‘In Praise of Shadows’ by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (Review)

It’s Thursday again, so it must be time for another look at the work of Japanese writer Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, but this week’s post focuses on something a little different.  We’re moving away from fiction to examine a short essay in which Tanizaki muses on some very Japanese themes while discussing the merits of light and darkness.  You may be surprised, though, by the angle he takes – you see, he’s not here to bury shadows, but to praise them…

In Praise of Shadows (translated by Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker) is a rather brief work in which Tanizaki expounds upon a favourite theme, namely traditional Japanese culture. However, rather than merely enthuse about such cultural items as kabuki plays or tea ceremonies, he uses his stage to explore a far less concrete phenomenon, namely the importance of shadows to Japanese culture.  You see, our writer friend has several theories on the subject, and this is where he has decided to bring them all together and see how they measure up when exposed to the harsh light of day…

…which is pretty much Tanizaki’s point.  For him, Japan is a land of shadows, and his native culture has developed with this in mind, in areas ranging from letter writing to pottery and architecture.  The catalyst for the ideas (in this text, at least) is the writer’s realisation that while modern conveniences such as heaters and glass windows may make life more comfortable, they lack a certain something – the ability to blend in with traditional Japanese homes.  Later in the essay we learn of the gloomy nature of traditional Japanese houses.  Where western homes are designed to make full use of available light, those in Japan seem to want to keep it out, filtering it through a series of blinds and screens until it stops, well short of the centre of the building.

This preference for using shadows rather than light extends beyond the house itself to the items used in it.  At one point Tanizaki stresses his preference for lacquer dining ware over modern ceramic plates and bowls, using an anecdote of a visit to a traditional restaurant to support his view:

But in the still dimmer light of the candlestand, as I gazed at the trays and bowls standing in the shadows cast by that flickering point of flame, I discovered in the gloss of this lacquerware a depth and richness like that of a still, dark pond, a beauty I had not before seen.  It had not been mere chance, I realized, that our ancestors, having discovered lacquer, had conceived such a fondness for objects finished in it.
p.22 (Vintage Books, 2001)

He also discusses the way in which household items can even become more beautiful with age in these dark environments, explaining how the patina of time can enhance the appearance of objects (thanks to what he calls ‘the glow of grime’).  In the west, he claims, we would prefer to eradicate the dirt rather than embrace it (which sounds right to me!).

Tanizaki is far from the first writer to attempt to explain the differences between Japanese and western culture, but unlike those who base their claims on a shadowy (possibly non-existent) ‘special’ character, the writer does his best to use semi-plausible grounds to do so.  The natural environment led to a particular style of house building, one that encouraged keeping light out rather than letting it in, and (more controversially) he claims that the dull tinge underlying even the whitest of Japanese skins encouraged his people to seek darkness in order to hide this shameful trait.  Here, Tanizaki uses the example of women from Japanese history, whose beauty was much vaunted but rarely actually seen, and when it was, usually in a darkened room where all that was visible was a powdered face and two hands extending from a dark mass of clothing…

Many readers will (probably rightly) think Tanizaki has stretched his idea a little far there, but overall In Praise of Shadows is an absorbing, entertaining read.  In his afterword, Thomas J. Harper makes excuses for the lack of traditional western clarity to the essay, explaining how Asian views of the genre differ from our own:

One of the oldest and most deeply ingrained of Japanese attitudes to literary style holds that too obvious a structure is contrivance, that too orderly an exposition falsifies the ruminations of the heart, that the truest representation of the searching mind is just to ‘follow the brush’. (p.68)

In truth, there’s little need to make excuses for what is less an academic tract than a series of highly personal reflections, patched together by a writer skilled in combining thought-provoking ideas with everyday common sense and humour.  While it may appear to lack a guiding thread at times, the essay usually makes its point and guides the reader skilfully to its conclusion.

What really makes In Praise of Shadows, though, is the wonderful writing from Tanzaki and his two translators (Harper supplemented an earlier partial translation by Seidensticker).  There’s an excellent mix of dry humour along with elegant evocations of the beauty inherent in semi-darkness, and in several places the colours and hues of objects are painted so vividly you can almost see them.  An example is his description of the beauty of food in traditional cooking ware, such as the brilliant white of freshly cooked rice in its black container and the way in which lacquer bowls allow soups to keep the secrets of their taste until the first spoonful.  We soon go from the sublime to the ridiculous, however, in the shape of Tanizaki’s musings on a much maligned part of the house:

And the toilet is the perfect place to listen to the chirping of insects or the song of the birds, to view the moon, or to enjoy any of those poignant moments that mark the change of the seasons.  Here, I suspect, is where haiku poets over the ages have come by a great many of their ideas.  Indeed one could with some justice claim that of all the elements of Japanese architecture, the toilet is the most aesthetic. (p.10)

No, despite the advantages of white ceramic bowls and gleaming floor tiles (not to mention the comfort of being indoors…), Tanizaki is not a fan of western toilets.

In Praise of Shadows dates from 1933, so you might imagine that Tanizaki was using his essay to celebrate Japanese culture, but in fact the book reads more like an ode to glories past.  Many of the features described here were already disappearing at the time of writing, and the author seems to be lamenting the inevitable passing of the old ways, while grudgingly accepting that life must go on:

I have written all this because I have thought that there might still be somewhere, possibly in literature or the arts, where something could be saved.  I would call back at least for literature this world of shadows we are losing. (pp.63/4)

The purpose, then, of the work, is not so much to boast of a culture based on the use of darkness but to draw our attention to these wonders before they vanish completely, leaving us with only the memory of life in the shadows…

5 thoughts on “‘In Praise of Shadows’ by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (Review)

  1. I first read this book during my first year at uni (it was required reading for my architecture course), and fell in love with his style. I revisit this book every once in a while, I feel that it exudes a certain calmness and descriptiveness that is almost seductive. Love your comments on this. Makes me want to revisit the book again.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Michelle – Well, I read it three times in a month before reviewing it, so I can understand your wanting to have another look 😉 Oh, and nice to see you around again (I think it’s been years since your blog, no?).


  2. I reviewed this at mine, and with very similar thoughts as I recall. It’s a very enjoyable and interesting read, but at times (the skin colour and the toilets) gets a bit silly. Still, I think it might be a lesser book somehow without its occasional excesses. Perhaps without those missteps the book would shine too brightly and so diminish its own argument…


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