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Dispatches from the Field #6 - mono no aware


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Curator of the MET - Markus Sesko - released a curatorial today which explains the concept of mono no aware by using examples.
I've asked his permission to reproduce it here and he gracefully agreed - however I would like to stress that people should sign up for these mails at the site of the MET. It's really worthwhile and informative.


Broken Tiles:
The Japanese Concept of Impermanence 
Figure 1  
   Over the course of time, Japan developed worldviews that permeated native art as aesthetic concepts, many of which are difficult to translate or define in a concise manner. Arguably most well-known in the West is the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, which started to shape culture and art in the late fifteenth century and which is often described as being that of “appreciating beauty that is imperfect/incomplete and of natural simplicity.” Another such concept, however, had emerged much earlier, i.e., in the Heian period (794–1185), and that is the concept of mono no aware (物の哀れ). 
Figure 2
   Mono no aware is deeply rooted in Heian-period literature and is most prominently associated with the classic The Tale of Genji, written in the early eleventh century by noblewoman and lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu (Fig. 2), and highlighted in The Met Asian Art Department’s exhibition of the same name held from March 5 to June 16, 2019.  While the phrase translates literally as “an empathy towards things,” it stands more broadly for the awareness of impermanence. Mono no aware comes with melancholic undertones but is not about the mere acceptance of impermanence and transience of life per se. It embraces the certainty that although certain things and even moments are doomed to fade and pass, much of their beauty lies in the fact that they can indeed be witnessed in the first place, most famously so the brief blossoming of cherry blossoms in spring.  
Figure 3
   When it comes to Japanese sword fittings, references to the concept of mono no aware start to appear in the mid-Edo period (1615–1868), when swords had become a critical means of self-expression for Samurai, and their fittings collectibles for persons outside of the Samurai class. Shown in Fig. 1, with additional details in Fig. 3, is a sword guard (tsuba) made by Gotō Ichijō (1791–1876), the last great master of the renowned Gotō School of sword fittings makers.

   It depicts broken roof tiles scattered over both sides, of which some are inscribed. The tile on the bottom right of the obverse bears the inscription Byakkorō (白虎樓, lit. “White Tiger Watchtower”) which was one of the four guarded entries to the walled Greater Palace inside of the original Imperial Palace of Kyōto and which was repeatedly destroyed by fires, never to be rebuilt again after the early thirteenth century. The tile on the top left of the same side of the tsuba is inscribed Daijōkan (太政官), the Great Council of State, which was the highest body in Japan's premodern Imperial government, but which lost power over the tenth and eleventh centuries. The inscription of the broken tile on the top right of the reverse starts with “Sakyō” (左京), which refers to the areas of central Kyōto east of the Imperial Palace. And the last inscribed tile, located at the bottom left of the reverse, references the Kōrokan (鴻臚館) guest houses for foreign ambassadors, traveling monks, and merchants that existed in Japan during the Heian period and earlier. 

Thus, through the deliberate use of broken roof tiles, ko-gawara (古瓦) in Japanese, the subject of the tsuba can be understood as an allusion to the old Kyōto at the height of its imperial glory in the sense of mono no aware, which was long gone by the time the sword guard was made, with actual power having been in the hands of the warrior class by many centuries at that point. 
Figure 4
   The motif enjoyed great popularity, and the artist Gotō Ichijō produced several sword guards in this style. For example, as shown in Fig. 4, this daishō pair of tsuba featured in Volume 2 of multi-volume Tagane no Hana (鏨廼花, “Flowers of the Chisel”) published in 1904 by entrepreneur Mitsumura Toshimo (光村利藻, 1877–1955), which centered around his extensive collection of sword fittings. Ichijō was actually born and raised in Kyōto and was trained in other traditional arts, like waka and haiku poetry, as well as in painting. He visited Edo (present-day Tokyo) on several occasions but did not relocate there until the age of sixty when he started an official employment with the Shogunate. We can imagine that Ichijō might have had some mono no aware moments in the “new capital” if you will, yearning for his home, the birthplace and breeding ground of classic Japanese arts. 
Figure 5 
   Ichijō’s interpretation of the mono no aware subject via broken tiles was then also adapted by several of his students, e.g., by Araki Tōmei (荒木東明, 1817–1870). A tile on one of his works (Fig. 5), however, references the Shitennō-ji (四天 王寺), a Buddhist temple in Ōsaka, not in Kyōto. Built by order of Prince Shōtoku (聖徳太子, 574–622), the temple was destroyed by fire several times as well over the centuries, hence it carries the very same sentiment as described earlier.
Figure 6
   One more tsuba from our collection that I would like to introduce on the topic of mono no aware is shown in Fig. 6. Via openwork, it depicts a waterwheel and lively waves, a combination, which refers to the Waterwheels of Yodo (Yodo no Mizuguruma, 淀の水車). Once, two large waterwheels measuring around 48 feet in diameter were operated on the lower course of the Yodo River and transferred water into the castle of the same name and to surrounding farms. When the castle was abandoned at the very end of the sixteenth century and maintenance of the waterwheels became too expensive, the river was allowed to change course in a natural manner and the wheels were left dry. Soon, however, they became a famous scenic attraction, especially when viewed from a nearby bridge and tea pavilion. The scenery also must be understood from the point of view of power changes. Yodo Castle was once captured by the famlous warlord Oda Nobunaga (1534–1582), and then renovated by his assassin Akechi Mitsuhide (明智光秀, 1528–1582). Afterwards, it was expanded by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣秀吉, 1585–1592), who avenged Nobunaga and succeeded his political powers. When Hideyoshi’s own major castle of Fushimi was completed in 1594, Yodo Castle was abandoned. Fushimi Castle, however, was then itself dismantled in the early seventeenth century on behalf of the new rulers of Japan, the Tokugawa, who in turn had the older Yodo Castle rebuilt at a slightly different location, using material from former Fushimi Castle and incorporating once more a single waterwheel. There the castle remained under different rulers until it was burned down in the turmoil of the Boshin War in 1868.
Figure 7
   Accordingly, the subject of the tsuba shown in Fig. 6 and in a stencil in Fig. 7 in The Met's collection, highlights the tumultuous era of The Three Unifiers—Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu—in a single design. It so alludes to the fact that no empire, kingdom, or rule has proven immune to impermanence. Thus, works of art such as introduced in this humble article can be a reminder of the fleeting nature of human influence and that governance is one of constant flux and change.

