"Aware" and Heian Poetics

(Excerpted from William J. Puett, Guide to the Tale of Genji (Rutland, Vermont & Tokyo: Tuttle, 1983).

Perhaps the most alien aspect of The Tale Of Genji is the tremendous preoccupation of its characters with artistic pursuits. It is, in fact, impossible to exaggerate the importance of aesthetics in general, and poetry in particular, to the plot, theme, and character development of the novel. We might be familiar with other cultures in which virtues such as spiritual integrity, a ready wit, or simply military prowess figured so highly as to advance the esteem we would have of characters so endowed. But in The Tale of Genji the most important of all virtues, the aristocratic touchstone by which men and women at court were ultimately measured, was essentially their sensitivity to the inherent pathos of things, especially in the traditional arts.

This aesthetic was known as aware and is as difficult a term to translate as can be found. It has been variously defined:

. . . a word frequently used in The Tale of Genji and other classical literature. Among its wide range of meanings are "pathetic, "moving," "beautiful." The phrase mono no aware corresponds to lacrimae rerum, "the pity of things," which is often taken to be the underlying theme of Murasaki's novel. (Morris, 318)
. . . exclamation of sympathy or distress. (Waley, 105)
. . . an ejaculation of vague and undefined sadness. (Seidensticker, 254n.)
In old texts we find it first used as an exclamation of surprise or delight, man's natural reaction to what an early Western critic of Japanese literature called the "ahness" of things. . . elsewhere it expressed a gentle sorrow, adding not so much a meaning as a color or a perfume to a sentence. (Tsunoda, Keene, De Bary, 172)
The term suggests an anguish that takes on beauty or a sensitivity to the finest-the saddest-beauties. Both the condition and the appreciative sensibility are implied. (Miner, 161)
. . . that which stirs cultivated sympathies by touching them with beauty, sadness, and the awareness of ephemeral experience. (Miner, 1969, 1: 1)
. . . "an emotional awareness." Aware has a long history, from its origins in an exclamation expressive of admiration, surprise, or delight, to its modern meaning of "misery." In the Heian Period its most characteristic use was to express a feeling of gentle, sorrow-tinged appreciation of transitory beauty. (Cranston, 232)
Originally an interjection ("Ah!" "Oh!"). From the Heian period on, it was used to express controlled feeling. As an aesthetic concept, it stands for elegance, or, at times, for pathos. (Hisamatsu, 103)
. . . an emotion of tender affection in which there is both passion and sympathy . . . in such moments the sentiment is instinctively felt, for in them joy mingles with a kind of agreeable melancholy. (Anesaki, 65)

It is also possible to understand this sentiment as an outgrowth of the religious conflict between the nature-worshipping creed of Shinto and the Buddhistic abhorrence of natural phenomena; the conflict between a philosophy urging oneness with nature on the one hand, against a philosophy urging transcendence of nature on the other. Caught in this ideological vise, the Japanese of the Heian period blended to their needs a sentiment which commanded a pathetic appreciation for illusory beauty.

As an aesthetic, it touched of the arts and all of nature, but we see its most perfect expression in poetry. There are nearly eight hundred poems woven into the Tale, representing not the formalistic Chinese poetry composed by the males at court competitions, but the native Japanese tanka or waka (not haiku) form, consisting of thirty-one syllables. As is surely the case in all literatures, the linguistic peculiarities of the language largely determine the possible verse forms. We cannot expect sonnets to spill out of every tongue, nor was Chinese poetry particularly successful in the completely different character of Japanese speech, which is neatly described here by Amy Lowell:

Japanese is a syllabic language like our own, but, unlike our own, it is not accented. Also, every syllable ends with a vowel, the consequence being that there are only five rhymes in the whole language. Since the employment of so restricted a rhyme scheme would be unbearably monotonous, the Japanese hit upon the happy idea of counting syllables. Our metrical verse also counts syllables, but we combine them into different kinds of accented feet. Without accent, this was not possible, so the Japanese poet limits their number and uses them in a pattern of alternating lines. His prosody is based upon the numbers five and seven, a five-syllable line alternating with one of seven syllables with, in some forms, two seven-syllable lines together at the end of a period, in the manner of our couplet. The favorite form, the "tanka," is in thirty-one syllables, and runs five, seven, five, seven, seven. (Lowell, xxii)

This poetry was usually composed in momentary flashes of inspiration. Most frequently, it was used as a subtle means of communication between lovers and friends, and was, therefore, an important part of daily life. Relying heavily on suggested meaning rather than overt expression, the images in these poems were used to hint at very subjective emotions, as people were often associated with flowers, trees, or other aesthetically acceptable images.

