Last time out in Kakuzo Okakura’s magnificent the Book of Tea, I had a look at how the beverage has influenced the world over thousands of years. This time, I’m reviewing Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s (1886 – 1965) In Praise of Shadows, which is another Japanese essay steeped in Eastern mysticism and other such delights.
It’s also another essay that, essentially, has an intellectual go at the West. Tanizaki, a much celebrated author across the world, felt Western countries were doing themselves a disservice by turning, increasingly, to modern technology such as electric lights. He felt this was disrupting the human way of life and simplicity was in order to find some inner harmony.
Consequently, In Praise of Shadows (1933 – it became available in English from 1977) is a look at how to utilise the natural world. It’s an examination of how eventide can send shadows dancing from objects in your home, how architecture can help you find peace of mind, and why the humble toilet should be revered. Indeed.
In Praise of Shadows
Charles Moore, the School of Architecture at the UCLA, provides a nifty little foreword to get the shadows dancing.
One of the basic human requirements is the need to dwell, and one of the central human acts is the act of inhabiting, of connecting ourselves, however temporarily, with a place on the planet which belongs to us and to which we belong. This is not, especially in tumultuous present, an easy act (as is attested by the uninhabited and uninhabitable no-places in cities everywhere), and it requires help: we need allies in inhabitation.
Having been in a position where I’ve had to constantly move around over the years, it’s true you connect with your home. However brief your stay (as little as six months, for myself, recently), you come to love your personal space, feel at ease, and appreciate this basic human need. After I read In Praise of Shadows early in 2017, I also came to understand how you can further appreciate your environment.
Straight up, this is a short essay about aesthetics and how you utilise the objects around you. It’s also an essay that laments the increasing use of electric goods in our lives (bearing in mind this was way before the arrival of smartphones and laptops etc.). Step forth Jun’ichirō Tanizaki.
What incredible pains the fancier of traditional architecture must take when he sets out to build a house in pure Japanese style, striving somehow to make electric wires, gas pipes, and water lines harmonise with the austerity of Japanese rooms.
Such a comment isn’t surprising, especially if you’ve read my Book of Tea review. The focus on tradition and minimalism appear to make the Japanese tick, particularly its citizens with the old guard style of thought. Enter a Japanese tea house and you might believe the owners are living in poverty. Wrong! This is about uncluttering the mind – focusing on one moment and keeping a clear conscience. Can a simple bulb provide this?
For so accustomed are we to electric lights that the sight of a naked bulb beneath an ordinary milk glass shade seems simpler and more natural than any gratuitous attempt to hide it. Seen at dusk as one gazes out upon the countryside from the window of a train, the lonely light of a bulb under an old-fashioned shade, shining dimly from behind white shoji [door, window, or room divider] of a thatch-roofed farmhouse, can seem positively elegant.
Tanizaki is well on his way to pointing out modern housing doesn’t cut it. This triggers off the opening section of the essay, which is a consideration on how to get the perfect decor for any given room. He’s very specific in his outlook, detailing the many elements to consider, but lighting is a principal focus.
But the snarl and the bulk of an electric fan remain a bit out of place in a Japanese room. The ordinary householder, if he dislikes electric fans, can simply do without them. But if the family business involves the entertainment of customers in summertime, the gentleman of the house cannot afford to indulge his own tastes at the expense of others.
He tells of how he built his home (“I spent a great deal more money than I could afford to build a house”) and his troubles with getting the right architectural set up. Having worked hard, and often failing, to get the lighting, heating, and aesthetics to his liking, Tanizaki cannot help but feel he didn’t find perfection in his home. There are, however, greater difficulties to deal with.
In the toilet somewhat more vexatious problems arise.
Now, if you’re English this is quite an odd chapter (I can’t speak for any folks from other nationalities). In England, a reserved and awkward country where many citizens still cling to traditional virtues (sickening politeness, respect for privacy etc.), you certainly don’t have a full on discussion about toilets with someone you know. It would be considered rude and a bit weird.
In England, the toilet is where most people have a horror story of a time just using one at work, knowing full well colleagues could stumble in at any moment. Away from work, it’s functional and that’s about it, although some people will go to greater lengths to make their bathroom look nice. The toilet, however, is there in the corner and not to be discussed.
Tanizaki’s views are a bit different.
