In Praise of Shadows, by Junichiro Tanizaki.
Leete’s Island Books, Nonfiction.
Revered novelist Junichiro Tanizaki’s essay, “In Praise of Shadows,” is a must-read for anyone interested in the darker side of the Land of the Rising Sun. Everything about this slim tome — from its meandering, contemplative style to its thorough, varied exploration of Japanese aesthetics — informs on the Japanese character and culture like no other single work. Called racist and racy, it is neither and both. Much has been made of Tanizaki’s celebrated musings on toilets and the tea ceremony, candlelight and the blackened teeth of geisha, but there is much more hidden in the depths of this essay. He ends, for example, with a pithy discourse on Japanese literary aesthetics: “In the mansion called literature, I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark, I would push back into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration.” His description resonates with any lover of Japanese literature, and explains the connection between Japanese writers diverse in style and separated by generations. But mostly Tanizaki leaves literature behind. At turns rustic (in his celebration of the toilet) now drifting into lofty contemplations (likening a traditional room to an “inkwash painting”), the essay teaches the Japanese aesthetic of the nonspecific, absence or “shadow,” as anyone familiar with the intricacies of avoidance in Japanese speech will recognize. Wherever you are in the world, read “In Praise of Shadows” and venture deep within the recesses of Japan.
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In his afterword to this essay, Thomas J. Harper recounts an anecdote illustrating the paradoxical nature of Tanizaki’s views. An eager architect announced proudly to the author that he had read In Praise of Shadows and knew exactly what Tanizaki sought, but Tanizaki replied that he could never actually live in such a house as he had described. That self-mocking answer gets to the crux of the conflict posed in the essay and in Tanizaki’s career and life: the attractions of the new from the West and the power of native tradition.
Tanizaki’s early work was much influenced by such writers as Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire, and Edgar Allan Poe. In his personal life, too, Tanizaki favored Western customs. In 1921, he moved to the section of Yokohama where foreigners lived; he reveled in flashy clothes, keeping his shoes on all day and dancing at night. On September 1, 1923, a major earthquake—its epicenter in Yokohama— caused many people to move south to the Kansai region, where the much older capitals of Nara and Kyoto are located. Tanizaki first moved to Kobe, a port city with a large contingent of Westerners. He did not return to Tokyo, however, settling permanently in the Kansai region instead. Tanizaki said that the move was partly motivated by his fear of earthquakes, but, more important, he found in the Kansai region the traditional Japanese customs that had disappeared from Tokyo.
The move also signified Tanizaki’s turning away from a Western life-style and his renewed appreciation of Japanese life. The Japan evoked in In Praise of Shadows is the Japan of the Kansai region, especially of Osaka, where the middle-class citizenry was much slower to adopt Western customs than the migrants who had flocked to Tokyo. It is a work which marks a shift in Tanizaki’s life and a gradual change in his writings; he had at first welcomed the earthquake as the impetus for a new Tokyo, imagining an entirely European-American city with high-rise apartments, automobiles, subways, and young people wearing Western clothes and crowding late at night into theaters and streets bright with artificial light.
Instead, Tanizaki found great pleasure in the Japan that still existed in the Kansai area. He describes some of his delight in In Praise of Shadows. There are lovingly detailed descriptions of the joys of ordinary...
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