In Praise of Shadows: Ancient Japanese Aesthetics and Why Every Technology Is a Technology of Thought
“Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.”
By Maria Popova
At least since Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, we’ve seen shadows as a metaphor for the illusory and wicked aspects of life, for that which we must eradicate in order to illuminate the truth and inherent goodness of existence. And yet we forget that the darkness they cast evidences the light — palpable proof without which we might not appreciate or even notice the radiance itself.
The 1933 gem In Praise of Shadows (public library) by Japanese literary titan Junichiro Tanizaki (July 24, 1886–July 30, 1965) belongs to that special order of slim, enormously powerful books that enchant the lay reader with an esoteric subject, leaving a lifelong imprint on the imagination — rare masterpieces like Robin Wall Kimmerer’s love letter to moss and Glenn Kurtz’s paean to the pleasures of playing guitar.
Tanizaki, translated here by Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker, examines the singular standards of Japanese aesthetics and their stark contrast — even starker today, almost a century later — with the value systems of the industrialized West. He writes:
We find beauty not in the thing itself but in 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.
At the heart of this philosophy is a fundamental cultural polarity. Unlike the Western conception of beauty — a stylized fantasy constructed by airbrushing reality into a narrow and illusory ideal of perfection — the zenith of Japanese aesthetics is deeply rooted in the glorious imperfection of the present moment and its relationship to the realities of the past:
The quality that we call beauty … must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows toward beauty’s ends.
One of the most enchanting celebrations of shadows is manifested in the Japanese relationship with materials. Tanizaki writes:
Japanese paper gives us a certain feeling of warmth, of calm and repose… Western paper turns away the light, while our paper seems to take it in, to envelop it gently, like the soft surface of a first snowfall. It gives off no sound when it is crumpled or folded, it is quiet and pliant to the touch as the leaf of a tree.
Embedded in Tanizaki’s lament about how Western innovations have infiltrated Japan’s traditional use of materials is a reminder that every technology is essentially a technology of thought. He considers the broader implications of material progress based on assimilation and imitation:
Had we devised independently at least the more practical sorts of inventions, this could not but have had profound influence upon the conduct of our everyday lives, and even upon government, religion, art, and business.
He offers the example of the Japanese writing brush and the Western fountain pen, examining how the latter might differ had it been invented in his homeland:
It would surely have had a tufted end like our writing brush. The ink would not have been this bluish color but rather black, something like India ink, and it would have been made to seep down from the handle into the brush. And since we would have found it inconvenient to write on Western paper, something near Japanese paper — even under mass production, if you will — would have been most in demand. Foreign ink and pen would not be as popular as they are; the talk of discarding our system of writing for Roman letters would be less noisy; people would still feel an affection for the old system. But more than that: our thought and our literature might not be imitating the West as they are, but might have pushed forward into new regions quite on their own. An insignificant little piece of writing equipment, when one thinks of it, has had a vast, almost boundless, influence on our culture.
Tanizaki’s point is both poetic and practical. Many decades later, it is now believed that another invention — glass — is what planted the seed for the innovation gap between East and West.
He considers another facet of this perilous proclivity for what he calls “borrowed gadgets”:
Had we invented the phonograph and the radio, how much more faithfully they would reproduce the special character of our voices and our music. Japanese music is above all a music of reticence, of atmosphere. When recorded, or amplified by a loudspeaker, the greater part of its charm is lost. In conversation, too, we prefer the soft voice, the understatement. Most important of all are the pauses. Yet the phonograph and radio render these moments of silence utterly lifeless.
Although Tanizaki is writing at a time when a new wave of polymers was sweeping the industrialized West, he paints a subtler and more important contrast than that between the Western cult of synthetics and the Japanese preference for organic materials. This elegant osmosis of art and shadow, he argues, is to be found not only in what materials are used, but in how they are being used:
Wood finished in glistening black lacquer is the very best; but even unfinished wood, as it darkens and the grain grows more subtle with the years, acquires an inexplicable power to calm and sooth.
This temporal continuity of beauty, a counterpoint to the West’s neophilia, is central to Japanese aesthetics. Rather than fetishizing the new and shiny, the Japanese sensibility embraces the living legacy embedded in objects that have been used and loved for generations, seeing the process of aging as something that amplifies rather than muting the material’s inherent splendor. Luster becomes not an attractive quality but a symbol of shallowness, a vacant lack of history:
We find it hard to be really at home with things that shine and glitter. The Westerner uses silver and steel and nickel tableware, and polishes it to a fine brilliance, but we object to the practice… We begin to enjoy it only when the luster has worn off, when it has begun to take on a dark, smoky patina. Almost every householder has had to scold an insensitive maid who has polished away the tarnish so patiently waited for.
We do not dislike everything that shines, but we do prefer a pensive luster to a shallow brilliance, a murky light that, whether in a stone or an artifact, bespeaks a sheen of antiquity.
Tanizaki speaks affectionately of “the glow of grime,” which “comes of being touched over and over” — a record of the tactile love an object has acquired through being caressed by human hands again and again.