Every time I am shown to an old, dimly lit, and, I would add, impeccably clean toilet in a Nara or Kyoto temple, I am impressed with the singular virtues of Japanese architecture. The parlor may have its charms, but the Japanese toilet truly is a place of spiritual repose. It always stands apart from the main building, at the end of a corridor, in a grove fragrant with leaves and moss. No words can describe that sensation as one sits in the dim light, basking in the faint glow reflected from the shoji, lost in meditation or gazing out at the garden.
I can’t go through this without highlighting a sense of infantile stupidity, as an Englishman, I get from reading that. Having grown up watching the BBC series Bottom, amongst others, toiletry activities are generally treated as mundane/hilarious/embarrassing occurrences out of keeping with polite society, which consequently creates a large amount of puerile humour and awkwardness.
Tanazaki is, of course, correct. There’s no reason why discussing toilets should be reduced to embarrassed silences or bouts of giggling, but that’s the way some of us humans roll. Not in Japan.
The novelist Natsume Sōseki 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 savour this pleasure than a Japanese toilet where, surrounded by tranquil walls and finely grained wood, one looks upon blue skies and green leaves.
As I have said there are certain prerequisites: a degree of dimness, absolute cleanliness, and quiet so complete one can hear the hum of a mosquito. I love to listen from such a toilet to the sound of softly falling rain, especially if it a toilet of the Kantō region, with its long, narrow windows at floor level; there one can listen with such a sense of intimacy to the raindrops falling from the eaves and the trees, seeping into the earth as they wash over the base of a stone lantern and freshen the moss about the stepping stones. And the toilet is the perfect place to listen to the chirping of insects or the songs of the birds, to view the moon, or to enjoy any of those poignant moments that mark the change of the seasons. Here, I suspect, is where haiku poets over the ages have come by a great many of their ideas.
Of course, he’s also fully aware of the stuff I’ve mentioned above.
Compared to Westerners, who regard the toilet as utterly unclean and avoid even the mention of it in polite conversation, we are far more sensible and certainly in better taste. The Japanese toilet is, I must admit, a bit inconvenient to get to in the middle of the night, set apart from the main building as it is; and in winter there is always a danger that one might catch a cold. But as the poet Saitō Ryokuu has said, ‘elegance is frigid.’ Better that the place be as chilly as the out-of-doors; the steamy heat of a Western-style toilet in a hotel is most unpleasant.
To highlight his sincerity on the subject, he states:
Anyone with a taste for traditional architecture must agree that the Japanese toilet is perfection.
In many respects, the modern Japanese way of life still clings to a traditional sense of simplicity. Whether it’s a futon (Japanese bed), the tea ceremony, or the layout of a home. Obviously, this has been distorted slightly by the arrival of technological gadgets, a state of affairs already commonplace back in Tanizaki’s day.
There are those who hold that to quibble over matters of taste in the basic necessities of life is an extravagance, that as long as a house keeps out the cold and as long as food keeps off starvation, it matters little what they look like. And indeed for even the sternest ascetic the fact remains that a snowy day is cold, and there is no denying the impulse to accept the services of a heater if it happens to be there in front of one, no matter how cruelly its inelegance may shatter the spell of the day.
Creature comforts, as it were, which still differ enormously between the East and the West. Back in my Book of Tea review, I provided a brief history of how Japan, after centuries isolated from the rest of the world, came to be modernised.
In two decades the country transformed itself – despite this radical turnaround, Tanazaki laments how Japan missed the opportunity to shape and define popular products around the world, such as fountain pens (he notes ink colours would have been different, the shape altered etc.).
The Westerner has been able to move forward in ordered steps, while we have met superior civilization and have had to surrender to it, and we have had to leave a road we have followed for thousands of years. The missteps and inconveniences this has has caused have, I think, been many. If we had been left alone we might not be much further in a material way than we were five hundreds years ago. Even now in the Indian and Chinese countryside life no doubt goes on much as it did when Buddha and Confucius were alive. But we would have gone only in a direction that suited us. We would have gone ahead very slowly, and yet it is not impossible that we would one day have discovered our own substitute for the trolley, the radio, the airplane of today.
