In Praise of Shadows is an essay on aesthetics by one of my favourite Japanese writers, it was originally published in 1933, with the English translation coming out in 1977. This is a tiny book of less than fifty pages, containing a foreword and an afterword, making the essay itself only forty-two pages long, which means it can be read in one sitting, although that would be defeating the point of it, this should be savoured, this book should be read and re-read, should be immersed in. Jun’ichiro Tanizaki discusses traditional Japanese aesthetics in contrast to the changes occurring in his country, or to be more accurate the westernisation of it. Through this essay he compares light & dark, stating that the West with it’s fundamental quest for progress, can be represented as a continuous search for greater light and clarity, whilst in contrast the Japanese path is through shade, that to appreciate Japanese art and literature, you need to understand it’s shadows and the subtle nuances perceived within them. By this method he goes on to explain how this can reach into every part of our lives from what we eat out of, to what our toilets should look like and how they should be perceived. In the afterword it says that one of the oldest and most deeply ingrained of Japanese attitudes to literary style, is that anything with to obvious a structure is contrivance, that to orderly an exposition falsifies the ruminations of the heart, that the truest representation of the searching mind is just to “Follow the Brush” this gives “In Praise of Shadows” a conversational tone, and doesn’t come across as an essay, it is more haphazard, as though you were following the thought process of a gifted writer.
“There are good reasons why lacquer soup bowls are still used, qualities which ceramic bowls do not posses. Remove the lid from a ceramic bowl, and there lies the soup, every nuance of its substance and colour revealed. With lacquer ware there is a beauty in that moment between removing the lid and lifting the bowl to the mouth when one glances at the still, silent liquid in the dark depths of the bowl, its colour hardly differing from that of the bowl itself. What lies within the darkness one cannot distinguish, but the palm senses the gentle movement of the liquid, vapour rises from within forming droplets on the rim, and the fragrance carried upon the vapour brings a delicate anticipation. What a world of difference there is between this moment and the moment when soup is served western style, in a pale shallow bowl. A moment of mystery, it might almost be called, a moment of trance.”
Although this eloquent strange book is primarily an essay on the Japanese sense of beauty, it is also an act of meditation and an elegy to a culture he perceived to be receiving it’s last rites, making it part clarion call, part last post. This little book discusses architecture, drama, food, beauty and various other aspects of Japanese culture and how the rush for progress, with the adoption of western values, has created an uneasy, unbalanced clash of cultures, with the more forceful Western culture, with it’s bright garish modern technology, challenging his own softer, quieter aesthetic tradition.
*“ Whenever I see the alcove of a tastefully built Japanese room, I marvel at our comprehension of the secrets of shadows, our sensitive use of shadow and light…. The “mysterious Orient” of which Westerners speak probably refers to the uncanny silence of these dark places. And even we as children would feel an inexpressible chill as we peered into the depths of an alcove to which the sunlight had never penetrated. Where lies the key to this mystery? Ultimately it is the magic of shadows.”*
Tanizaki shares with us his obvious delight in the ordinary everyday world and contrasts this with his perception of the disposable plastic ideals of western technology and his nations attempts to grasp all, adding his voice to the questions raised on what it means to be Japanese, what the “essence of Japaneseness” might be when confronted by the rush for all things modern and western. I discussed this slightly in my post on OUP, Very Short Introductions – Modern Japan and this book calls for the rediscovery of a particular appreciation of a fragile shadowy beauty that characterised Japanese aesthetics. I’ve read this little book three times now and will probably read it again at some point, it contains a quiet forceful nature it pokes at your thought processes at odd moments, passages come back to contrast the world I find myself in, with it’s meditation on how the beauty and the quality of an experience lived is as important as all other aspects, given it as much relevance today, as when it was written.
“To snatch away from us even the darkness beneath trees that stand deep in the forest is the most heartless of crimes. At this rate every place of any beauty … , as the price of being turned over to the masses, will be denuded of trees.”
There’s a slight proviso to this, Tanizaki has a section on race and skin colour, that mirrors the perverse and yet prevalent attitude of the time it was written, in these more hopefully enlightened times, this section may cause offence. My point in raising this issue, is with this enlightenment we can realise the faults of the past and yet not let it mar the the rest of this wonderful little book.
Jun’ichiro Tanizaki (Wiki)
Leete’s Island Books Publishers
Edward G. Seidensticker was a noted scholar and translator of Japanese literature. He was particularly known for his English version of The Tale of Genji (1976), which is counted among the preferred modern translations. He is also well known for his landmark translations of Yasunari Kawabata, which led to Kawabata's winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968.
Thomas J. Harper was Senior Lecturer in Japanese Literature, apart from translation he also wrote the afterword in this essay. Harper was Senior Lecturer in Japanese Literature at the Australian National University in Canberra.
The Foreword was written by architect, writer and educator Charles Moore , Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, and winner of the AIA Gold Medal in 1991.