In Praise of Shadows: A Prose Elegy


An English Adaptation by Edward Seidensticker

JUNICHIRO TANIZAKI is praised by some Japanese as the greatest writer among them, damned by others as a sentimental reactionary. He is in any case extremely famous, and one can hope that some day he will be better known abroad than he is now.

In his youth he was fascinated with the West. Since his middle years, however, he has turned strongly back to the Japanese past, and more than one of his novels can be read as a lament for a tradition that is being killed by influences from the West. “In Praise of Shadows” (In-ei Raison) is a long essay published in 1934, in which Tanizaki sums up what he feels Japan has lost in becoming modern. In brief, it is his view that the traditional Japanese arts thrived in the shade, and that the glaring light of the Twentieth Century is destroying them. Anyone who has winced at the violent cerises and magentas of the modern Kabuki can see what he means when he suggests at the end of the essay that we try turning down the lights.

The work begins with a survey of the difficulties awaiting him who would build an uncompromisingly Japanese house. He of course wants modern conveniences, Tanizaki grants, but he finds that the rococo gas heater and the snarling electric fan quite wreck the harmony of his scheme, and worse yet he finds the most poetic of all spots in the Japanese house, the shady, moss-grown toilet, invaded by tiles and shiny new appliances. But it is hard to reject all these challenges to good taste.

“There are those,” Tanizaki says, “who hold that as long as a house keeps out the cold and as long as food keeps off starvation, it matters little what they look like. And indeed for even the sternest ascetic the fact remains that a snowy day is cold, and there is no denying the impulse to accept the services of a heater if it happens to be there in front of one, no matter how cruelly its inelegance may shatter the spell of the day. But it is on occasions like this that I always think how different everything would be if we in the Orient had developed our own science. Suppose for instance that we had developed our own physics and chemistry: would not the techniques and industries based on them have taken a different form, would not our myriads of gadgets, our medicines, the products of our industrial arts — would they not have suited our national temper better than they do? . . .

“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 seep down from the handle into the brush. And since we would then have 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, they might have pushed forward into new regions quite on their own. An insignificant little piece of writing equipment, when one thinks of it, may have had a vast, almost boundless influence on our culture.

“But I know as well as anyone that I am dreaming, and that having come this far we cannot turn back. I know that I am only grumbling to myself and demanding the impossible. 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 a superior civilization and have had to surrender to it, and we have had to leave a road we have followed 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 farther now materially than 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 in 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 mechanisms, but rather the tools of our own culture, suited to us . . .

“Western paper is to us no more than something to be used, but the texture of Chinese paper and Japanese paper gives us a certain feeling of warmth, of calm and repose. Even the same while could as well be one color for Western paper and another for our own. Western paper turns away the light, while ours seems to take it in, to envelop it gently, like the soft surface of a first snowfall. It makes no sound when it is crumpled or folded, it is quiet and pliant to the touch as the leaf of a tree.

“In general, we find it hard to be really at home with things that shine and glitter. The Westerner uses silver and steel and nickel tableware, and polishes it to a fine brilliance, but we object to the practice. While we do sometimes use silver for teakettles, decanters, or sake cups, we prefer not to polish it. On the contrary, we begin to enjoy it only when the luster has worn off, when it has begun to take on a dark, smoky patina. Almost every householder has had to scold an insensitive maid who has polished away the tarnish so patiently achieved . . .

“The Chinese love jade. That strange lump of stone with its faintly muddy light, like the crystallized air of the centuries, melting dimly, dully back, deeper and deeper — are not we Orientals the only ones who know its charm? We cannot say ourselves what it is that we find in this stone. It quite lacks the brightness of a ruby or an emerald or the glitter of a diamond. But this much we can say: when we see that shadowy surface, we think how Chinese it is, we seem to find in its cloudiness the accumulated sediment of the long Chinese past, we think how appropriate it is that the Chinese should admire that surface and that shadow. It is the same with crystals. Crystals have recently been imported in large quantities from Chile, but Chilean crystals are too bright, too clear. We have long had crystals of our own, their clearness always moderated, made graver, by a certain cloudiness. . . . We do not dislike everything that shines, but we prefer a pensive shadow to a thin transparence.”