For Tanizaki, this is chance to lay forth the differences between his beloved Japan and the rest of the world. He goes on to discuss Japanese paper and, how in China (where it was invented) and Japan, it’s created in a way that takes in the light. This is in comparison to mass produced paper in the West, which has a clinical A4 shape which is almost disturbing to behold in its razor-sharp efficiency.
As a general matter 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. 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.
He continues in this manner about all sorts of other things, but what is this interest in making new stuff look old? In the West, most people would throw a huge tantrum the moment a scratch appears on their precious car, for example. I do, however, always remember the story of how Keith Moon used to purchase upper class cars and then mess them up so they’d be working class ones. The Japanese way isn’t some subversive attempt to mock the establishment, though.
We do not dislike everything that shines, but we do prefer a pensive luster to a shallow brilliance, a murky light that, whether in stone or an artifact, bespeaks a sheen of antiquity.
Of course, this ‘sheen of antiquity’ of which we hear so much is in fact the glow of grime. In both Chinese and Japanese the words denoting this glow describe a polish that comes of being touched over and over again, a sheen produced by the oils that naturally permeate an object over long years of handling – which is to say grime. If indeed ‘elegance is frigid’, it can as well be described as filthy.
He indicates this is simply because:
We do love things that bear the marks of grime, soot, and weather, and we love the colours and the sheen that call to mind the past that made them. Living in these old houses among these old objects is in some mysterious way a source of peace and repose.
Food & Aesthetics
One of the central tenets of Tanazaki’s essay is the use of candles above harsh electric lamps. He states there’s a famous restaurant in Kyoto called the Waranjiya (sadly, this doesn’t seem to be around anymore):
One of the attractions of which was until recently that the dining rooms were lit by candlelight rather than electricity; but when I went there this spring after a long absence, the candles had been replaced by electric lamps in the style of old lanterns.
Apparently, some folks complained it was too dim, so in came the electric lighting.
I preferred the old way should they be happy to bring me a candlestand. Since that was what I had come for, I asked them to do so. And I realised then that only in dim half-light is the true beauty of Japanese lacquerware revealed. The rooms at the Waranjiya are about nine feet square, the size of a comfortable little tearoom, and the alcove pillars and ceilings glow with a faint smoky luster, dark even in the light of the lamp. But in the still dimmer light of the candlestand, as I gazed 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.
Lacquerware, if you’re a bit unsure, are decorative objects coated in lacquer. This stuff has been around for a long time, with artifacts dug up from prehistoric China boasting the protective lacquer casing. In Japan, they date back to the Jōmon period, which was 14,000 to 300 BCE. Here’s an example – a diaoqi (carved laquer dish).
Darkness is an indispensable element of the beauty of lacquerware. 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. Sometimes a superb piece of black lacquerware, decorated perhaps with flecks of silver and gold – a box or a desk or a set of shelves—will seem to me unsettingly garish and altogether vulgar. But render pitch black the void in which they stand, and light them not with the rays of the sun or electricity but rather a single lantern or candle: suddenly those garish objects turn sombre, refined, dignified. Artisans of old, when they finished their works in lacquer and decorated them in sparkling patterns, must surely have had in mind dark rooms and sought to turn to good effect what feeble light there was. Their extravagant use of gold, too, I should imagine, came of understanding how it gleams forth from out of the darkness and reflects the lamplight.
Lacquerware decorated in gold is not something to be seen in a brilliant light, to be taken in at a single glance; it should be left in the dark, a part here and a part there picked up by a faint light. Its florid patterns recede into the darkness, conjuring in their stead an inexpressible aura of depth and mystery, of overtones but partly suggested. The sheen of the lacquer, set out in the night, reflects the wavering candlelight, announcing the drafts that find their way from time to time into the quiet room, luring one into a state of reverie. If the lacquer is taken away, much of the spell disappears from the dream world built by that strange light of candle and lamp, that wavering light beating the pulse of the night. Indeed the thin, impalpable, faltering light, picked up as though little rivers were running through the room, collecting little pools here and there, lacquers a pattern on the surface of the night itself.
In the West, we’re obviously more used to ceramics – particularly in this day and age. I have my daily porridge, wheatgerm, pumpkin seeds, and whatnot in a big old ceramic bowl. Tanizaki, naturally, has an opinion on this.
Ceramics are by no means inadequate as tableware, but they lack the shadows, the depth of lacquerware. Ceramics are heavy and cold to the touch; they clatter and clink, and being efficient conductors of heat are not the best containers for hot foods.
