally in the silence.

image of the art, Cry For LIFE 2 #35 by MisakoOBA“Cry for LIFE II #35”  2017 by Misako OBA.   Encaustic Mixed Media on braced wood panel.
W12x H18x D1 inch = 30.5cm x 45.8cm x 2.5cm. Reflected poems #35.

Dealing with the part of the concept of Mono no aware in my Beyond Time & Space series,  you can take a peek at the artwork from Part 2 Cry for LIFE.  The exhibition is until the end of this month! (more info below) . Thank you to those who already have visited the gallery! As for this particular piece ‘Cry for LIFE II’, I started it during the Brush Creek Artist in Residency (summer 2017) and completed it in fall in Seattle. The pigment transfer images that I made on encaustic are from Korea, Wyoming and Washington State deliberately as if they were from Japan.

Image of Cry For LIFE 2 #35 (detail), Misako OBA

CryForLIFE2_detail3UmeHito_MisakoO_900s.jpg “Cry for LIFE II #35” (detail), Misako OBA. From beyond Time & Space Series, Part 2.
The leaves are from Seattle. The plum blossoms and the scenery are from Korea where I traveled early this year.
They may look as if they are from Japan, however, I intentionally use the materials from non-Japanese countries
where I have lived or traveled as a part of the journey of life; My photo images that appears partly in the work,
which are not just collage of printed images but pigment-transfer, are actual evidence as I become a witness of
our 21st century, conveying my series concept that depicts the same emotion in different ‘time and space’.

Poem #35: 人はいさ 心も知らず ふるさとは 花ぞ昔の 香ににほひける / Poem by 紀貫之 Tsurayuki Kino (868~945)
Dear innkeeper,  I don’t know whether your mind is the way it used to be as as it is said that the human mind often changes. But, the plum blossoms are in glorious bloom and giving off the same scent as before (and welcome me) here in the town.  (So, please do not be mad and put your good mood back and let me stay in your Inn.)

Poem #35: Translation by me.

The English phrases you see as abstract in the work is:  Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. (Ephesians 4:27)

Additional info about this poem and the work:  This poem was read by the poet Mr. Kino in response to the innkeeper who was not in a good mood when he/she saw him and little mad by saying “it’s been a long time since you stayed here last time.”  He expressed the comparison between the state of mind of human and nature with mild sarcasm.

ShowPostCard_Limner2017Gallery Hours Thurs – Sat:  12-5, Mon-Wed by appt.
Please call to confirm the open hours during the holiday. Tel:  518-828-2343 

LIMNER GALLERY, 123 Warren StreetHudson, NY 12534 

I didn’t like traditional or classical Japanese things or art when I was a child. It looked too old fashioned and lame. (My eyes were always towards the Western way of thinking, life or art.). I never really liked or was interested in Calligraphy, either. However, after living outside of Japan for many years, I started to feel differently about those Japanese traditional things and appreciate them. They have a long history and are deep and complex indeed. I even started to feel privileged to have known that mentality or philosophy by experience or by heart or mind.

Lastly, here is little bit more about the series, Series, Truth in Emotion “Beyond Time & Space”  – Reviving 100-WAKA (Japanese ancient poems/ letters) –
People today love and suffer just as the ancients did. Linked by our humanity, we face much of the same feelings and issues. It truly is beyond time and space.  
For this project, the Haykunin Isshu were re-written in calligraphy by my father, a calligraphy master in Japan using specific ancient characters (the same as back in those centuries) on traditional Japanese paper. Then, I have been creating art with encaustic (an ancient medium), integrating BOTH ancient and contemporary elements by layering in each unique piece in the series.

image of the art, Cry For LIFE -Lamentation (detail Right) by MisakoOBA“Cry for LIFE – Lamentation C,” (detail) Misako OBA.
Original:  W38xH12xD1inch = approx. 96.5×30.5×2.5cm. Encaustic mixed media.
Image of Cry For LIFE 2 #35 (detail), Misako OBA“Cry for LIFE II #35” (detail), Misako OBA.
Original:  W18xH12xD1inch = approx. 45.8×30.5×2.5cm. Encaustic mixed media

Wabi Sabi
As you read about Mono no aware, I assume you may think of the term Wabi Sabi, which is more popular internationally, and you know it or at least have heard of it. This term also has a complex meaning and cannot be translated easily. However, in short:

In traditional Japanese aesthetics,  Wabi Sabi (侘 寂) is a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection.  (……) Around the 14th century these meanings began to change, taking on more positive connotations.  Wabi now connotes rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness, and can be applied to both natural and human-made objects, or understated elegance. Sabi is beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear, or in any visible repairs. (Wikipedia)

Wabi Sabi is an ancient aesthetic philosophy rooted in Zen Buddhism, particularly the tea ceremony, a ritual of purity and simplicity in which masters prized bowls that were handmade and irregularly shaped, with uneven glaze, cracks, and a perverse beauty in their deliberate imperfection.  (Whole Living: Wabi Sabi Your Life: 6 Strategies for Embracing Imperfection)

This Wabi-Sabi philosophy reminds me of Kintsugi, which I heard and learned from my American friend recently, a Japanese art form originally invented by a happy accident.

At this time of the year as New Years Day and biggest Japanese Holidays are just around the corner, I ponder about a lot of traditions, customs, mentality, and meaning behind them.  And, I know I need to finish the work eventually with 100 poems in total!  (How many more? hmm…)

Wishing you a Happy New Year!!🎉✨

Source/References for the definition of Mono no aware:
[1](旺文社 古語辞典 改訂新版。松村明、山口明穂、和田利政 編 )
[2](新明解 古語辞典 第二版 三省堂。編者代表:金田一春彦、監修:金田一京助)
[3]   Japanese Wikipedia
[4]   Weblio 辞書

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About misako

This entry was posted in art, Creative process, Encaustic, exhibition, Included Japanese日本語も, Japanese word, Mixed Media, New York, News/Announcement, wax or beeswax and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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