A well-regarded literary figure in contemporary Japanese literature, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s work juxtaposes notions of Japanese and Western tradition. Other common themes of his writings range from sexuality to domestic dynamics in the backdrop of Japanese societies. Tanizaki also often sought after his cultural identity through his narratives. Before his passing in 1964, he was one of the final six writers nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. This article reviews Tanizaki’s Japanese essay titled ‘In Praise of Shadows,’ which was later translated into English by Thomas Harper and Edward Seidensticker – students of Japanese literature.
In Praise of Shadows is a short, meditative classic condensed into just over seventy pages. In this 1933 essay, sixteen sub-texts explore conventional Japanese aesthetics and their perceptions towards change. Despite being an essay, In Praise of Shadows follows a conversational style that creates an intimacy with the audience and supplements the readers with a personal tone of the narration. Tanizaki elucidates various topics, including but not limited to the context of architecture. Using the simple connections between light and shadow, he illustrates the dissimilarities between Eastern and Western cultures. Additionally, it also explores topics of wiring, paper, and toilets, amongst many others. Tanizaki believed that Japan had to de-emphasize its aesthetics, identity, and traditions as a means to parallel the American and European standards of the 20th century.
Tanizaki’s text questions the true essence of beauty and its perception and evolution. He describes his first-hand encounters with constructing a home and the electrical and lighting challenges that inherently followed while attempting to integrate them into a traditional Japanese household. Innate to Japanese architecture is a subtle mysterious yet beautiful aura and a sensual, nuanced depiction of light and shadow. Tanizaki believed that Japan’s cities were eliminating this characteristic through its overly bright and neon radiations of light and emphasized electrification.
“We find beauty, not in the thing itself but the patterns of shadows, the light, and the darkness, that one thing against another creates. Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty” (Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, 1977). ‘In Praise of Shadows’ discusses the fundamental act of experiencing natural elements in all of their appealing realism. The text urges us to reevaluate the modern world through comparisons of light and shadow. Tanizaki explains how the harsh, bright lights of the contemporary era are void of emotional and spiritual attachments in the absence of shadows. However, it is the presence and praise of shadows that engages us as individuals in an experience with the environment. While contemporary lighting is received as dull and flat, shadows stir the dialogue between the subject and surroundings.
The Duality of Cultures: Eastern and Western | Jun’ichirō Tanizaki
‘In Praise of Shadows’ acts as a powerful reminder of the contrast between the typical “dazzling light” of modernity and the shadows of conventional Japanese interiors. According to Tanizaki, Western values are highly driven by capitalist notions and materialistic accumulations, whereas Japanese culture alternatively prioritizes experience and places minimal emphasis on objects. These experiences are essential to Japanese connotations of beauty and can be perceived through shapes of shadows, the significance of white space, and imperfections. Tanizaki’s text traces the duality of Eastern and Western aesthetics and realities and reprimands the West for trying to pigeonhole realities and fit unrealistic standards.
Tanizaki illustrates Japanese aesthetic cultures through origami paper which he claims is the polar opposite of Western printing paper in terms of pliability to gentle indentations of human hands, as well as its ability to absorb light. Despite the advancements in technology, the Japanese are analog individuals tied to human cognition through interaction with materials – even as basic as paper. It portrays the West as striving for light, clarity, and simplicity, while Japan’s tame culture represents and appreciates shadows and darkness, relating to the concept of Sabi.
‘In Praise of Shadows’ steers us to comprehend the concept of ‘wabi-sabi,’ which preaches the acceptance of impermanence and imperfection. It promotes appreciation for serene and seasoned simplicity, acceptance of the feeling of inner melancholy, and embracing the fleeting nature of the beauty of all aesthetics – the decayed, the flawed, modest, and the rural. Appreciating mundane objects ignites a sense of refreshment and mindfulness and the essay praises these natural and overlooked objects – for instance, old wood grain patterns or the sound of rain on leaves – softened by shadows and time.
‘In Praise of Shadows’ stimulates its readers with a sense of grief at the loss of traditional cultures. It prompts us to exist in coherence with the simplicity of everyday notions in terms of actions, art, architecture, and so on. Tanizaki encourages us to surpass surface-level emotions and experiences – the light and glam – and embrace the shadows. To conclude; as designers, Tanizaki urges us to harmonize with nature as it would lead us to create beautiful, honest objects that are influenced by realities. He urges us to subsume into art its consequent challenges and successes since it is this tether to realities that create feasible and relatable designs. ‘In Praise of Shadows’ is a short, reflective read that soothingly nudges its audience to take a moment, explore, and praise the shadows.
Jun’ichiro Tanizaki (1977). In Praise of Shadows. New Haven, Conn.: Leete’s Island.
Kruse, M. (2019). A World of Shadows. [online] FOLK PAPER. Available at: https://www.folk-paper.se/a-world-of-shadows/.
modulus. (2017). In Praise of Shadows. [online] Available at: http://www.modulus.com/lightblog/in-praise-of-shadows [Accessed 26 Sep. 2022].
Wikipedia Contributors (n.d.). Jun’ichirō Tanizaki. [online] Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jun%27ichir%C5%8D_Tanizaki.