… the Japanese toilet truly is a place of spiritual repose.

In Praise of Shadows, by Junichirō Tanizaki

Nobody has given as much thought to the lavatory as the Japanese. Not even NASA.

A few years ago my wife and I went on holiday to Japan. We wanted to spend at least one night in a ryokan, a traditional inn, and in Kyoto we booked that one night at the Tawariya.

The Tawariya is an institution in Japan, though not a well known one. Heads of State stay there. Our one night cost a large proportion of our accommodation budget for the entire holiday. It was worth it. It was a place of beauty and charm that embodied the highest traditions of Japanese culture and cuisine.

In the main our room was one that a Japanese nobleman of centuries past might well recognise. Paper screens, tatami flooring, a small and carefully unkept garden just outside the main window, an alcove with a beautifully chosen calligraphy scroll, a cedarwood bath filled to the brim with searingly hot water and a rich smell of cedar rising off it.

The only real exception to classical design was the toilet. That was modern, and modern as only a Japanese toilet truly can be. It had a heated seat, it had a soundsytem built in with a choice of noises to drown out any offending ones you might make yourself, it had a built-in bidet and a whole host of other functions. It had a control panel. More precisely, it had a control panel in Japanese.

I stood in front of it. I have always been of an empirical mindset. I pushed a button. A jet of warm water rose majestically out of the bowl and neatly sprayed my crotch. I was, of course, fully dressed. We had to call a maid to help us turn it off.

In Praise of Shadows is an essay written in 1933 by the Japanese author Junichirō Tanizaki. Tanizaki is a major figure in Japanese literature. He’s most famous for The Makioka Sisters, which I haven’t read, but among his other novels was Diary of a Mad Old Man which I have and which I thought extraordinary. Here he talks about design, about beauty and about the importance of shadows to the Japanese aesthetic.

At first In Praise of Shadows seems like a book on architectural design. The Vintage edition I read, smoothly translated by Thomas J Harper and Edward G Seidensticker (wonderful name that) even comes with a foreword from Charles Moore of the School of Architecture at UCLA. It opens as follows:

What incredible pains the fancier of traditional architecture must take when he sets out to build a house in pure Japanese style, striving somehow to make electric wires, gas pipes and water lines harmonize with the austerity of Japanese rooms even someone who has never built a house for himself must sense this when he visits a teahouse, a restaurant, or an inn.

The purist may rack his brain over the placement of a single telephone, hiding it behind the staircase or in a corner of the hallway, wherever he thinks it will least offend the eye. He may bury the wires rather than hang them in the garden, hide the switches ina closet or cupboard, run the cords behind a folding screen. Yet for all his ingenuity, his efforts often impress us as nervous, fussy, excessively contrived. For so accustomed are we to electric lights that the sight of a naked bulb beneath an ordinary milk glass shade seems simpler and more natural than any gratuitous attempt to hide it.

Tanizaki goes on to describe his own efforts in reconciling tradition with modernity (a problem that is if anything harder to address today than then). He’s pleased with how he managed to get decent heating into his home by putting an electric heater in a sunken hearth, but his compromise with the traditional paper screened sliding doors (he puts glass behind the paper to keep the heat in) just looks unfortunate.

In Praise of Shadows doesn’t just come with a foreword. It comes too with a helpful afterword by Thomas J Harper. In it he discusses the difference between the traditional Japanese essay and the ones we in the West are used to. While ours tend to focus clearly on a particular point, in Japanese tradition the essay meanders and touches on one subject and then another. It’s thought more natural – a closer representation of how the mind really functions. There is still a point, but it’s approached by a more winding path than a European or North American reader might be used to.

Having given some thought to home design Tanizaki thinks about traditional toilets. In temples they were dimly lit places, full of shadows and placed at the end of paths among hushed gardens. They were places of reflection. Admittedly very cold places of reflection, but then “elegance is frigid”.

Such bathrooms are of course not practical in a modern home and anyway, the taste increasingly is for Western style convenience with gleaming tiles and bright white light. There is no place in them for shadows; shadows are synonymous with dirt. In the traditional bathroom the shadows concealed the grime, the Western one however must be spotless and more, must be seen to be spotless.

Tanizaki then sees Japanese design changing in the face of modernisation, and modernisation here means Westernisation. The question that raises is whether you can adopt Western designs and technologies without also adopting Western culture.