Fig. 1: Sword Guard (Tsuba), 19th century. Copper-gold alloy (shakudō), copper-silver alloy (shibuichi), bronze, copper. H. 3 1/4 in. (8.3 cm); W. 3 in. (7.6 cm); thickness 3/16 in. (0.5 cm); Wt. 4.5 oz. (127.6 g). The Howard Mansfield Collection, Gift of Howard Mansfield, 1936 (36.120.23). Photo: Stephen Bluto.

Fig. 2: Detail of Portrait-Icon of Murasaki Shikibu (Murasaki Shikibu zu), Tosa Mitsuoki (1617–1691). Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk. Lent by Ishiyamadera Temple (SL.7.2019.19.3).

Fig. 3: Detail of Sword Guard (Tsuba) shown in Fig. 1.

Fig. 4: Mitsumura, Toshimo. Tagane no Hana, Vol. 2. Kobe, Japan,
Ryūdshidō, Ltd., 1904. Department of Arms and Armor Library.

Fig. 5: Fukushi, Shigeo. Tōsō, Tōsōgu Shogaku Kyōshitsu, No. 96, Tōken Bijutsu No. 545, pp. 23–24, Nihon Bijutsu Tōken Hozon Kyōkai, May 2002. Courtesy of Nihon Bijutsu Tōken Hozon Kyōkai.

Fig. 6: Sword Guard (Tsuba), 19th century. Iron, copper. Diam. 2 3/4 in. (7 cm); thickness 1/4 in. (0.6 cm); Wt. 3.2 oz. (90.7 g). Funds from various donors, 1946 (46.122.145). Photo: Stephen Bluto.

Fig. 7: Stencil with Pattern of Flowing Water, Waterwheels and Embankment Baskets, 19th century. Paper reinforced with silk. 20 1/2 x 14 3/4 in. (52.07 x 37.47 cm). Gift of Clarence McKenzie Lewis, 1953 (53.101.37).
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Thanks for posting this, Dirk.  Mono no aware was actually a very important value informing the Tea aesthetics so dominant in late-16th and early-17th-century Buke culture.  We see it pouring forth from such wares as Setoguro chawan, Bizen mizusashi, and Iga hanaire, but it found its way to the finest iron tsuba of the time as well.  One interpretation of the effect of yakite treatment in works by (in particular) Hoan, Yamakichibei, Nobuiye, and the Kanayama "school" is that it echoes the dilapidation (impact of the passage of time) of what was once a pristine surface.  In the expression of mono no aware thus realized, such tsuba also may be said to possess degrees of sabi


Interesting note:  the term wabi-sabi is likely a relatively recent construct (i.e. 20th-century).  While the aesthetic values wabi and sabi are known much further back (several centuries, at least), the joined term wabi-sabi does not seem to appear in any documents from the Momoyama or Edo Periods.  It does not appear in the various Tea diaries and records of those years, though the terms do appear separately.  We may thus wish to pause in describing Tea objects from those times (ceramics and iron tsuba known to have been tightly associated with Tea) as having or expressing "wabi-sabi."  


Here is a Shodai (hanare-mei) Nobuiye tsuba expressing the Yodo no Mizuguruma theme.  It is thought that Nobuiye had close associations with Oda Nobunaga, and may have worked for the Oda family in the Momoyama Period.






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Good article and good supporting materials, including Steve's Nobuie.


Somewhere I have a Yodo no Mizuguruma tsuba too, but thanks to this article it has now risen somewhat in my understanding and appreciation. Also the broken roof tiles decorating the hall here!

(Many years ago someone asked me to find a tsuba with a waterwheel, so I went out on a limb and bought quite a large one, but then they said it was not exactly what they were looking for.)

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