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.