To take a trivial example near at hand: I wrote a magazine article recently comparing the writing brush with the fountain pen, and in the course of it I remarked that if the device had been invented by the ancient Chinese or Japanese it would surely have had a tufted end like our writing brush. The ink would not have been this bluish color but rather black, something like India ink, and it would have been made to sink down from the handle into the brush. And since we would have then found it inconvenient to write on Western paper, something near Japanese paper – even under mass production, if you will, – would have been most in demand. Foreign ink and pen would not be as popular as they are; the talk of discarding our system of writing for Roman letters would be less noisy; people would still feel an affection for the old system. But more than that: our thought and our literature might not be imitating the West as they are, but might have pushed forward into new regions. Quite on their own. An insignificant little piece of writing equipment, when one thinks of it, has had a vast, almost boundless, influence on our culture.

Although a short essay, around sixty pages, Tanizaki covers a lot of ground and I’m not going to attempt to mention all of it here. He talks about the importance of shadow in Japanese arts and design. He considers traditional gold inlaid laquerware and how gaudy it often seems in the electric light of the museums in which it is displayed. In a room lit only by candles the gold instead catches the little light present and so becomes something part hidden and glorious.

Even the plain black laquerware which the Japanese once used widely but now use only for bowls and trays becomes something more when seen by candle. He discovers this though in a traditional restaurant which now only uses candles on request – most customers prefer modern lighting.

… I realized then that only in dim half-lights the true beauty of Japanese laquerware revealed. The rooms at the [restaurant] are about nine feet square, the size of a comfortable little tearoom, and the alcove pillars and ceilings glow with faint smoky luster, dark even in the light of the lamp. But in the still dimmer light of the candle stand, as I gazed at the trays and bowls standing in the shadows cast by that flickering point of flame, I discovered in the gloss of the laquerware a depth and richness like that of a still, dark pond, a beauty I had not before seen. It had not been mere chance, I realized, that our ancestors, having discovered laquer, had conceived such a fondness for objects finished in it.

Tanizaki’s argument wanders, at times to odd places. He muses on women kept bone-thin in gloomy houses – their pale faces and hands emerging from shadows which seem almost to emanate from the sleeves of their thick kimonos. He makes them sound beautiful, but it is a beauty which is very much in the gaze of the beholder. His women may be elegant, but I would personally rather be a Harajuku girl in cosplay that I at least chose for myself. Once again, “elegance is frigid”.

More challenging is Tanizaki’s thesis that much of Japanese aesthetics is born from skin colour. That with white skin the West is drawn to a lack of ambiguity and to banishing shade so that everything is bright and absolute. The Japanese skin he sees as always tinged with shadow however pale it is, and this he sees as influencing character.

It’s nonsense (and the afterword has little sympathy for this part), but what’s not nonsense is his argument that wherever it comes from culture shapes design and is in turn then shaped by it. Modernisation and Westernisation are inextricably linked.

Tanizaki is nostalgic, but not stupid. He does not wish to return to a fast disappearing past. In his own home he tries to balance the modern and the traditional like everyone else and even he only sometimes gets it right. He means it when he talks about the toilet as a place of repose, but he knows too that there’s something slightly silly about the idea.

What Tanizaki is arguing here is that the Japanese aesthetic is unique because it comes from Japan – from its conditions, history, culture. That does not deny the uniqueness of other aesthetics. The problem for Japan though is that it has been passed by, superceded, and to compete must adapt and the fact of that adaptation necessarily means the destruction of its own aesthetic. Yes, fragments remain, but for him the remaining examples of flower arranging, calligraphy, dance, are dead arts preserved but no longer vital. Japanese culture is the culture of the museum.

Tanizaki died in 1965. I don’t of course know what he’d have made of the exuberance that is contemporary Japanese culture; the extraordinary merging that has taken place of Japanese and Western arts which has led as much to us borrowing from them as them from us. He would though probably have noted that however much Japan may have a new and again unique aesthetic it is not the aeshetic he writes about here. That is carefully preserved in museums and history books.

The Tawariya, beautiful and perfect, is a work of delicately preserved cultural driftwood left behind after the tide of history has long since receded. Tanizaki would have liked the place, may well have stayed there once, but I do not think it would have changed his view. The toilet would have amused him though.

