In Praise of Shadows by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki
The Book in 3 Sentences
Tanizaki explores the traditional Japanese aesthetic that favours softer, slower, and more subtle; this is contrasted with newer, faster, and brighter Western technological advances. Despite an explicit statement that he possesses no specialized knowledge, observations about everything from traditional toilets to lacquerware and patinaed cutlery to the eaves of a temple will expand the mind of the artist or architect alike.
Notes on the Book
This is an essay about traditional Japanese art, architecture, and culture. It has been translated from Japanese and is about forty pages long. It features a foreword by Charles Moore and an afterword that elaborates on the nature and context of this short book. The book itself is a standard size, although fairly slender with about sixty pages in total.
As a general matter, we [Japanese] find it really 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. While we do sometimes indeed use silver for teakettles, decanters, or sake cups, we prefer not to polish it. On the contrary, 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. (p10)
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. A ‘sheen of antiquity’ in this case denotes a glow or polish that comes from being touched over and over. (p11)
Western paper turns away the light, while [Japanese] paper seems to take it in, to envelope 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. (p10)
Gazing 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. (p13)
The brilliance of modern electric lighting destroys the subtle qualities of traditional lacquerware. Darkness is an indispensable element of the beauty of lacquerware. Only by candlelight—in the dim half-light—is the true beauty of Japanese lacquerware revealed. (p13)
Nowadays they make even a white lacquer, but the lacquerware of the past was finished in black, brown, or red, colours built up of countless layers of darkness, the inevitable product of the darkness in which life was lived. (p13)
Cuisine too can benefit from darkness: for example, enjoying a bowl of miso from a black lacquer bowl in the dim candlelight has infinitely more depth. (p16)
In the temples of Japan, a roof of heavy tiles is the first thing to be constructed. In the deep, spacious shadows created by the eaves the rest of the structure is built. From grand temples to simple farmhouses, the cavernous darkness provided by the roof’s edge makes entryways, doors, walls, and pillars all but invisible. (p17)
The beauty of a Japanese room depends on a variation of shadows, heavy shadows against light shadows—it has nothing else. The light from the garden steals in but dimly through paper-paneled doors, and it is precisely this indirect light that makes for us the charm of a room. The walls of a sitting room will almost always be of clay textured with fine sand. A luster here would destroy the soft fragile beauty of the feeble light. (p18)
Japanese seek satisfaction in whatever surroundings they happen to find themselves, to be content with things the way they are, resigned to it as inevitable. If light is scarce, then light is scarce; they immerse themselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty. The Westerner is always determined to find better: candle to oil lamp, oil lamp to gaslight, gas light to electric light. (p31)