Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In Japan, well-known writers are frequently invited to express their views on a variety of topics. In this book, Jun’ichir Tanizaki, one of the finest Japanese novelists of the twentieth century, meditates on the importance of an artful management of darkness to highlight beauty. Consisting of a series of observations on seemingly unrelated topics, In Praise of Shadows is Tanizaki’s defense of traditional Japanese aesthetics.

Originally published in two issues of Keizai orai, in December, 1933, and January, 1934, this work consists of sixteen short essays, ranging in tone from the lyrical and meditative to the humorous. Parts of it were translated into English in 1954 and published, with commentary, in The Atlantic Monthly in 1955.

Though not single-mindedly linear in construction, Tanizaki’s meditations on the differences between Japanese and Western architecture, skin tone, bathrooms, and flatware are held together admirably well by his central thesis, expressed both literally and metaphorically as the contrast between the bright clarity of electric lighting adopted from the West and the softer interplay of light and shadows native to Japan.

Tanizaki starts with a discussion of the difficulties of incorporating the modern conveniences of electricity, gas, and indoor plumbing into the austere architecture of a traditional Japanese house. Citing his own frustration with trying to find a compromise between the Japanese aesthetic and Western convenience, he points out that his attempt to build double-framed windows, with paper on the inside and glass on the outside, was ultimately both expensive and dissatisfying and left him wishing he had settled for glass. Similarly, he tested...

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(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Keene, Donald. “Three Modern Novelists,” in Landscapes and Portraits: Appreciations of Japanese Culture, 1971.

Petersen, Gwenn B. The Moon in the Water: Understanding Tanizaki, Kawabata, and Mishima, 1979.

Seidensticker, Edward G. “Kafu and Tanizaki,” in Japan Quarterly. XII (October-December, 1965), pp. 491-494.

Ueda, Makoto. Modern Japanese Writers and the Nature of Literature, 1976.

White, Edmund. “Shadows and Obsessions,” in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII (July 18, 1982), pp. 8, 22-23.