TOKYO — One of the most memorable afternoons I have spent in Japan was in a traditional ryokan (rio-kahn), or inn, situated on the slope of a gorge on picturesque Izu Peninsula southwest of Tokyo.
It was a Sunday afternoon. I was alone, and it was raining — not a heavy rain but a light, steady rain that was close to being a mist. I was sitting on the balcony of my room, looking out over the gorge, waiting for a friend to arrive.
As I sat there I began to experience what the Japanese call mono no aware (moe-no no ah-wah-ray) — a Buddhist concept that includes being very conscious of the ephemeral nature of man, his struggle in the face of great odds and the inevitability of his downfall and disappearance.
This aspect of Japan’s culture, developed between 700 and 1200 A.D. was based on the acute recognition of the impermanence of all things — an element that later was enhanced by the code of the samurai which required them to be ready to give up their lives at a moment’s notice — resulting in their lives being compared to cherry blossoms...beautiful but fragile to the extreme and subject to being wafted away by the slightest breeze.
This culture of impermanence was especially reflected in the haiku and tanka poetry of the era, as well as in such great literary works as: Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji), a novel about the intrigues and loves of an imperial prince (usually regarded as the world’s first novel) written in the early 11th century by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady in the Imperial Court in Kyoto; and Heike Monogatari (The Tale of the Heike), compiled by a blind monk named Kakuichi in 1371.
The opening lines of Heike Monogatari, which depicts an epic struggle between the Taira and Minamoto clans for the control of Japan in the 12th century, say more about the human condition than many philosophical tomes:
“The sound of the Gion Shôja [temple] bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sâla 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.”
The culture of Japan reflected this theme in many ways, resulting in the Japanese developing an extensive vocabulary that expressed this inherent sadness of life.
While mono no aware means something like “indulging one’s self in grief,” neither this phrase nor any of the other key words were actually used in sad situations. Instead they referred to a gentle melancholy view of the fragility and preciousness of life that included an element of subdued pleasure.
The annual custom of celebrating the short life of cherry blossoms is the largest of Japan’s mono no aware rituals. It reminds them to take the time and find ways to enjoy life while they can because it will soon be gone.
My spending a quiet afternoon entranced by the natural beauty of the setting as it was being cleansed and renewed by rain was another of the mono no aware practices that are dear to the hearts of the Japanese. Still another way is to engage in “forest bathing” — spending time in an isolated forest, letting the sights, sounds and vibrations of the trees wash over you.
There is also an element of mono no aware in most of Japan’s classic art and craft designs, from kitchen utensils to the kimono worn by older men and women. The famous Tea Ceremony is a pure mono no aware ritual.
Knowledge of this cultural element makes it possible for one to appreciate more fully the distinctive essence of things Japanese — the elements that make them Japanese.
And this factor is one of the unspoken and generally un-described things that make the traditional aspects of life in Japan so sensually, intellectually, and spiritually attractive to everyone, including foreigners who are sensitive to the realities of life, including its brevity.
Editor's note: Boyé Lafayette De Mente (1928-2017) first came to Japan in 1949 as a member of the occupation forces. He held a degree in economics and Japanese from Tokyo's Sophia University, and a BFT from the American Graduate School of International Management in Glendale, Arizona.
He was best known as the author of a highly successful series of books on social and business customs in Japan, China, Korea and Mexico. As a journalist with the Japan Times, and later on as editor of 'The Importer Magazine,' he witnessed at close hand the rapid growth of Asia's 'tiger' economies. His guidelines to westerners wishing to do business in the new post-war Japan were widely recognized as ground-breaking.
I am indebted to Mr. De Mente for sending the above article to republish here in Japan Perspectives.