Tanizaki ends by turning to the art closest to him. He thinks little can be saved of what was, but not nothing. In Regis Debray’s Venices Debray seems to talk about the history of Venice but in fact talks of his fears for Europe’s future. Debray isn’t ready for the museum. Tanizaki is more pessimistic, but he sees literature as perhaps one final place where some fragment can be preserved that is authentically Japanese.

For Tanizaki modernisation brings light, cleanliness, efficiency, above all comfort. What it destroys though is the shadows. In literature there is another choice. As he says: “I would push back into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration.” Tanizaki’s vision of literature is not a comfortable one and he did not write comfortable books. He wrote great ones though. Comfort isn’t everything. Elegance is frigid.

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31 Comments

Filed under Japanese Literature, Tanizaki, Junichirō

31 responses to “… the Japanese toilet truly is a place of spiritual repose.

  1. Well, I do have this somewhere (I’m ‘saving it for best’ to steal someone else’s excellent excuse) and Some Prefer Nettles is one of my favourite novels ever. I may now have to push this up the list, then.

  2. It’s very short, unlike my post on it. Well worth a read Lee. It’s subtle and nuanced and in parts challenging. What more could you want?

    Plus, it’s an absolutely lovely and well judged cover…

  3. I’m not going to rush out to buy this, but I certainly enjoyed reading the post. Definitely takes me into unfamiliar (reading) territory.

  4. Kevin,

    To be honest there’s other Japanese writing I’d put ahead of this. The Akira Yoshimura novels I’ve covered for example. Tanizaki as a fiction writer is worth having on your radar though. He’s very highly regarded and from what I’ve read rightly so. You might not want to read this (if I hadn’t been to Japan and seen some of what he’s talking about I doubt I would have) but that shouldn’t put you off his very fine literary fiction.

  5. I saw a programme once about some sort of expo on the lastest toilets. One country’s design engineers (Germany?) showed how an almost invisible amount of spray escaped from the toilet when it was flushed. The Japanese observers had the strongest reaction as far as I could see.

  6. Some years back, a friend and his then-girlfriend lived in Japan for a couple years. They were so impressed with their toilet that they brought a Japanese toilet with them when they had to go back to the states! They were so proud of it.

    Seems like an interesting book that may provides some perspective on the Japanese outlook.

  7. The Japanese really have pushed toilet design further than anyone else. It’s curious. There’s a real cultural aversion to what goes on there which leads to ideas like having the toilet play music so nobody can hear what’s happening and so on. The high-tech Japanese toilets really do have control panels.

    Valerie, we were tempted to bring one back too. You can buy them in the UK now funnily enough. We have a big expat Japanese population and they’re marketed to them. I still fear though what some of the controls might do…

    The interesting point is also when this was written. This is pre second world war. After that Westernisation and Modernisation really kicked in with much greater force. What Tanizaki was talking about accellerated hugely.

    Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel An Artist of the Floating World is excellent on this. It’s about an old painter in post-war Japan who finds his art and himself increasingly irrelevant and unwelcome in the new Japan. He had supported the defeated regime, which makes him now very out of step with popular sentiment, and he sees American cultural imports replacing what he sees as the more valid local culture.

    It’s a tremendous novel. I have mixed views on Ishiguro but here he’s on top of his game and the contrast between the artist’s view of himself and the new reality he finds himself in is painful. Not least because as readers it’s hard to escape the fact that ultimately he supported a militaristic regime and in part used his art as propaganda for it.

  8. You have an uncanny ability to write very funny and very captivating titles. Who knew Japanese toilets were so interesting?

  9. Thanks. Most of them though, this included, are quotes from the book. I try to find lines that seem to sum up the book.

    Sometimes one leaps out (this was one of those times). Sometimes tons leap out (Pynchon, for V I had near half a dozen titles all of which fitted well) and sometimes the book just doesn’t lend itself to that sort of summary.

  10. shigekuni

    In my review of two novels by Yasushi Inoue I gave it this brilliant treatise a brief discussion http://shigekuni.wordpress.com/2009/01/22/shadows-yasushi-inoue%E2%80%99s-%E2%80%9Cder-tod-des-teemeisters%E2%80%9D-and-%E2%80%9Cdas-jagdgewehr%E2%80%9D/ but your review is excellent! It’s a really great book, too.

