Oh! A Mystery of Mono No Aware

Title: Oh! A Mystery of Mono No Aware
Author: Todd Shimoda
Published: 2009, 303 pages
Rating: 4 out of 5

Carine says before I can stop here, “Zack’s here on a kind of, um, spiritual quest. Looking for a way to experience deep emotions. He heard about a Japanese idea of mono no aware, it’s…well, you tell him Zack.” (p. 123)

Zack Hara is frustrated by the lack of emotions he is able to experience. In a relationship which is neither hot nor cold, he decides to leave California for Japan in order to pursue an understanding of his grandfather’s roots. An even greater pursuit is that of finding emotional depth in his life.

A professor hires him to help him edit work from Japanese to English, and he sets before Zack a series of tasks:

  1. Getting lost.
  2. Finding a pear-shaped stone.
  3. Committing a petty crime.
  4. Discovering why people decide to end their lives in the suicide clubs at Aokigahara.
  5. Writing poetry.

In the course of fulfilling each task, both Zack and the reader learn what the Japanese term mono no aware means. Essentially, in very crude American terms, it is the emotional reaction to something felt so deeply that one can only exclaim, “Oh!”

When Zack sets out to become lost, in his first assignment, he feels he has defeated the purpose because it is an intentional act instead of an accidental one. As he discusses this with the professor, he says

So, it’s the same with emotion. Purposely setting out to feel something, to experience an emotion, will never be the same as naturally feeling the emotion. Right? (p. 51)

Being a person who does not suffer from a lack of emotion, I can’t relate to searching for something to feel. But, I can quite acutely react to the search for understanding what would cause someone to commit suicide. The author explores possible solutions such as despair and depression, as well as mental illness:

From what I’ve seen so far, the suicide victim gets trapped in another world with an alternate logic. Death becomes the only answer for every question and situation. Death becomes the inescapable conclusion. (p. 204)

But, the idea is also presented that it is only in the final moments of one’s life that one is able to fully experience mono no aware. Perhaps this can give us a possible solution as to why someone would be attracted to suicide, confused as it may be.

This book is a fascinating look at emotion, and the ancient Japanese term which, although forgotten by many, still lurks deep within our souls. Whether we stuff it down and refuse to display emotion or not.

Mono no aware is difficult to translate literally, although the word “sensibility” is perhaps the closest single word. Sensibility is the awareness of and responsiveness toward something, as emotion in another. It implies a refined sensitivity to emotion and responsiveness toward the sorrowful. Other definitions of mono no aware include:

  • traditional Japanese acceptance of the inherent sadness of life
  • feelings generated by ephemeral beauty
  • the enveloping sensation of refinement and grace in which the feeling and the mind come together
  • sensitivity to things and events
  • an aesthetic awareness of the transience of all things
  • a feeling of being connected to nature and all things
  •  a desolate poignancy
  • the intangibility or evanescence of objects
  • a feeling for the poignant beauty of things
  • wistfulness

This book will be given as the Japanese Literature Challenge 3’s prize for October. Should you wish to be entered to win a copy, please leave a comment as to something which causes you to experience a bit of mono no aware in your own life.

The winner of this book is Claire, of Kiss A Cloud. Congratulations, Claire!

23 thoughts on “Oh! A Mystery of Mono No Aware”

  1. Hi Meredith,Right now in my life I have reason to exclaim "Oh!" Especially friday night when I received news which where supposed to be good except I learned some things about a certain person and his partner which made me and a poor police officer with a broken hand exclaim "Oh!!!"My ex was served and the police officer doing the serving had his hand slammed into a heavy door by my ex's new interest…..Oh!!!!Also reason I could not participate in Read-a-thon, up all night.To those who read this, I am really a very proper woman, can't say this about my ex 😀


  2. Hey Bellezza, Wow!! What an amazing sounding book! Truly, amazing. As I was reading this, I thought to myself…there are so many things that make me say "oh!" And those things happen at my job. I hear stories every day of people at their worst. Literally, they come to me because they are at their end. Not in my private practice, but at the hospital. I would love to read this book and maybe get some insight into that. I know it's a work of fiction, but still, it sounds like it has so much to offer! What a great book and a wonderful review.