Why should we, the West, care about such an innocuous matter? Again, as with the Book of Tea, life is all about finding those moments of simplistic comfort to ensure you’re getting some decent psychological well-being. It may seem an irrelevance, but if you’re clutching a lacquerware bowl instead of a ceramic one with your miso soup, it would appear there’s no comparison.
I know few greater pleasures than holding a lacquer soup bowl in my hands, feeling upon my palms the weight of the liquid and its mild warmth … There are good reasons why lacquer soup bowls are still used, qualities which ceramic bowls simply do not possess. Remove the lid from a ceramic bowl, and there lies the soup, every nuance of its substance and colour revealed. 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 colour hardly differing from that of the bowl itself. What lies within the darkness one cannot distinguish, but the palm senses the gentle movements 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.
Hey, if you also began thinking I was writing nonsense about the link to the tea masters from Kakuzo Okarua’s essay, then you thought wrong! Tanizaki confirms the parallels right here, otherwise these two posts wouldn’t have worked so well together, huh?
Whenever I sit with a bowl of soup before me, listening to the murmur that penetrates like the far-off shrill of an insect, lost in contemplation of flavors to come, I feel as if I were being drawn into a trance. The experience must be something like that of the tea master who, at the sound of the kettle, is taken from himself as if upon the sigh of the wind in the legendary pines of Onoe.
This trance-like quality is enhanced further still by the aesthetic, petite nature of Japanese food.
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. Natsume Sōseki, in Pillow of Grass, praises the colour of the confection yōkan; it is not indeed a colour to call forth meditation? The cloudly translucence, like that of jade; the faint, dreamlike glow that suffuses it, as if it had drunk into its very depths the light of the sun; the complexity and profundity of the colour – nothing of the sort is to be found in Western candies. How simple and insignificant cream-filled chocolates seem by comparison. And when yōkan is served in a lacquer dish within whose dark recesses its colour is scarcely distinguishable, then it is most certainly an object for meditation.
Miso soup, being a favourite Japanese dish of mine, takes on particularly reverential qualities for Tanizaki.
The dark miso soup that we eat every morning is one dish from the dimly lit houses of the past. I was once invited to a tea ceremony where miso was served; and when I saw the muddy, claylike colour, quiet in a black lacquer bowl beneath the faint light of a candle, this soup that I usually take without a second thought seemed somehow to acquire a real depth, and to become infinitely more appetising as well.
Even soy sauce, a salty liquid many of us would turn our noses up at if considered an artform, has a dark hue to it which, on close inspection, can be viewed as a marvel. In fact, most Japanese foods have an intrinsic beauty to them. They are often served in a concise way, if not outright cute (kawaii – cuteness – culture being so strong in Japan now more than ever) to bring forth the natural aesthetics.
A glistening black lacquer rice cask set off in a dark corner is both beautiful to behold and a powerful stimulus to the appetite. Then the lid is briskly lifted, and this pure white freshly boiled food, heaped in its black container, each and every grain gleaming like a pearl, sends forth billows of warm steam – here is a sight no Japanese can fail to be moved by. Our cooking depends upon shadows and is inseparable from darkness.
Wherever you live, whether it’s a house, flat, bungalow, or house boat, you’ll do your thing to make yourself feel at home. If you’ve moved around a lot recently, like I have, you have the knick-knacks familiar from old abodes to get you settled in – little touches like this can help a great deal.
In making for ourselves a place to live, we first spread a parasol to throw a shadow to the earth, and in the pale light of the shadow we put together a house. There are of course roofs on Western houses too, but they are less to keep off the sun than to keep off the wind and the dew; even from within it is apparent that they are built to create as few shadows as possible and to expose the interior to as much light as possible. If the roof of a Japanese house is a parasol, the roof of a Western house is no more than a cap, with as small a visor as possible so as to allow the sunlight to penetrate directly beneath the eaves.
There is a reason for this approach, of course.
The fact that we did not use glass, concrete, and bricks, for instance, made a low roof necessary to keep off the driving wind and rain. A light room would no doubt have been more convenient for us, too, than a dark room. The quality that we call beauty, however, 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 towards beauty’s ends.