  11. A very nice piece, particularly as you capture Tanizaki’s work in far fewer words than I did (and I still struggled with it).

    I should have learnt Tanizaki’s lesson: simplicity…

  12. What an extremely interesting article – who would have thought that the design of a toilet could be so anchored in a different philosophical outlook on design – and indeed on life itself. I like the idea of an essay that rambles about – discursive writing has always appealed to me – W G Sebald is of course a master of this.

  13. It’s a marvellous little book. You do remind me though that I really should read Sebald. He’s an increasingly curious gap in my reading.

  14. Catching up Max. I’ve printed this one out to read properly later … as I’m off to Japan (for our third visit) late next week.

    On one of our return trips from Japan, as we stood in the airport check-in queue, we saw in front of us a couple of people carrying a big box to check in. It contained a Toto toilet. These tourists were so taken with the toilets that they bought one to take home. Funnily enough there was a plumber in the queue behind us and he told us that plumbing Japanese toilets was not an easy thing to do. He knew because he’d done some in Australia. We’d love to know how our Toto bearing queue neighbours fared when they got home.

    I love your description of the garden as “carefully unkept”.

    Oh, and I did enjoy The Makioka sisters immensely. I have Some prefer nettles on my TBR but haven’t got to it yet.

  15. It was a tricky one to write about actually WG. With hindsight less on my part would probably have been more. Ah well.

    Toto toilets. Marvellous. I can understand why they might be difficult to instal. We considered it ourselves, but it’s massively expensive.

    The Japanese gardening tradition is very good at these seemingly casual yet actually tremendously precise arrangements. It was lovely.

    I need to read both those. I think they’re regarded as his best works.

  16. LaurencePritchard

    Max, it’s a really interesting essay and enjoyed your review.

    Agree the all the fiction i’ve read so far is outstanding: Some Prefer Nettles, Diary of a Madman and Seven Japanese Tales.

    Will definitely try Makioka Sisters.

  17. Thanks Laurence.

    I suspect Some Prefer Nettles should be my next Tanizaki. I keep hearing how good it is.

  18. Really interesting post. As others have said it’s not normally the sort of thing I’d read, as I think the whole design angle of it would intimidate me somewhat. But you make me want to read it. I’ve long been fascinated by Japan’s history and culture and would love to visit someday. I’m certainly keen to discover more Japanese literature. The first post I’ve read from your blog, and I’ll be coming back!

  19. It’s actually very readable mrtsblog. The challenges are more when he gets into the rather dodgy territory of aesthetics being determined by skin colour, but that’s a small part of the book. The design elements aren’t a problem at all (I’m not from a design background).

    I’ve covered some Japanese fiction here and read some I’ve not covered. There’s some truly excellent stuff. It deserves to be far better known than it is.

  20. They’re opening Japanese public toilets in Lyon in July. I thought about your post when I saw the ads. I suppose there are some in London too.

  21. In Japan now and in the ensuite next to me is a Toto Washlet — one of the more superior varieties with the noise, the warming seat, the various wash options and lots of warnings re not splashing water due to risk of electric shock, re risk of “low temperature burn” particularly on young and old skin, and telling us not to use the toilet as a footstool nor as a backrest. Almost made me scared to use it!

    BUT I read your post again in the train between Kyoto and Matsue and thoroughly enjoyed it … but “elegance is frigid” doesn’t always work for me. Today I heard “elegance is simplicity”. That’s my definition of elegance but if you get it wrong by an iota it can quickly become frigid – there’s a fine line there and I’m being nit-picky just to make it!

    BTW I was fascinated by Tanizaki on “gold” and dim rooms. I have always wondered a little about the gaudiness aspect but this makes a lot of sense.

  22. Careful with the buttons bookaround, learn from my error. If you are tempted to experiment, stand to one side.

    WG, They are extraordinary aren’t they? The elegance is frigid thing I think he means to cut more than one way. In part he’s referring to a stark simplicity, but in part too to the fact that attractive as it may be elegance isn’t necessarily comfortable or easy to live within.

    The gold thing does explain a lot doesn’t it? I’d always found some of that stuff a bit gaudy, but the darkened room and shifting light aspect hadn’t occurred to me because I’d never seen them in that context. Which is of course part of his point. Art preserved in a museum has value, but it’s no longer alive (I’d except pictorial art from that, but not laquerware or indeed writing).

