As I mentioned in my 2023 plans post, one event I always try to take part in is the Japanese Literature Challenge run by Dolce Bellezza; and I’ve been planning ahead for this January! I have a number of Japanese classics lurking in the stacks which I haven’t read and you can see from the pile below that I had plenty to choose from.

This year, I was determined to get to some titles which had been waiting for years, and the first book I picked up was a slim volume by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki – “In Praise of Shadows” (translated by Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker).

The quality that we call beauty…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 little book, which I’ve had for decades, is an essay by the great Japanese author who’s probably best known for his fictions; these range from portrayals of destructive sexual and erotic obsessions to works which explore the rapid changes in 20th century Japanese society and the conflicts/contrasts between Western and Japanese cultures and ways of life. “In Praise…”, which was originally published in 1933, takes as look at Japanese aesthetics and the effect upon them by the introduction of Western-influenced modernisation; and it makes fascinating reading.

If my complaints are taken for what they are, however, there can be no harm in considering how unlucky we have been, what losses we have suffered, in comparison with the Westerner. 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 havefollowed for thousands of years. The missteps and inconveniences this has caused have, I think, been many. If we had been left alone we might not be much further now in a material way that we were five hundred 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 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. They would have been no borrowed gadgets, they would have been the tools of our own culture, suited to us.

Tanizaki’s argument is in favour of the old ways; contrasting Japanese traditions of shade and shadow against bright electric lights, shining white sanitary fittings, and even clean and shining cutlery, he regrets the loss of the subtlety of traditional Japanese life. He discusses the glowing patina on a piece of aged wood; the use of space in living quarters; even the pleasure of beholding a woman in the shadows as opposed to bright lighting. Instead of being blinded by the glare of the modern world, Tanizaki makes a case for the nuance of candlelight and mourns the loss of the aesthetic he prefers to the bright and sanitised nature of Western culture.

We do not dislike everything that shines, but we do prefer a pensive luster to a shallow brilliance, a murky light that, whether in a stone or an artifact, bespeaks a sheen of antiquity.

“In Praise…” is a fascinating read, as much for its beautiful language as for Tanizaki’s lament for his lost world (I’ve quoted at length in this post, but could have pulled out so much more!) Interestingly, he starts his essay with a comparison of toilets, rejecting the hygenic modern bathrooms for old-style lavatories found in Japanese monsteries with wooden fittings – something bound to shock or surprise nowadays. Nevertheless, in our modern world full of bright lights, shining fiercely into every area of life, there’s much to be said for dimming the lanterns and relaxing into a more shadowed world. This was a lovely book, and a wonderful way to start off Japanese Literature Month. I think this is the first Tanizaki I’ve read – and I may have to see if I have any more of his books available on the TBR… 😊📚