Matthew Somerville (BA ’21) went back several centuries in time for an essay titled National Learning and Poetry: How Mono No Aware Improves a Nation — this year’s winner of the Michael Chan Prize in Asian Studies.

Somerville, who’s now pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Victoria, wrote his essay for Dr. Gideon Fujiwara’s History of Japan class. He focused on the intersection of mono no aware (the pathos of things) and kokugaku (Japanese national studies) in poetry written in the Tokugawa period, 1600 to 1800.

Kokugaku was an academic movement that began in the Tokugawa period (1603 to 1867). Kokugaku scholars wanted to focus research into Japanese classics instead of Chinese, Confucian and Buddhist texts. Somerville looked at four poets from this period and found that some thought poetry didn’t serve a useful function in society while others were of the opinion that poetry could influence people.

“I argued mono no aware is in poetry and in literature,” says Somerville. “When you put true emotion in poetry and read it out loud, some will have an interaction with that work because of the true emotion and that’s how mono no aware exists. Through that interaction, society can be influenced and that was my largest point in the essay. Literature isn’t just literature. Literature has a huge impact on society.”

When people interact with poetry whether by reading it or listening to it, he says, and the emotion comes through, people can be implicitly influenced negatively or positively.

“Poetry doesn’t have an explicit interaction; it’s really the emotion and through that emotion we get influenced,” says Somerville. “It’s not the words. If someone reads it with their own emotion, that poetry becomes alive in a way and we get influenced that way.”

Adjudicators of this year’s entries were Drs. Trevor Harrison and Ian MacLachlan and they praised Somerville’s entry for its originality:

“The paper uses English-language sources in a critical, creative, and original way to gain a deeper understanding of affective elements of Japanese history. While engaging in long-standing debates about poetry’s purpose, Matthew’s paper also reminds us of the importance of humane letters in liberal education and its role in broad-based, life-long learning.”

The Michael Chan Prize in Asian Studies was established by Dr. Bonnie Lee, a professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences, to honour the memory of her husband. Michael Chan was a Chinese-Canadian scientist and humanitarian.