In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki

In Praise of Shadows is an essay written in 1933-4 by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki. He covers quite a few topics, almost all comparing Oriental values with those of the Westerners. I think the main point he tries to convey is that while Westerners favor sunlight, brightness, cleanliness, and shine, in his own words, people from Japan and China “prefer a pensive luster to a shallow brilliance, a murky light that, whether in a stone or an artifact, bespeaks a sheen of antiquity.”

The most enjoyable topic Tanizaki covers, in my opinion, is that of restaurants and food in China and Japan. He reminisces about when everything was lit by candles and the food and lacquered dining utensils made eating a much more enjoyable experience. The way he describes food makes you grow an appetite — you don’t even need to see the food.

Perhaps the ‘funniest’ thing he discusses is the comparison of Japanese and Western toilets. While we illuminate the bathroom,  shine light on everything in it, and remove all grime, the Japanese have outdoor toilets made from wood — not harsh, white linoleum — where one can enjoy nature, and think on life. He suspects that many great haiku poems have come from reflection time in Japanese toilets.

Of course, the largest theme in this essay is that of shadows and how to use them for beauty. While Westerners strive to brighten every corner and destroy shadows, the Orientals find beauty in them and structure architecture to ensure that not too much light ever enters a room. The way he describes a shadowy alcove with a perfectly picked scroll is enticing — I would love to experience the Japan he knew at that time just to see such a thing.

Even though I had to read this essay for a class (Asian cultures through literature and film), I enjoyed it quite a bit. I have always been fascinated with how different Asian culture is from our own, and wished that I had had the luck to have been brought up with those values, if not the luck to have been born there. Tanizaki does a wonderful job of highlighting (oh, how I’m going to start noticing our desire to enlighten, to bring to light, etc. — our obsession with light) the huge contrasts between even his early life of enjoying Kabuki theater in shadows and the harsh lighting it faces today. If you are interested in Asian culture, I definitely recommend this essay — it is a short, enjoyable 42 pages of cultural contrasts.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Adam
    Mar 16, 2012 @ 10:06:36

    In my first couple of years of college I was a music major. One of the things that my trombone teacher talked to the trombone studio about was how important silence can be when playing.

    I don’t know if it’s just western culture or if it applies to all people, but we seem to have an undue emphasis on everything being perfect all the time. You have to have a contrast in life or everything comes across as being dull.

    A very interesting post and something I’ll probably look into eventually.


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