  3. What a fabulous review! I love the sound of this book and I enjoy reading books which explain the Japanese culture, as I think it is one of my favourite. I feel a bit of mono no aware whenever I look at pictures of my boys when they were little babies. I feel a bit sad, as I know they will never be that small again and that stage of their lives has gone for good. The happiness returns as soon as I see them jumping around, but for those few moments I mourn the loss of their babyhood.


  4. Jackie, I know exactly what you mean. I think that would have to be my mono no aware moment, too, or at least in the top three of them. It's so piercing, to remember when they were that young and know it's gone forever. I must force myself to look ahead, not behind, sometimes..


  5. In this book, suicide clubs went something like this: a person advertised on line for people who were interested in committing suicide. They would all meet, make a pact, and drive to a secluded place where they took sleeping pills and attached a hibachi grill to the car in such a way that they died from the gas. Bizarre beyond words to me.


  6. It's such an existential kind of read, Chris, all wrapped up in a mystery. It reminds me of things I've read from Herman Hesse, in a way, exploring the deeper meaning of life. But, not at all boring. The tone is very fresh and current, I felt as if the author could have been around your age and that he was talking to me.


  7. I think your experience would qualify as quite the shocker, Madeleine. I'm so sorry that they continue to occur in your life, and the policeman's, but your husband/ex will not remain unscathed. Things always come back around, somehow.


  8. Such a thoughtful review, Bellezza 🙂 I like the quoted passage about forced emotion because it makes perfect sense. Forcing one's self to experience a particular emotion (by choosing to feel it) can hardly compare to the effect of naturally falling into a situation that makes you feel that emotion.Anyway, about mono no aware, is something I closely relate to the very moment of parting. When we meet with a long lost friend, a missed acquaintance or a distant relative, we through a process which sadly (but only naturally) ends in parting. We exchange warm greetings and begin an unavoidably hearty chat, but as minutes or hours pass, the reunion naturally has to come to a close and we enter that brief moment of parting, that thankful yet somehow melancholic moment that everyone who meets with someone else simply has to go through. It doesn't matter if you both know that you'll still see each other again, it doesn't matter if the next meeting is as soon as tomorrow, parting is parting. It's sad, yes, but it's also a quick moment of reflection when your thoughts go back to what has just taken place, and with that you sincerely appreciate the taking place of something beautiful. And the transience of that experience, actually, makes it beautifully poignant in itself.That's a nice link you gave, thanks! Here's another link that also talks about mono no aware and it's relevance to the Japanese beauty aesthetic:Mono No Aware: The Essence of Japan


  9. Hm, mono no aware sounds so familiar… I must have read about it shortly ago, but where? It's funny that 'aware' (and "ah-ness", as mentioned in the link Mark David provided) resembles the English words 'aware(ness)' and 'being in awe'.You would never have guessed: I recently had an Oh!-moment when watching the movie Departures. I'm not particularly religious, and when I saw the traditional (shinto?) farewell of deceased loved ones in this film I really went OH! It's marvelous and has made me think of my own parting (sometime) since. Who would have thought a film could do that to you?I hope I have made myself clear, it's not an easy feeling to translate in a language that is not my own 😉


  10. How beautiful. I would love to be able to read this. My life is strewn with Oh moments. When I see my baby smile, I mourn the day we left the house he took his first steps in. When I look at my husband's face a little changed by age, I feel a tug in my heart for the young boy he once was when I first met him. Just now, looking out the window, the wind blowing leaves off tree branches, I can feel a lump in my throat forming with the memory of taking long walks with my second son that particular autumn when my first was just starting kindergarten.I also read books primarily for these Oh moments. It's the reason why I favour form over plot. It's because words, when stringed together beautifully, can stir the soul. Last night, during the readathon, I had several such moments while reading Banana Yoshimoto's Kitchen. While her style can seem so simplistic, I loved it so much for the feelings they evoked in me.