It is this “pensive shadow" that the modern world seems bent on destroying. Half the terror of going to a dentist, Tanizaki says, is in being confronted with all the new equipment which the bright young doctor has brought back from America. The glitter only upsets the Japanese. He needs his shadows, and the things he has created are best set off by shadows. There is lacquer ware, for instance. In a bright light it looks gaudy. In the candlelight of an old Kyoto restaurant Tanizaki first knew its beauty: “Our lacquer ware . . . should be left in the dark, a part here and a part there picked up by a faint light. Its floridity recedes into the darkness, and one has an inexpressible feeling of depth and mystery, of but partly suggested overtones. The sheen of the lacquer, set out in the night, reflects the wavering candlelight, announcing the drafts that find their way from time to time into even this quiet room . . . and if the lacquer is taken away much of the spell disappears from the dream world built by that strange light of candle and torch, that wavering light beating the pulse of the night. Indeed the thin, impalpable, faltering light, picked up as though little rivers were running through the room, as though little pools had collected here and there, lacquers a pattern on the surface of the night


IT IS Tanizaki’s theory that the deep, heavy roof of the Japanese house threw its shadow over traditional Japanese culture. In Western architecture, particularly Gothic, walls and buttresses are pushed up and up to support as high a pinnacle as possible. In Japan, on the other hand, the roof is laid out on pillars and the rest of the house is then built under it. Where the one style pushes up to let in the light, the other clamps on a lid to keep it out. “We first spread a parasol to throw a shadow on the earth, and in the shadow we put together a house. There are of course roofs on Western houses too, but they are less to keep off the sun than to keep off the wind and the dew. . . If the roof of a Japanese house is a parasol, the roof of a Western house is a cap with as small a visor as possible. . . . There are no doubt all sorts of reasons — climate, building materials — for the deep Japanese eaves. The fact that we did not use glass, concrete, and bricks, for instance, made a low roof necessary to keep off the driving wind and rain. A light room would no doubt have been more convenient for us, too, than a dark room. The quality that we call beauty, however, 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 toward beauty’s ends. And so it has come to be that the beauty of a Japanese room depends on a variation of shadows, heavy shadows against light shadows — it has nothing else. . . The light from the garden steals in but dimly through paperpaneled doors, and it is precisely this indirect light, that makes for us the charm of a room. We do our walls in neutral colors so that the sad, fragile, dying rays can sink into absolute repose.”

It is with clothes as with lacquer: a priest’s robe which would be gaudy in the sunlight is poetic and restrained in the darkness of a temple, and the Noh robe which would be a blaze of gold and silver if it but knew the joys of the floodlight (apparently it did not when Tanizaki was writing) has a withdrawn richness under the heavy canopy of the Noh stage that sets off dramatically the dark ivory of the Japanese skin. The Kabuki on the other hand has become bright and modern, and has lost its power to convince. There are no longer actors on the Kabuki stage who are really feminine, it is complained. That is not the fault of the actors, Tanizaki answers, but of the glare in which they have to act. “If actors of old had had to appear on the bright stage of today, they would without doubt have stood out as actors do today with a certain masculine harshness . . . This senseless and extravagant use of lights, I have thought, has destroyed the beauty of the Kabuki.”


THE discussion of the drama leads to a discussion of physical beauty, and here again Tanizaki thinks that the Japanese are ill-advised to let in too much light. The ancient Japanese could not have known that a whiter race existed, and could not therefore have felt apologetic for their own darkness. And yet they made whiteness their ideal, and they used shadows to filter away the slight cloudiness in even the whitest Japanese complexion. Women became pale phantoms in a perpetual twilight.

“One thinks of the practice of blackening the teeth. Might it not have been an attempt to push everything except the face itself back into the dark, an attempt that led even to drinking darkness into the mouth? Today this ideal of beauty has quite disappeared from everyday life, and one must go to an ancient Kyoto tea-house to find traces of it. but when I think back to my own youth in the old downtown section of Tokyo, and I see my mother at work on her sewing in the dim light from the garden, I think I can imagine a little what the old Japanese woman was like. In those days — it was around 1890 — the Tokyo townsman still lived in a dusky house, and my mother, my aunts, my relatives, most women their age, still blackened their teeth. I do not remember what they wore ordinarily, but when they went out it was often in a gray kimono with a small, modest pattern. My mother was remarkably slight, under five feet I should say, and I do not think that she was unusual for her time. I can put the matter strongly: women in those days had almost no flesh. I remember my mother’s face and hands, I can dimly remember her feet, but I can remember nothing about her body. . . . For a woman who lived in the dark it was enough if she had a faint, white face — a full body was unnecessary. I suppose it is hard for those who praise the fleshly beauty we see under today’s bright lights to imagine the ghostly beauty of these older women. And there may be some who argue that if beauty has to hide its weak points in the dark it is not beauty at all. But we Orientals, as I have suggested before . . . find beauty not only in the thing itself but in the pattern of shadows, the light and the darkness, which that thing produces. A phosphorescent jewel gives off its glow and color in the dark and loses its beauty in the light of day. . .

