Story notes for “Mono no aware,” published in The Future is Japanese, and reprinted at Lightspeed.
Spoilers below. You’re hereby warned.
This is not a story about a future Japan, though it is one about an imagined Japan. Knowing the difference, I think, is the key to this story.
(I should make it clear that I’ll be limiting my comments here only to one of the thematic elements of the story. This is a story in which I layered a great deal — heroism, nationality, memory, loss — but here, I focus on only one layer.)
For many of us, our own culture is acquired effortlessly, as a part of the process of growing up: the seeds are scattered in childhood, and they take root and grow and blossom as we are acculturated and absorb from other members of the same culture around us our foundational stories, values, and assumptions.
But what if you had to acquire your heritage, the culture of your birth, through the words and descriptions and stereotypes and biases of outsiders?
This happens to many of us: the tribes who must go to anthropologists to recover languages and cultural practices lost to the colonizers; children of immigrants who must acquire a sense of the people of their birth through limited examples and the narratives of the dominant culture in which they find themselves; trans-racial/trans-cultural adoptees who try to acquire an understanding of their roots as adults.
Is it any wonder then that the process of cultural transmission and reconstruction is refracted and distorted when it must pass through the gaze and words of outsiders? The language and dance recovered through anthropologists aren’t the same language and dance that would have been transmitted through the normal life of an organic community. Learning from books and as adults does not yield the same emotional resonance as learning by osmosis as children.
Yet, isn’t there a fundamental level of authenticity that is preserved beneath all the distortions?
The hero of this story, Hiroto, is put in just such a position. In the eyes of others, he is the “last Japanese person” in the universe. But what does he know of Japan? He was only a child when Earth was destroyed, and there are no other Japanese persons around to guide him.
He feels a heavy burden to preserve and pass on to the universe a memory of his people, yet his idea of Japan is an amalgam of a child’s hazy memories, of stereotypes reflected and repeated to him by outsiders, of depictions in manga and anime.
The Japan he reconstructs is an imagined place that never was: idealized, romanticized, filtered through the gaze of a child and the dominant narratives of others who have their own imagined visions of “Japan.”
Is it any wonder then that this Japan is nothing like the real Japan that once existed? Is it any wonder that this Japan is distorted and inaccurate?
Yet, isn’t there a core of authenticity, of “Japanese-ness,” that is preserved through one man’s struggle to protect and pass on his most treasured and sacred memories?
The story only asks questions, giving no answers.