  11. How about the biting experience of having your heart broken yet again? That's what I am feeling right now and it's as a result from dating someone who is apparently so closed down to any emotions, he wouldn't be able to even understand what this 'oh' feeling could feel like. Sometimes I am jealous and would like to be like that, but then again, experiencing deep emotions is what makes me who I am.I am just looking forward to some 'mono no aware' that center around joy and happiness, not pain.Sounds like an interesting book! I'm adding it to my to-reads list.


  12. The meaning that I remember for mono no aware is "feelings generated by ephemeral beauty", which I was introduced to on Mark David's blog, Absorbed in Words. Sometimes a sunset gives me this feeling, because it's so short and will never be repeated in exactly the same way. With a touch of sadness, I appreciate the beauty of the moment, which is intense and fleeting. Another day has come and gone, and the sky puts on a brief, unique show of light and color.


  13. I find that veryday endings of every sort resonate with mono no aware. Completing a job, finishing a blog entry, the end of a trip, moving from one home to another, sunsets, the final chords of beloved music ~ all are touched with poignancy and a desire to hold the experience just a moment longer.Interestingly, I've not experienced the big endings of my life in that way. Perhaps too many competing emotions drown out the note of poignancy.Even stronger is my sense of connectedness to the natural world. I tell time by the sun and "speak duck". I carry misplaced ladybugs from boats to grass and try not to destroy spider webs. I apologize – usually out loud – to squirrels or other creatures I see dead in the road. And now and then – not often, mind you, but more often as time goes on – I experience that connection between mind and emotion in the writing process. It can be rather unnerving, and usually leaves me thinking, "Do other people experience this?" I suspect they do. In any event, the phrase is perfect: "that…grace in which the feeling and the mind come together".


  14. im intrigued by the book you described and would love to read it. I try and practice "mono no aware" when I am upset. Maybe not to dwell in being depressed bt to not"push it out" at once, but allow myself to experience it, it may be trying to teach or tell me something.


  15. I can relate to suicide victims as much as I would hate to admit, through personal experience and I have set myself on journeys to try and feel something I never have felt before and thought myself that my heart would never host such emotions, so I think this novel will hit very close to home.


  16. Oh! I love the sound of this book. 🙂 I'm going through a "glass is half-empty" phase, so, it's things like discovering a friend in his mid-twenties being diagnosed with cancer, my cousin's child being autistic, a girl being raped and not subsequently not being allowed to have an abortion…. I don't know about anyone else, but I'm always speechless when I hear about things like that, and all I can do is sigh, and try to muster up some words, which I know will fall flat…..


  17. Today, a fall day. I dropped a pile of printouts into the rainy street after stepping in my dog's recycled food on the way out of my house. I brushed off my raincoat. The paper, the ink, the oils from passing cars past, the dog's lingering presence, and my recently deceased cat's hair all merged in one wet spot on the street. My work, my dog, my dead cat, myself, and nature, all pooled in one place. I stood there and looked upward and the old oaken fingers framing the leaded sky above. The leaves, now the color of a spring forsythia, fell from the trees all around me as thick drops splatted onto my hair. Each cold drop delivered a surprise on my scalp. This was today's "Oh!" moment.


  18. i really enjoyed this book. it was a quick read but the entire experience lasts much longer as a lot of the things that went on linger In my head – not something I can say about many books. the only "OH!" moment I've had in recent memories is after I returned to my house in the South after spending half a year in Los Angeles. I was locking my gate around midnite and I turned around to go inside and the sky was so clear and full of bright stars. it hit me that I hadn't seen a single star in half a year, and I had an overwhelming sense of… well, of mono no aware, I suppose. what makes it even more memorable, is that the feeling was so fleeting. it hit me and then disappeared. I kept staring at the sky, grasping for the rush again, but I was only left with the memory. I remember saying "wow" aloud, akin to "oh," I suppose.


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