  23. Or, always be sitting when you experiment! My husband first time around made your mistake as I recollect.

    I am currently dipping into a couple of books about Japan, one is Alex Kerr on Lost Japan about the loss of culture here. I’m still chewing on some of his ideas – now 20 years old but I suspect in most things he’d say things have got worse but culture must change … And thanks for explaining the “elegance” issue a bit more. That makes sense …. But will ponder more on that too in it’s various guises.

  24. Oh, I guess the thing I wanted to say is that there’s something about definition when it comes to elegance methinks. One could argue perhaps that if it’s not also comfortable it’s not elegant but as one who never claims elegance I’d probably lose that argument for not knowing what I’m talking about!

  25. Pingback: On the literary (and linguistic) road in Japan: 2, Kanazawa and Kyoto « Whispering Gums

  26. Did Alex Kerr write Dogs and Demons? That’s an exceptional book on Japan.

  27. Yes, he did … but I haven’t read it … sounds like it is well worth it and would give me more things to ponder!

  28. Damian Lee

    Just a brief+ specific comment. I dont see why several people here object to national aesthetics being partly influenced by skin+hair colour in Japan. This is a self-evident fact for anyone who travels thru Europe, Africa, Asia. Only in the USA perhaps, where there has been such emphasis on assimilation or political correctness, would such a statement seem odd. The black lacquered hair of geishas, the flattening effect of the kimono on the body, the use of black, gold, contrasting against other saturated colors. In Germany/Europe where i live, the traditional colours of white (mens shirts+ womens dirndls), pale blue, olive green, felt/dove grey really flatter the blond hair+ blue eyes of northern europeans. The mad rich palette of traditional african fabrics can only flatter very dark skin. The ideas which Tanizaki proposes are only the result of a wise+sophisticated eye, and a great understanding of the deeper origins of traditions.

  29. it’s how he does it. I agree that colour palettes often reflect what goes well with local skin and hair colours – for obvious reasons. People with very dark skins can often look very good in bold colours that can make someone paler look washed out. Similarly certain pastel and earth tones can look great against pale skin but muted against dark skin. I’m quite ruddy hued so certain blues and greens work well on me, but yellows and oranges look unfortunate (which is a bit of a shame as I like both).

    None of that is controversial. It’s fashion 101 really. Tanizaki though goes much further into a sort of racial predetermination whereby the Japanese cultural fondness for use of shadow is a product of a dirty tone (his words) under the skin so that the Japanese skin never seems truly clean. I don’t think I’m being politically correct in saying that I think that’s pseudoscientific nonsense. Nor do I think that frankly bad line of thinking invalidates the rest of the book which is very good.

    Similarly the idea that Westerners like clear bright spaces because they have clear skin is utter nonsense – simply because it’s not true that we have clear skin. As noted above I’m a sort of ruddy pinkish. My wife is more a porcelain white. I’ve a cousin who with any sun at all becomes a sort of golden-toasted colour, and so on. The range of Western skin palettes is actually very broad, and the kind of very pale clear skin he refers to is far from what the majority have (which is why it’s commentworthy when people do).

    White is a descriptor, but not descriptive. White people don’t actually have white skin. His hypothesis falls therefore at that point. The idea that Japanese skin carries an underlying shadow which can never be scrubbed out is equally erroneous. The Japanese are a homogenous people, but even their the palette varies a great deal.

    Tanizaki is a brilliant author and this book is an excellent work on aestheticism which does provide a lot to think about (and in a very condensed way). That doesn’t mean it’s beyond criticism though and on this point I disagree with him.

    Thanks though for commenting and asking me to draw out the point. I’m always happy to do so. I should possibly correct one thing – I’m not American, I’m European and while I admit I’ve not travelled extensively in Africa (very little of it) I have travelled widely in Europe and Asia (including Japan). That gives me no authority to contradict him (plenty of people have travelled) but it does mean I’ve seen what he’s talking about and still disagree.

  30. Pingback: 2011: That was the year that was | Pechorin’s Journal

  31. I do not even know how I ended up here, but
    I thought this post was great. I don’t know who you are but certainly you’re going to a famous blogger if you are
    not already 😉 Cheers!

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