Before I began to read Oh! A Mystery of Mono No Aware by Todd Shimoda, I took the book off the shelf several times just to caress it and admire the endpapers. This tome, published by Chin Music Press in Seattle, is a work of art in itself.
In the story, Zack Hara, an American of Japanese descent, sets out on a journey to determine why he is unable to feel deeply. His trip begins in Japan, where he gets caught up in several mysteries. Though not suicidal himself, he is intrigued by the suicide clubs that have cropped up in recent years in Japan, and visits Aokigahara Forest, a famous suicide site, to gain insight into why people are killing themselves in groups. He also wonders about his Japanese immigrant grandfather’s life, and goes in search of clues about his past.
Another mystery which occupies Zack, and his student-turned-mentor Professor Imai, is the definition of “mono no aware.” Originally put into use by Japanese writer Motoori Norinaga in the 1700s, this term, which has no exact English equivalent, refers to something like the feeling one has at experiencing ephemeral beauty. According to the professor, most modern Japanese people do not use these words and don’t know what they mean.
As a bit of research, I asked my husband to define “mono no aware.”
“It’s like wabi-sabi,” he said. Another one of those untranslatable Japanese aesthetic terms…
Definitions and explanations of mono no aware appear between chapters, along with paintings (by Linda Shimoda) which offer clues to Zack’s fate.
For example: “In many ways, mono no aware embodies the essence of human nature – how we think and feel, as well as how we express these thoughts and feelings, particularly through the arts.”
Some other definitions:
*traditional Japanese acceptance of the sadness of life
* sensitivity to things and events
*a desolate poignancy
*an aesthetic awareness of the transiency of all things
Although all of this may sound vague and esoteric, I’m pleased to report that Shimoda’s writing is not. If any book will help you to understand the concept of mono no aware, it is probably this one, written in clear, direct prose, with a compelling story to go along with it. Perhaps mono no aware is the mixture of sadness, satisfaction and awe that one has after finishing book such as this one and realizing that there are no more pages, that one may have to wait for years for the author’s next novel.
Can you think of a mono no aware moment?
(I have one copy to give away, courtesy of Chin Music Press. Please leave your name and email address if you’d like to enter.)