In Praise of Shadows Essay - Critical Context

Jun’ichirō Tanizaki

Critical Context

In Praise of Shadows is an important work of nonfiction in terms of Tanizaki’s career and his life; it marks a change in his attitudes toward the West. Commentators frequently refer to the essay as a source to elucidate Tanizaki’s novels because, in explaining how in his daily life he tried to adapt Western conveniences into traditional Japanese architecture, and in his final statement of hope that such a tradition could survive in literature, Tanizaki provides interesting clues to understanding his professional productivity. In an article titled “Kafu and Tanizaki,” for example, critic Edward G. Seidensticker speculates that it was the strength of their participation in the older culture of Japan which helped sustain writers such as Tanizaki and Kafu, while others who had staked their faith in Western ideology ultimately found it dissatisfying.

Beyond that, however, for the reader unfamiliar with Japanese literature In Praise of Shadows can be enjoyed on its own as an elegant meditation by a sensitive man on the importance of beauty in everyday objects. Writing before World War II, Tanizaki was already decrying the harshness of unrelieved whiteness in hospitals, suggesting that softer, muted colors for the walls, uniforms, and equipment would be more soothing to the patients, a view that continues to gain attention.

As Thomas Harper observes in the afterword, it is not uncommon for artists and scholars to claim a unique aesthetic sensibility for the Japanese; while one of Tanizaki’s main points is that the Japanese sensibility is in fact different, the way he explains it is unorthodox. Even as the artifacts which he describes are disappearing, Tanizaki provides his own poetic insight into Japanese culture; his is a more accessible example of the Japanese tradition than the fossilized artistic institutions popularly associated with Japan, such as the tea ceremony and flower arrangement. The loving resignation with which Tanizaki describes the beauty of everyday objects in In Praise of Shadows is his personal homage to the Japanese spirit.