Furthermore, waka was composed according to accepted conventions that are difficult to discern even in the best translation. There was an extensive body of poetry from the Nara period already anthologized and circulated, and often a poet would use a well-known epithet, called a "pillow-word" or makura-kotoba, to describe a common subject or emotion. Or the reference might be more specific and allude directly to a famous poem, subtly changing a word or two to relate it to the new circumstances. This device was known as "allusive-variation" (furu-kotoba or honkadori) and was much admired when skillfully handled. Its recognition in the more obscure cases of its use was a sure test of breeding and discrimination, and Seidensticker's frequent notes attest to its popularity .

Finally, a poem might employ an elaborate pun or sophisticated double entendre, called a "pivot-word" or kake-kotoba. Careful manipulation of such a device could provide a way for courtiers to suggest a more explicit word which, by itself, might be considered indelicate. Note the poem quoted by Shikibu in the rainy night conversation (Chapter 2) in which his intellectual lover used the word hiru for "day" in a poem which also suggested hire, "garlic," with which she had been inadvertently blighted. And later in Chapter 13, "Akashi," as the newly exiled Genji is it last able to see the remote island of Awaji, the island's name becomes a literary nexus, and the beauty of the acclaimed coast now mixes with the sting of his banishment in this waka:

Oh, foam-flecked island that wast nothing to me, even such sorrow as mine is, on this night of flawless beauty thou hast power to heal. (Waley, 1935, 264)
Awaji: in your name is all my sadness. And clear you stand in the light of the moon tonight. (Seidensticker, 254)

As Seidensticker's note informs us, there is a three-way kake-kotoba with the word awa, "foam," touching the name of the island, Awaji, and the sentiment, aware. Her is also an allusion to the Shinkokinshu poem number 1513:

Awaji in the moonlight, like distant foam: From these cloudy sovereign heights it seems so near. (Seidensticker, 254)

For Genji the foam is no longer distant. Remembering that Shinkokinshu poem, but seeing the cloudlessness of this night by contrast, Genji is painfully but sweetly reminded that he is now banished from the court

In all things, therefore, a sensitivity to the delicacy and subtlety of beauty was most admired. Not only was a courtier expected to compose delicate poetry, but the way each poem was written, the shading of the ink, the selection of the paper, and more were also meticulously scrutinized for evidence of courtly sensibility.

Western readers often wonder in what respect at Genji could be the object of so much admiration, not only in the novel itself, but as an idealized character throughout the history of Japanese literature. We must look for the answer not in our own concepts of heroic action, nor even in existing Japanese codes of stoic nobility, but in the Heian ideals of aristocratic sensibility of which Genji is the quintessential manifestation.


Masaharu Anesaki, Art, Life and Nature in Japan (1932; reprinted ed., Rutland and Tokyo: Tuttle, 1973).

Edwin Cranston, trans., The Izumi Shikibu Diary, by Murasaki Shikibu, Harvard Yenching Institute's Monograph Series, 19 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969).

Sen'ichi Hisamatsu, The Vocabulary of Japanese Literary Aesthetics (Tokyo: The Centre of East Asian Cultural Studies, 1963).

Amy Lowell, "Introduction" to Diaries of Court Ladies in Old Japan, trans. by Annie S. Omori and Kochi Doi (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1920).

Earl Miner, An Introduction to Japanese Court Poetry (Stanford: Stanford University Press).

Earl Miner, "Some Thematic and Structural Features of the Genji Monogatori." Monumenta Nipponica, XXIV (1969) 1: 1.

Ivan Morris, The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan (New York: Knopf, 1972).

Edward G. Seidensticker, trans., The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu (New York, Knopf, 1976).

R. Tsunoda, D. Keene, Wm. T. de Bary, Introduction to Oriental Civilization, vol. 1, Sources of Japanese Tradition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958).

Arthur Waley, The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu (1935; reprinted ed., New York: Random House, 1960).

Arthur Waley, Japanese Poetry: The Uta (1919; reprinted ed., Honolulu, University Press of Hawaii, 1976).