Ken Liu’s “Mono No Aware” is so steeped in cultural nuance that if one is to understand the significance of East Asian culture including the game of Go, calligraphic practice of character writing, or the intangible but undeniable differences between individualistic and collectivistic societies, the story is only a diminutive form of its true meaning. A young man’s martyrdom is moving for any reader who appreciates the text but read by a Western audience unfamiliar with collectivist societies, Hiroto’s sacrifice may be read as saviorship. Sacrifice is lost in the accumulating effect of human lives, divorced of ego, an anonymous rung on the ladder of human evolution and survival, while a martyr would expect a statue in their honor. 

Hiroto’s sacrificial mindset is best exhibited in his teaching of the East Asian game of Go (or Weiqi) to young children on the ship that the last human survivors of the Earth are traveling on in search of a new home planet after a meteor called “the hammer” destroyed Earth. Only later do we learn that Hiroto’s parents sacrificed themselves by staying behind so he could be taken on the ship and survive. Hiroto works on the ship’s maintenance but also teaches Japanese culture to Japanese children including the game of Go which he likens to a full-scale war as compared to chess, the game little Bobby prefers. 

Bobby shrugs. “Chess, I guess. I like the queen. She’s powerful and different from everyone else. She’s a hero.”

“Chess is a game of skirmishes,” I say. “The perspective of Go is bigger. It encompasses entire battles.”

“There are no heroes in Go,” Bobby says, stubbornly.

I don’t know how to answer him.

At the beginning of the story where this scene takes place, Hiroto does not yet know how to conceptualize the sacrifice he’s imagining taking place over and over again during go. Is there an English word for it? Can it be captured in the English language?

The story actually starts with a discussion of the kanji character for umbrella. Hiroto uses the shape of the character itself as a diagram for the ship humanity resides within. Stating that the cover of the umbrella is similar to the sails moving the ship forward. 

Language is an ongoing theme throughout the story. Hiroto and his love interest Mindy share their mother tongues in an intimate scene. Mindy teaches Hiroto Spanish, and he teaches her Japanese. He ruminates on the subtle nature of Japanese, how what isn’t said is just as important as what is, how meaning is often inferred and not explicit, reflected in the reticent nature of the Japanese people. The tension within the story escalates as we move through time to better understand the crisis that took place on Earth. He tried to explain the unique culture of Japan and how it was exhibited when the people of his town learned the ship could not take them all.

“The people just went home?” Mindy asks, incredulous.

“Yes.”

“There was no looting, no panicked runs, no soldiers mutinying in the streets?”

“This was Japan,” I tell her. And I can hear the pride in my voice, an echo of my father’s.

“I guess the people were resigned,” Mindy says. “They had given up. Maybe it’s a culture thing.”

“No!” I fight to keep the heat out of my voice. Her words irk me, like Bobby’s remark about Go being boring. “That is not how it was.”

We return to Japan and Horito’s father spending their last few moments together. In a transparent moment of Liu teaching the reader the culture of Japan and East Asia, we also learn about the careful nature of East Asian language and the titular phrase of the story. 

“Everything passes, Hiroto,” Dad said. “That feeling in your heart: It’s called mono no aware. It is a sense of the transience of all things in life. The sun, the dandelion, the cicada, the Hammer, and all of us: We are all subject to the equations of James Clerk Maxwell and we are all ephemeral patterns destined to eventually fade, whether in a second or an eon.”

I looked around at the clean streets, the slow-moving people, the grass, and the evening light, and I knew that everything had its place; everything was all right. Dad and I went on walking, our shadows touching.

Even though the Hammer hung right overhead, I was not afraid.

The most imminent threat of the story is revealed when we learn that one of the sails has been torn and Hiroto is just the man to fix it. Tensions build while Mindy directs Hiroto through an earpiece and Hiroto reflects on his parents and the home he left, he realizes that to make the necessary repairs, he must use his own personal oxygen storage as fuel for his tools. As his oxygen depletes, he thinks of mono no aware and how one phrase can mean something so monumental in the Japanese language. He begins to imagine himself as a Go player, his tools becoming black stones moving on a Go board. 

I lift a black stone and prepare to fill in the gap, to connect my armies into one.

The stone turns back into the patching kit from my backpack. I maneuver my thrusters until I’m hovering right over the gash in the sail. Through the hole I can see the stars beyond, the stars that no one on the ship has seen for many years. I look at them and imagine that around one of them, one day, the human race, fused into a new nation, will recover from near extinction, will start afresh and flourish again.

The final subtlety revealed at this last moment is the phrase “fused into a new nation.” Does nationality matter anymore? Would abandoning nationality to the larger human cause be kowtowing? Or the final sacrifice for humans to unite?