This, then, is where In Praise of Shadows reaches one of its central points – how Japanese rooms depend on “a variation of shadows, heavy shadows against light shadows”. Naturally, us Westerners are often amazed (if not slightly appalled) at the simplicity of Japanese rooms. As Tanizaki says, this misguided outlook:
Betrays a failure to comprehend the mystery of shadows. Out beyond the sitting room, which the rays of the sun can at best but barely reach, we extend the eaves or build on a veranda, putting the sunlight at still greater a remove. 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. We do our walls in neutral colours so that the sad, fragile, dying rays can sink into absolute repose. The storehouse, kitchen, hallways, and such may have a glossy finish, but the walls of the 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. We delight in the mere sight of the delicate glow of fading rays clinging to the surface of a dusky wall, there to live out what little life remains to them. We never tire of the sight, for to us this pale glow and these dim shadows far surpass any ornament. And so, as we must if we are not to disturb the glow, we finish the walls with sand in a single neutral colour. The hue may differ from room to room, but the degree of difference in colour as in shade, a difference that will seem to exist only in the mood of the viewer. And from these delicate differences in the hue of the walls, the shadows in each room take on a tinge particularly their own.
Our writer goes as far to state “A Japanese room might be likened to an inkwash painting” – what’s quite obvious from extracts above, along with Okakura’s the Book of Tea, is the extraordinary passion Japanese people have for their craft. These two are able to discern the incredible from what we in the West may find mundane and superfluous. Who do you know who would liken their soup bowls to a deeply profound spiritual experience? Or who could find such tranquility by the arrangement of an alcove?
I marvel at our comprehension of the secrets of shadows, our sensitive use of shadow and light. For the beauty of the alcove is not the work of some clever device. An empty space is marked off with plain wood and plain walls, so that the light drawn into its forms dim shadows within emptiness. There is nothing more. And yet, when we gaze into the darkness that gathers behind the crossbeam, around the flower vase, beneath the shelves, though we know perfectly well it is mere shadow, we are overcome with the feeling that in this small corner of the atmosphere there reigns complete and utter silence; that here in the darkness immutable tranquility holds sway.
Naturally, many Westerners would still be quite confused by this level of commitment, but it’s something Tanizaki was well prepared for.
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. Were the shadows to be banished from its corners, the alcove would in that instant revert to mere void.
This was the genius of our ancestors, that by cutting off the light from this empty space they imparted to the world of shadows that formed there a quality of mystery and depth superior to that of any wall painting or ornament.
As if questioning us Westerners to raise our game and get into the spirit of the moment, he asks us:
Have not you yourselves sensed a difference in the light that suffuses such a room, a rare tranquility not found in ordinary light? Have you never felt a sort of fear in the face of the ageless, a fear that in that room you might lose all consciousness of the passage of time, that untold years might pass and upon emerging you should find you had grown old and gray?
I have said that lacquerware decorated in gold was made to be seen in the dark and for this same reason were the fabrics of the past so lavishly woven of threads of silver and gold.
Fashion isn’t something I know much about, but it’s all about the aesthetics, yes? Japan’s famous kimono, for instance, is flamboyant but minimalistic at once – elegant, too. It suits the slight Japanese stature perfectly. Interestingly, “kimono” can be translated as “thing to wear”. It’s a robe, though, in simple English.
I may be alone in thinking so, but to me it seems that nothing quite so becomes the Japanese skin as the costumes of Nō theatre [a form of musical drama]. Of course many are gaudy in the extreme, richly woven of gold and silver. But the Nō actor, unlike the Kabuki performer, wears no white powder. Whenever I attend the Nō I am impressed by the fact that on no other occasion is the beauty of the Japanese complexion set off to such advantage – the brownish skin with a flush of red that is so uniquely Japanese, the face like old ivory tinged with yellow. A robe woven or embroidered in patterns of gold or silver sets it off beautifully, as does a cloak of deep green or persimmon, or a kimono or divided skirt of a pure white, unpatterned material.
Although it’s changed in Japan in recent years, traditional dress is still very much in place. Over in the West, we’ve become accustomed to some women baring all – whether in Hollywood or the music industry, it appears the less you wear the more confident and outgoing you’ll appear. Plus, you’ll got all those smoking hot guys due to it, which the logic appears to point at. Either that or it’s just chronic narcissism and the desire for self-gratification.
