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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 713

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...

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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 his ingenuity—finding new ways to install lighting, heating, and plumbing systems. The stream-of-consciousness style which characterizes this essay then leads Tanizaki to one of the book’s most quoted passages, on the Japanese toilet. Set away from the main building, the toilet is a structure which, of all the elements of Japanese architecture, is to him the most aesthetic and perfect:Our forebears, making poetry of everything in their lives, transformed what by rights should be the most unsanitary room in the house into a place of unsurpassed elegance, replete with fond associations with the beauties of nature.

The harsh brightness of white walls and tiles and the sparkle of the pure white porcelain and metal handles of flush toilets imported from abroad, while clean, are not as soothing as the “wood finished in glistening black lacquer.”

It is not the conveniences themselves to which Tanizaki objects. Western architecture, he writes, citing Gothic cathedrals as examples, is designed to soar toward the sky, letting in as much light as possible; in Japan, the roof is first constructed on pillars, with the rest of the house built under it, thus effectively limiting the amount of light. Acknowledging that he knows little about engineering, Tanizaki insists that if the Japanese had developed modern conveniences on their own, they would have found different forms more pleasing and more in keeping with their tastes. As it is, eager to imitate the West, the Japanese consume electricity as recklessly as Americans, so that Tokyo and Osaka are as garishly lit as American cities, when the Japanese national character favors “a pensive luster to a shallow brilliance, a murky light that, whether in a stone or an artifact, bespeaks a sheen of antiquity.”

Some three-quarters into the essay, Tanizaki speculates on the reason for the difference in temperament between the Oriental and the Westerner (the one content to find satisfaction in what is inevitable, the other determined to improve upon nature) and their resulting radically different tastes. This difference in temperament, he maintains, is a result of the Japanese skin color. Even the whitest of Japanese complexions is slightly cloudy, in contrast to the glow of white-skinned Westerners. Unconsciously, then, he reasons that the Japanese have sunk themselves into the shadows, choosing “cloudy colors” for their food, clothing, and houses to show their skin off to advantage.

After a few more remarks contrasting the old ways to the new, Tanizaki concludes that Japan has set out firmly on the path to Westernization and that the old world will be left behind at a loss. The only reason he writes this book, he says in a resigned tone, is in the hope that the arts will save this world of shadows.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 65

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.

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