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‘Mono-no-aware’ and the Philosophy of the Weak

Sakurai Hiroshi
Professor, School of International Liberal Studies, Waseda University

Globalization and Japanese Society

It is often said that the value shared in the age of globalization is competitiveness, which is the value of the strong. In order for Japan to be a winner in a cutthroat capitalist world, Japanese society must be made truly competitive, eliminating such inefficient factors as life-time employment. For years, radical reforms were conducted under such ideas, but in reality, Japanese society suffers from deflation and a pessimistic view about the future of Japan seems to prevail. Since the Meiji period, Japan followed the process of Westernization, constructing an industrial society and building up a strong nation and military, and finally becoming an imperialistic country. In a sense, this process was inevitable because in industrial society, the basic value is competitiveness and strength.

Philosophy of Anti-Discipline

In contrast to the current hardships of the Japanese economy, Japanese popular culture is attracting more and more attention in the world. Its driving force is the so called ‘otaku’ culture represented by anime and manga. The ‘otaku’ culture has been considered to be the opposite of the strong. Historically speaking, however, it has unexpectedly been a significant part of mainstream Japanese culture.

The philosophy of German thinker Friedrich Nietzsche is that of the strong. He said that in Europe, individuals were deprived of their independence by Christian morality and reduced to the position of the weak. Morality and norms are both forms of discipline, to use the term of philosopher Michel Foucault. With the advent of modernity, God, who had been the very foundation of Western culture, was pronounced dead, ushering in an era of nihilism. According to Nietzsche, this radical shift brings with it the necessity that humans become strong enough to endure the greatest meaninglessness-the death of God.

Interestingly enough, in Japan, there was a scholar who criticized normative discipline as Nietzsche did: Motoori Norinaga, a researcher of ‘koku-gaku’, or Japan studies, in the Edo period. Norinaga’s conclusion, however, was quite the opposite of his counterpart’s. His philosophy was, as it were, a philosophy of the weak. The object of his criticism was Confucianism, which was the discipline of morality and norms, and the chief pillar of feudalistic morality. Norinaga proposed the idea of knowing ‘mono-no-aware’, or ‘the pathos of things’ to criticize the discipline. It was in the age of the Heian dynasty, when The Tale of Genji and waka, or classical Japanese poetry, were created, that this attitude was the most prevalent.

The World of ‘Mono-no-aware’

During the Heian period, the state was a bureaucratic one based on discipline, and the characters used in official documents were Chinese kanji. Hiragana was created outside of this hierarchy of power, and it had become an essential tool to compose waka. Thus, in that period, there was a dual structure of masculine bureaucracy and the feminine world of hiragana and waka. The value of ‘mono-no-aware’ belonged to the latter. On the other hand, institutions, logic, morality and norms were values specific to the former world of bureaucracy, and they were expressed with Chinese characters as the official letters.

Why then, can ‘mono-no-aware’ not be expressed by the normative or bureaucratic documents written in Chinese characters? In fact, this question is related to one of the major themes of post-modernism, the major philosophical current in the latter half of the 20th century. In the male-centered power structure, in other words, in the world of the strong, frameworks dominated. Men were expected to advance in society within the boundaries of this framework. The various delicate and complicated feelings of individuals were rejected and ignored in the shared framework of society. From this fact, we realize what it means to be strong; it means to standardize oneself according to the framework prepared by society, abandoning the awareness of one’s own feelings.

In short, the state, institutions, power, integration, domination, logic and abstract concepts, these are frameworks that enable social order, and they form the world of the strong. On the other hand, in the world of ‘mono-no-aware’, the most valued quality is the sensitivity and feelings of individuals. In this world, people value things that cannot be expressed by logical and conceptual expressions. As those with power in a competitive society belong to the world of masculinity, they cannot access the world of sensitivity. The most suitable tools to express this world of sensitivity were hiragana and the literary style of waka.

The philosophies of Nietzsche and Norinaga stand in sharp contrast to one another. Both criticized discipline, but they reached opposite conclusions. The idea of ‘mono-no-aware’ proposed by Norinaga is associated with such classical values as ‘yugen’ and ‘wabi-sabi’, two central themes within the stream of Japanese cultural history.

The Future of Competitive Society

The policies of militarization and imperialization that modern Japan chose were in actuality different from the values expressed by mainstream Japanese culture. The fact that seemingly effeminate and "weak" styles of culture such as anime, manga and fashion have regained popularity may mean that, paradoxically, Japanese society is retrieving its intrinsic cultural style. Money, power and institutions cannot offer cultural fertility. Only the sensitive mind can. Perhaps now we may finally pursue the course of ‘mono-no-aware’, leaving the greed-driven values of competitive society to other countries.

Sakurai Hiroshi
Professor, School of International Liberal Studies


Born in Tokyo, living in Yamanashi
Graduated from University of Tokyo
Before coming to SILS, taught at Yamanashi University, and School of Commerce, Waseda Universtiy.


Theoretical Sociology, especially the theory of self-organization

Major Works

Life Style and Social Structure,
Systems of Contemporary Society: Explained by Sociology

A new book, The Origin of the Social Order will be published soon.