Mono no aware, can be translated as the ‘sensitivity to things’. Mono means things, and aware comes from the ancient Japanese exclamation ‘Ah(a)!’. In early Heian times (794-1185) aware became a noun designating a profound and individual emotion that one experiences in communion with the fleeting beauty of a person, an event, a natural object or a work of art. Aware is sometimes called the ‘ah!-ness of things’ you feel when confronted with beauty and at the same time are conscious of the transience or incompleteness of this beauty. Aware transcends the feelings of sadness and joy and merges these into a new, profound emotion.
The sound of the Gion shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sōla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind. (McCullough 1988) – Heike monogatari (The Tale of the Heike Clan)
We can discover aware in the feelings inspired by a bright spring morning and also in the sense of sadness that overcomes us on an autumn evening. Its primary mood, however, is one of gentle melancholy, from which it can develop into real grief. Awarewas, and is, a feeling reserved for delicate and sensitive people. It never turned into a wild outburst of grief and has therefore nothing in common with the turbulent romantic emotions we know so well in the West. The ability to understand this type of aesthetic emotional experience became a defining trait of a refined character and was referred to as mono no aware wo shiru. It was limited to the upper classes and can be regarded as the equivalent of moral virtue in other societies. To say of someone that he does not ‘know’ mono no aware is a serious defamation of character. The concept of mono no aware has a great influence on thinking of Japanese culture to this day. (Ref)
holding back the night
with its increasing brilliance
the summer moon
– Yoshitoshi’s death poem
Japanese film director, Ozu Yasujirō, films are seen as a series of exercises expressing mono no aware. Ozu, often expresses feelings through presenting the faces of things rather than of actors. A vase standing in the corner of a tatami-matted room where a father and daughter are asleep; two fathers contemplating the rocks in a “dry landscape” garden, their postures echoing the shapes of the stone; a mirror reflecting the absence of the daughter who has just left home after getting married—all images that express the pathos of things as powerfully as the expression on the greatest actor’s face.