Mono No Aware

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Studies on Asia

Wabi-Sabi, Mono no Aware, and Ma:
Tracing Traditional Japanese Aesthetics
Through Japanese History
Lauren Prusinski
Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, Indiana
Introduction
Japanese cultural standards and definitions of beauty have been nurtured over many generations. Starting in the Heian era, Japan revitalized its focus on the natural world, embracing its unpredictable fluctuations and adopting a sensitivity to and appreciation for nature. The Japanese developed a distinct sense of aesthetics, including wabi sabi, mono no aware, and ma, to guide their feelings in regard to nature and its influence in their art and culture. Each of these aesthetics depicts a different kind of beauty, often describing beauty found in unexpected forms. Wabi sabi represents rustic and desolate beauty; mono no aware, a fleeting, varying beauty; ma, an empty or formless beauty.1 By defining beauty through these aesthetics, Japan has generated an awareness of the beauty of nature not typically found in other societies, especially in sprawling urban settings. Japan has always been a nation focused on beauty in all realms of culture: in arts like poetry and calligraphy; through ritualssuch as the ancient tea ceremony; and in contemporary Japan urban life, consumer goods and architecture.

With a keen eye for their surroundings, the Japanese have
effectively melded ancient aesthetics with modern advancement, deferring to their natural roots by highlighting rather than diminishing their eternal presence in society. For example, the Kyoto

1

Roger J. Davies and Osamu Ikeno, “Bigaku” in The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture (Boston: Tuttle, 2002), 37-8, 223-24.

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Series IV, Volume 2, No. 1, March 2012

Station is a central feature of Kyoto’s cityscape, the hub of Kyoto’s downtown area, and its modern architecture displays features that characterize urban Japan. While the Kyoto Station exhibits modern innovation in its synthetic grandeur, it still contains elements of simplicity and continuity with nature in its design. Urban

development has extended its reach to the base of the Kyoto
mountainsides, but the numerous temples and gardens scattered amidst its municipal areas still exemplify the Japanese consciousness of her relationship with nature. The environment that surrounds these manmade temple spaces actually enhances their unnatural qualities—without nature they would simply be cold, unearthly structures isolated from their surroundings. These changing elements of nature amplify the feeling and emotion one has in response to manmade creations among nature’s existence, as humans must be constantly aware of their place in the natural world. The Japanese awareness of this heightens the appreciation for these traditional and natural elements in contemporary society. Though sometimes

difficult to detect, the integration of nature into an industrialized society is an integral component for beauty to succeed in developing a solid modern culture. Without this integration, nature will appear to combat man’s advancements, causing continual opposition between the two domains. By understanding both the origins of these aesthetics and the role they played in ancient Japanese culture, one can understand why they still maintain a large influence in present-day, urban Japan.

Heian Influences
From the beginning of Japan’s aesthetic development, China, India and Korea had a strong influence on its culture, indicated by the terms for earlier aesthetics that Japan shared with these other Eastern cultures.2 As Professor Andrijauskas points out, however, most of the Japanese aesthetic sensibility originated from Japan’s indigenous

2

Antanas Andrijauskas, “Specific Features of Traditional Japanese Medieval Aesthetics” in Dialogue and Universalism, 13 no. 1/2 (January 2003): 201, Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost, accessed February 7, 2011.

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Studies on Asia

Shinto religion, “the...
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