There’s still that element of minimalism with Japanese people, but it’s definitely a more open and gregarious nation these days. However, it’s interesting to note what Tanizaki thought of as beautiful in the 1930s.
I once saw Kongō Iwao play the Chinese beauty Yang Kuei-fei in the Nō play Kōtei, and I shall never forget the beauty of his hands showing ever so slightly from beneath his sleeves. As I watched his hands, I would occasionally glance down at my own hands resting on my knees. Again, and yet again, I looked back at the actor’s hands, comparing them with my own; and there was no difference between them. Yet strangely the hands of the man on the stage were indescribably beautiful, while those on my knees were but ordinary hands. In the Nō only the merest fraction of the actor’s flesh is visible – the face, the neck, the hands—and when a mask is worn, as for the role of Yang Kuei-fei, even the face is hidden; and so what little flesh can be seen creates a singularly strong impression.
Upon discussing this further, he highlights the natural beauty of the Japanese people.
I suppose it is hard for those who praise the fleshly beauty we see under today’s bright lights to imagine the ghostly beauty of those older women. And there may be some who argue that if beauty has to hide its weak points in the dark it is not beauty at all. But we Orientals, as I have suggested before, create a kind of beauty of the shadows we have made in out-of-the-way places. There is an old song that says ‘the brushwood we gather – stack it together, it makes a hut; pull it apart, a field once more.’ Such is our way of thinking – 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.
Naturally, this all brings up the differences between cultures – why aren’t we in the West able to comprehend the beauty of shadows? Why is it always gaudy bright lights and bare flesh? Harking on back to Tanizaki’s points on “the glow of grime”, why didn’t this develop elsewhere in the past? For sure, us lot over here often consider the shadows as an ugly thing. Tanizaki has his theory:
But what produces such differences in taste? In my opinion it is this: we Orientals tend to 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.
He then drops one of my all time favourite literary quotes, which should be bandied about by everyone as a epiphany of some form.
If light is scarce then light is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty.
Here, however, he’s unhappy with the relentless desire for progression amongst the West. Remember, Japan had resided quite happily for a very long time in nationalistic solitude, which was broken by the Americans in a forceful display of military and technological dominance.
As he covered in his 1929 novella Some Prefer Nettles, this caused a seismic shift forward where traditional Japan had to work in tandem with a new industrial vision. This battle continues to this day, it seems, with many traditionalists unhappy with the continuous push for progress which the West triggered off.
From candle to oil lamp, oil lamp to gaslight, gaslight to electric light – his [the West’s] quest for a brighter light never ceases, he spares no pains to eradicate even the minutest shadow.
A World of Shadows
The novelist Takebayashi Musōan said when he returned from Paris a few years ago that Tokyo and Osaka were far more brightly lit than any European city; that even on the Champs-Élysées there were still houses lit by oil lamps, while in Japan hardly a one remained unless in a remote mountain village. Perhaps no two countries in the world waste more electricity than America and Japan, he said, for Japan is only too anxious to imitate America in every way it can. That was some four or five years ago, before the vogue for neon signs.
These days, light pollution is another major issue humanity has to face up to. If you live in the city, come evening you can look up into the sky and barely see any stars. The difference between living in Manchester, for instance, and then taking a trip into the country for the evening is remarkable. In Manchester, the stars don’t shine at night – there’s just a, sort of, murky haze everywhere.
So benumbed are we nowadays by electric lights that we have become utterly insensitive to the evils of excessive illumination … When the lights are turned on in summer even before dark it is a waste, and worse than the waste is the heat. I am upset by it wherever I go in the summer. Outside it will be cool, but inside it will be ridiculously hot, and more often than not because of lights too strong or too numerous. Turn some of them off and in no time at all the room is refreshingly cool. Yet curiously neither the guests nor the owner seem to realize this. A room should be brighter in winter, but summer in summer; it is then appropriately cool, and does not attract insects. But people will light the lights, then switch on an electric fan to combat the heat. The very thought annoys me.
It annoys me too, Tanizaki dono (that means “sir” in Japanese, I believe – 殿 – although sensei would be a more suitable honorific term to use, I think). To his immense credit, unlike many older people, he is able to recognise when he slides into “back in my day” syndrome.
