In Praise of Shadows

In Praise of Shadows by Jun’Ichiro Tanizaki offers a compelling alternative to traditional Western aesthetic judgments on the nature of space and light, as well as forwarding a racial theory of aesthetic appreciation. The author focuses on the applications of subtly, nuance and silence, arguing that such manifestations in Japanese culture are being corroded by imposing Western customs and technology, which the author contends often are garishly explicit and overbearing in an aesthetic sense. Finally, the author ends his writing with a plea for artists to preserve Japanese culture and artistic convention by “push[ing] back into the shadows the things that come too clearly,” (65) by returning dignity to the Japanese society.

Tanizaki begins by lamenting the state of technology in his homeland, contending that the Western technological advances which have been adopted in order to hastily modernize the state are fundamentally alien in nature, clashing with racial Japanese tangibility and cultural demands. The author does admit that such devices seem necessary in modern times, relating to us the story of a freezing ascetic before a heating stove, postulating that even the most austere monk would indulge in using the technology to save his life (62). Yet even while these innovations appear necessary in function, paradoxically, their nature seems fundamentally at odds with the Japanese “temper,” (62) and the author wonders aloud on the question of science, suggesting that its application and essence would be different if discovered by Asian minds first. Tanizaki uses the example of a Western pen to elucidate his claim: the blue ink of the ballpoint pen seems an affront to Japanese visual taste (which apparently is more desirous to perceive “Indian ink”), and the metallic end lacks the dexterity necessary to form traditional symbols properly (62). As a consequence of adopting a more “Japanese” pen, with a tufted end and the ability to loose ink into the tip, a cascade of events might occur: Western paper and writing systems would become less desirable, and accordingly, Western literature would no longer be held in such esteemed demand.

The quick and haphazard modernization of the country, claims Tanizaki, occurring without deliberate meditation or serious consideration, has brought upon the Japanese people a slew of “missteps and inconveniences” (63) as the civilization did not have the ability to adapt its own specially suited technologies before being thrust upon Western ones. Tanizaki concludes that while most of the people of mainland Asia are still living as they were in the times of Confucius and Buddha, given the time, the whole of the region would have adopted developed technologies equivalent to the West, while maintaining national character. The author clarifies this claim by citing examples in which the nuance and subtleties which define the Japanese culture have been made irrelevant by the adoption of Western technologies not sensitive to the properties and norms of that society. Film, having developed independently in countries such as France, Germany and the United States, having developed varying techniques in “shading and coloration” respectively defined their national character through the “photographic image” itself (63). Accordingly, as the Japanese did not have the luxury to develop their own film techniques, taking into consideration racial, geographic and cultural properties, their national character is poorly expressed. The same can be said of utilizing the phonograph and radio: reticence and atmosphere, so crucial for Japanese music, and pauses of silence, critical in the appreciation of Japanese speech, are reduced to be “utterly lifeless” (63) by the machines which reproduce the sounds. Western paper is also similarly unsuitable and offensive to Japanese tastes, claims the author: Chinese/Japanese paper has a desirable texture and a warm and calming quality, is silent upon manipulation and features a shade of white more easily perceived by the Japanese people. While Western paper apparently repels light, Japanese paper diffuses it, an important consideration for traditional Japanese architectural decoration. Finally, while gleaming and sheen is appreciated by Western eyes, the Japanese are offended by brightness and explicitness, preferring vessels of a more “dark, smoky” sort (64).

On this note the author proceeds to examine the nature of Western and Japanese architecture through an aesthetic lens. Tanizaki describes the essential differences of the two building styles: the Western cathedrals jut toward the sky in an attempt to reach heaven and the houses have minimal and sharply angled “cap” roofs, neither of which cast much shadow onto the lower structure, while the Japanese buildings are constructed to have large “parasol”-like roofs which cast dark shadows upon walls, doors, arches and the interior (64). While the author contends that the decision to construct buildings in such a manner must have originally been inspired by necessity, the people lacking the glass, concrete and bricks of Europe and so constructed greater roofs to soften the assault of wind and rain, and that the Japanese people would have also preferred illuminated areas to dark on the basis of convenience, “the quality of beauty, however, must always grow from the realities of life, and [the Japanese] ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows toward beauty’s ends.” (64)

This historical circumstance would come to form the basis of Japanese aesthetic theory, at least at it applies to architecture, so that “the beauty of a Japanese room depends on a variation of shadows, heavy shadows against light shadows – it has nothing else. (64)” By constructing large verandas and installing paper-paneled doors which subtly diffuse light and isolate areas for emphasis the Japanese building are filled by a variety of shadows, coherently interspersed against deliberately chosen wall textures, hues and colors to create a mysterious and meditative climate. In this fashion it is implied that shadows take the place of furniture as visual filler, the author remarking that an ignorant Westerner might mistake a brightly lit Japanese structure to be amazingly minimal in decoration when in truth they fail to grasp the “mystery of shadows” (64-65). The author defends the presence of scroll and flower ornaments, claiming that they do not threaten the integrity of the overall aesthetic scheme because they “give depth to the shadows” (65), and in some way enhance the meditative qualities of the rooms.

Tanizaki concludes his praise of shadows with a call for the artist to preserve the traditional forms in his craft, “resigned to the fact that as long as [Japanese] skin is the color it is the loss we have suffered cannot be remedied. (65)” Of this latter claim, the author urges at least “something” to be saved by the artist, in the sense of national goods, of cultural qualities. The author fears the eradication of Japanese culture and tradition by the imprudent and hasty adoption of technologies and art forms incongruous with the Japanese tangibility.

The most glaring weaknesses of the author’s arguments is a lack of historical awareness and a tendency to use a number of serious logical fallacies including hasty generalizations, argument to the future, reduction, argument from adverse consequences, argument from age, confusing correlation/causation and error of fact. Nearly all of these fallacies are illustrated in the example of the “pen cascade” in which the author claims that if the Japanese had adopted their own special form of pen then the outcome of history would have been irrevocably changed. The argument fails in that it makes false or arbitrary assumptions about the future, the nature of historical change and of cause and effect. The premise of the article, that the Japanese “race” somehow shares a unified aesthetic taste, is not supported by any evidence within the text itself and is not supported by modern scientific evidence or history (one need look no further than the glaring lights of Tokyo square). Tanizaki never answers the underlying question at the fringes of the text: in what way or why are traditional Japanese ways superior to those of the West, and if the latter are so offensive to Japanese tangibility, then why hasn’t there been civil unrest or resistance to the adoption of said technologies? The author describes how they are different, but not why shadows should be preferred to light, or why artists should struggle against the grain to preserve such traditions, only that they should. Ultimately the article is an argument for one man’s taste extrapolated to represent the whole of the Japanese people, muddled to appear academic by a proficient and accidental overview of Japanese aesthetic tradition, containing within numerous fallacious assumptions about sociology, anthropology and history.

Source: Aesthethics. Susan Faegin. Oxford Readers. 1997.