But nowhere does Tanizaki’s ode to shadows flow more melodically than in his writing about Japanese lacquerware:
Darkness is an indispensable element of the beauty of lacquerware… [Traditional lacquerware] was finished in black, brown, or red, colors built up of countless layers of darkness, the inevitable product of the darkness in which life was lived.
But lacquerware, Tanizaki notes, isn’t merely a visual delight — its magic is multi-sensory, amplified by a sense of mystery:
I know few greater pleasures than holding a lacquer soul bowl in my hands, feeling upon my palms the weight of the liquid and its mild warmth. The sensation is something like that of holding a plump newborn baby… With lacquerware there is a beauty in that moment between removing the lid and lifting the bowl to the mouth when one gazes at the still, silent liquid in the dark depths of the bowl, its color hardly different from that of the bowl itself. What lies within the darkness one cannot distinguish, but the palm senses the gentle movements of the liquid, vapor rises from within forming droplets on the rim, and the fragrance carried upon the vapor brings a delicate anticipation. What a world of difference there is between this moment and the moment wen soup is served Western style, in a pal, shallow bowl. A moment of mystery, it might almost be called, a moment of trance.
This mysterious mesmerism of well-placed darkness is especially vital in the culinary experience:
It has been said of Japanese food that it is a cuisine to be looked at rather than eaten. I would go further and say that it is to be meditated upon, a kind of silent music evoked by the combination of lacquerware and the light of a candle flickering in the dark.
With Japanese food, a brightly lighted room and shining tableware cut the appetite in half.
Our cooking depends upon shadows and is inseparable from darkness.
Indeed, he argues that excessive illumination is the most atrocious assault on beauty in the West. A mere half-century after Edison’s electric light shocked American cities with its ghastly glare, Tanizaki contemplates this particularly lamentable manifestation of our pathological Western tendency to turn something beneficial into something excessive. Decades before computer screens and Times Square billboards and the global light pollution epidemic, he writes:
So benumbed are we nowadays by electric lights that we have become utterly insensitive to the evils of excessive illumination.
In most recent Western-style buildings, the ceilings are so low that one feels as if balls of fire were blazing directly above one’s head… One of these balls of fire alone would suffice to light the place, yet three or four blaze down from the ceiling, and there are smaller versions on the walls and pillars, serving no function but to eradicate every trace of shadow. And so the room is devoid of shadows.
Light is used not for reading and writing or sewing but for dispelling the shadows in the farthest corners, and this runs agains the basic idea of the Japanese room.
Nowhere, Tanizaki argues, is this vice of ravenous radiance more evident than in the most intimate of rooms. Wincing at “how crude and tasteless [it is] to expose the toilet to such excessive illumination,” he extols the virtues of the old-style Japanese toilet — a dimly lit outdoor bathroom typically located a short walk from the main house:
The novelist Natsume Soseki counted his morning trips to the toilet a great pleasure, “a physiological delight” he called it. And surely there could be no better place to savor this pleasure than a Japanese toilet where, surrounded by tranquil walls and finely grained wood, one looks upon blue skies and green leaves… There are certain prerequisites: a degree of dimness, absolute cleanliness, and quiet so complete that one can hear the hum of a mosquito… 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. Our forebears, making poetry of everything in their lives, transformed what by rights should be the most unsanitary room in the house into a place of unsurpassed elegance, replete with fond associations with the beautifies of nature.
His inquiry into the origin of these cultural differences, paradoxically enough, calls to mind both Buddhism’s basic teaching of acceptance and the memorable words of one of the West’s greatest thinkers — Albert Camus’s observation that people often “refuse to be happy outside the conditions they seem to have attached to their happiness.” Tanizaki writes:
We Orientals seek our satisfactions in whatever surroundings we happen to find ourselves, to content ourselves with things as they are, and so darkness causes us no discontent, we resign ourselves to it as inevitable. If light is scarce then light is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty. But the progressive Westerner is determined always to better his lot. From candle to oil lamp, oil lamp to gaslight, gaslight to electric light — his quest for a brighter light never ceases, he spares no pains to eradicate even the minutest shadow.
But Tanizaki’s eulogy to this setting world of shadows transcends the realm of material aesthetics and touches on the conceptual sensibility of modern life in a way doubly relevant today, nearly a century later, as we struggle to maintain a sense of mystery in the age of knowledge. He remarks in the closing pages:
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. In the mansion called literature I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark, I would push back into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration… Perhaps we may be allowed at least one mansion where we can turn off the electric lights and see what it is like without them.
Like its subject, In Praise of Shadows derives its splendor from smallness and subtlety, distilling centuries of wisdom and bridging thousands of miles of cultural divide in an essay-length miracle of a book. Complement it with the breathtaking Little Tree, a pop-up book celebrating the Japanese reverence for darkness and impermanence — one of the most intelligent and imaginative children’s books that help kids process loss and mourning — then revisit this rare look at Japan in hand-colored images from the 1920s.
Published May 28, 2015