I recently read a newspaper or magazine article about the complaints of old women in England. When they were young, they said, they respected their elders and took good care of them; but their own daughters care nothing at all for then, and avoid them as though they were somehow dirty. The morals of the young, they lamented, are not what they once were. It struck me that old people everywhere have much the same complaints. The older we get the more we seem to think that everything was better in the past. Old people a century ago wanted to go back two centuries, and two centuries ago they wished it were three centuries earlier. Never has there been an age that people have been satisfied with. But in recent years the pace of progress has been so precipitous that conditions in our own country go somewhat beyond the ordinary. The changes that have taken place since the Restoration of 1867 must be at least great as those of the preceding three and a half centuries.
He goes on to lay down an interesting argument.
It will seem odd, I suppose, that I should go on in this vein, as if I too were grumbling in my dotage. Yet of this I am convinced, that the conveniences of modern culture cater exclusively to youth, and that the times grow increasingly inconsiderate of old people. Let me take a familiar example: now that we cannot cross an intersection without consulting a traffic signal, old people can no longer venture confidently out into the streets. For someone sufficiently well-off to be driven about in an automobile there may be no problem, but on those rare occasions when I go into Osaka, it sets every nerve in my body on edge to cross from one side of the street to the other.
You can only imagine his consternation at the state of affairs these days. Certainly, noise pollution is now being recognised as a major issue for urbanites. It’s almost impossible to find moments of quiet in a bustling city – even returning back home to a flat, you’re still going to have neighbours arguing, music blasting, revellers etc. All of this din, subconsciously or otherwise, must be playing havoc on tens of millions’ psychological well-being.
And so as time goes by, old people give up the cities and retire to the country; and yet there is not much cause for hope there either, for country towns are year by year going the way of Kyoto, their streets strung with bright lights. There are those who say that when civilization progresses a bit further transportation facilities will move into the skies and under the ground, and that our streets will again be quiet, but I know perfectly well that when that day comes some new device for torturing the old will be invented. ‘Out of our way, old people,’ we say, and they have no recourse but to shrink back into their houses, to make whatever tidbits they can for themselves, and to enjoy their evening sake as best they can to the accompaniment of the radio.
There were voices of discontent about all the changes Tanizaki was seeing during his era, as we have no whenever another piece of land is obliterated for a housing complex or an airport.
The author of ‘Vox Populi Vox Dei’ column in the Osaka Asahi recently castigated city officials who quite needlessly cut a swath through a forest and leveled a hill in order to build a highway through Minō Park. I was somewhat encouraged; for 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 in Nara or in the suburbs of Kyoto and Osaka, as the price of being turned over to the masses, will be denuded of trees. But again I am grumbling.
Despite his grumbling, he acknowledges: “I am aware of and most grateful for the benefits of the age.”
No matter what complaints we may have, Japan has chosen to follow the West, and there is nothing for her to do but move bravely ahead and leave us old ones behind.
Entering the final stages of his conclusion, he states:
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. I do not ask that this be done everywhere, but 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.
Although a slight 60 pages, this essay is an elegant and passionate cry for you to ditch some of the negative complexities of modernity. Whether it’s simply turning to candles in the evening or taking up lacquerware, you’ve got a chance to hunt down some well deserved moments of “repose”, as Tanizaki was keen to get across.
Some of his musings are anachronistic, although this isn’t surprising since it’s almost 90 years since publication. Society will naturally evolve over time and some change shouldn’t be baulked at. However, it’s also more important than ever, given our hectic 24/7 lives, to be aware of mindfulness. This is where In Praise of Shadows stands out, as it raises awareness of modern sensibilities and how our lives could be going wayward.
I’m sure Tanizaki would have been aghast at life in 2018; laptops, smartphones, HD televisions, video games consoles – they all beam around us 24/7 and it’s already well known amongst medical professionals they play havoc with our sleep patterns (along with many other issues).
The antidote? Fire up some candles, get yourself a copy of In Praise of Shadows, and blast your way through this concise masterpiece. There’s a clinical but relaxed nature to it, with many astute lessons on how you can structure the world around you to find some peace of mind.
Whilst technological progress can be a great thing, it’s also important to remember some of humanity’s ancient traditions. Even something as basic as a shadow can provide as much quality to your life as that £600 iPad – let us all not forget.