CULTURAL CONUNDRUMS / A scholar from the Edo period weighs in on social media

By Kate Elwood / Special to The Japan NewsEveryone seems to have an opinion regarding social media. Critics cite banality, narcissism, and inaccuracy among other issues, while enthusiasts point to its potential for activities like sharing, connecting, informing, and entertaining. And then there are all the people in the middle, myself included, who can see benefits and drawbacks, and try to forge an uneasy balance between the two in their own use.

Way back in 1988 I wrote my senior thesis on “Motoori Norinaga’s Image of Man.” (Were I to write it now, I’d change “Man” to “Humans.”) Norinaga was a doctor and literary scholar in the Edo period, active in the second half of the 18th century. He’s best known for his interpretation of the Heian classic “The Tale of Genji,” especially his emphasis on the term “mono no aware,” meaning “the aware (pronounced ah-wah-ray) of things.” In Norinaga’s time, aware referred to a sensation of sadness, although in his writing Norinaga points out that it originally had a broader meaning of emotional response to various things. To distinguish this earlier sense from contemporary usage he emphasized the term “mono no aware.” In fact, “mono no aware” appears in the tale only 14 times, while the word “aware” appears more than 1,000 times.

Norinaga wrote extensively about aware as well as about poetry. Recently, I found myself recalling this writer, who occupied so much of my thoughts 30 years ago. All of a sudden, I wondered what Norinaga’s take on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram would have been. The following is a whimsical guide to Norinaga’s philosophy of social media posts.

The impulse to share is human. In one of his most famous works, “Genji Monogatari Tama no Ogushi” (The Tale of Genji: A little jeweled comb), Norinaga states: “To begin with, in this world there are a variety of things one sees, hears, and experiences, and, for example, things like happiness, interest, suspicion, humor, fear, disgust, bitterness, and sorrow: those things which are poignantly felt, unable to remain confined in one’s heart, must necessarily be told to someone, or one thinks of writing the thing down with the desire to display it, and if one were to do so one’s heart would become clear, and if the person who saw or heard this responded with sympathy, then all the more would one’s heart be refreshed.”

A certain degree of embellishment is natural. In an earlier work, “Ashiwake Obune” (A small boat parting the reeds), Norinaga makes it plain that he understands the urge to enhance: “While bearing ill will, one composes a poem as though one bore good will. That this both is and is not falsehood is because it is consistent with human nature. To feel shame at one’s ill will, to hide it with words, to embellish it with words, in this the true nature of feeling is revealed.” Norinaga also comments: “One might say that, because one wants to write a good poem and so uses techniques, one loses the sincerity of one’s heart, and yet, if one leaves the ill will as it is, that violates the heart which wants to write a good poem and actually becomes a lie.”

In another work, “Uiyamabumi” (First steps into the mountains), Norinaga further acknowledges considerations of reception: “Thinking about how the poem will sound to another person’s ears is also the essence of poetry.”

Creation leads to tranquility. In another passage from “Ashiwake Obune,” Norinaga almost sounds like a cognitive behavioral therapist: “The first consideration of poetry is calming one’s heart and getting rid of distracting thoughts. The secret to doing so is this. If one tries to first expel distracting thoughts and then think about the poem, after all one cannot extinguish the distracting thoughts, and if one cannot extinguish the distracting thoughts one cannot compose a poem. The secret is, no matter how much one’s heart is chaotic, or how frequently distracting thoughts gush forth, one must first abandon the idea of calming them. Instead of this, one applies one’s heart at once to thinking of the theme of the poem, or the scheme, or the choice of words, or the use of embellishments, at any rate, one grabs hold of something to think about… and finally distracting thoughts will be extinguished and one’s heart will become calm.”

Show some restraint. At the same time, Norinaga does not advocate emotional expression willy-nilly. In “Tama no Ogushi,” Norinaga quotes from the “Tale of Genji”: “When one tries to show one’s tender feelings, one is doing a terrible thing … Showing another person everything of what one senses only slightly is regrettable … Generally, one should display an unknowing face on that which one knows in one’s heart, and even in the things which one wants to say, it is preferable to keep back and refrain from saying one or two things.” And in another passage soon after, Norinaga quotes a character in “Genji” who states that when things are expressed freely they become “ridiculous.” Norinaga advises: “In this way, knowing, one acts unknowing, one locks it within so that still more one’s thoughts are tied tightly to one’s heart and ‘aware’ deepens.”

In the end, it’s all poetry, but… It seems fitting to end the Motoori Norinaga Guide to Social Media Posts with the following caution, once more from “Ashiwake Obune”: “Those [poems] often composed in the world which deal directly with commonplace things and do not deliberately choose words are poems, but they are by no means good poems.”

(The next installment will appear on Dec. 1.)

■Elwood is the Dean of the Center for International Education at Waseda University and a professor of English at its School of Commerce.Speech

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