“Our ancestors cut off the brightness on the land from above and created a world of shadows, and far in the depths of it they placed woman, making her the whitest of beings . . . They instinctively used darkness to turn a yellow complexion white. I have spoken above of the practice of blackening the teeth, but was not the shaving of the eyebrows also a device to make the white face stand out? What fascinates me most of all, however, is that green, iridescent lipstick, so rarely used today even by Kyoto geisha. One can guess nothing of its power unless one imagines it in the low, unsteady light of a candle. The woman of old was made to hide the red of her mouth under green-black lipstick, to put shimmering ornaments in her hair; and so the last trace of color was taken from her rich skin. I know of nothing whiter than the face of a young girl in the wavering shadow of a lantern, her teeth now and then as she smiles shining a lacquered black through lips green like elfin fires. It is whiter than the whitest white woman I can imagine. The whiteness of the white woman is clear, tangible, familiar, it is not this otherworldly whiteness. Perhaps the latter does not even exist. Perhaps it is only a mischievous trick of light and shadow, a thing of a moment only. But even so it is enough. We can ask for nothing more.

“And while I am talking of this whiteness I want to talk also of the color of the darkness that enfolds it. I think of an unforgettable vision of darkness I once had when I took a friend from Tokyo to the old Sumiya tea-house in Kyoto. It was in a wide room, the ‘Pine Gate’ I think, since destroyed by fire, and the darkness, broken only by a few candles, was of a richness quite different from the darkness of a small room. As we came in the door an elderly waitress with shaven eyebrows and blackened teeth was kneeling by a candle behind which stood a large screen. On the far side of the screen, at the edge of the little circle of light, the darkness seemed to fall from the ceiling, lofty, intense, of a color, the fragile light of the candle unable to pierce its thickness, turned back as from a black wall. I wonder if my readers know the color of that ‘darkness seen by candlelight.’ It was different in quality from darkness on the road at night. It was a repletion, a fullness of tiny particles like fine ashes, each particle luminous as a rainbow. I blinked in spite of myself, as though to keep it out of my eyes. Smaller rooms are the fashion now, and even if one were to use candles in them one would not get the color of that darkness; but in the old palace and the old house of pleasure the ceilings were high, the skirting corridors were wide, the rooms themselves were usually tens of feet long and wide, and the darkness must always have pressed in like a fog. The elegant aristocrat of old was immersed in this suspension of darkly glowing particles, soaked in it. I have written about this somewhere else, but the man of today, long used to the electric light, has forgotten that such a darkness existed. It must have been simple for specters to appear in a ‘visible darkness,’ where always something seemed to be flickering and shimmering, a darkness that on occasion held greater terrors than darkness out of doors. This was the darkness in which ghosts and monsters were active, and indeed was not the woman who lived in it, behind thick curtains, behind layer after layer of screens and doors — was she not of a kind with them? The darkness wrapped her round tenfold, twentyfold, it filled the collar, the sleeves of her kimono, the folds of her skirt, wherever a hollow invited it. Put further yet: might it not have been the reverse, might not the darkness have emerged from her mouth and those black teeth, from the black of her hair, like the thread from the great earth spider?”

But now Tokyo and Osaka are said to be better lighted than any European city. The Japanese, always glad to imitate the United States, waste electricity as happily as the Americans do, and the shadows have mostly been driven away. Even the moon, so long a delight to the Japanese, is being lost in the glare.

“This year I had great trouble making up my mind where to go for the autumn moon viewing. Finally, after much perplexed head-scratching, I decided on the Ishiynma Temple, The day before the full moon, however, I read in the paper that there would be loud-speakers in the woods at Ishiyama to regale the moon-viewing guests with phonograph records of the ‘Moonlight Sonata.’ I canceled my plans immediately. Loud-speakers were bad enough, but if it could be assumed that they would set the tone, then there would surely be floodlights, too, strung all over the mountain. I remember another ruined moon viewing, the year we took a boat on the night of the harvest full moon and sailed out over the lake of the Suma Temple. We put together a party, we had our refreshments in lacquered boxes, we set bravely out. But the margin of the lake was decorated brilliantly with electric lights in five colors. There was indeed a moon if one strained one’s eyes for it.”

Tanizaki pauses here to praise Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo for its quiet indirect lighting and to damn the Miyako Hotel, so generous with its lights that it becomes a furnace on a summer night. “Light is used not for reading or writing or sewing but for dispelling the shadows in the farthest corners, and this simply runs against the basic idea of the Japanese room. Something is salvaged when the homeowner turns off the lights to save money, but at inns and restaurants there is inevitably too much light in the halls, on the stairs, in the doorway, the gate, the garden. The rooms and the water and stones outside become flat and shallow. This has its advantages for keeping warm in the winter, I suppose, but in the summer, no matter to what isolated mountain resort one flees to escape the heat, one has a disappointment waiting if it is an inn or a hotel he is going to. I have found, myself, that the best way to keep cool is to stay at home, open the doors, and stretch out in the dark under a mosquito net. . .

“I am aware of and most grateful for the benefits of the age. No matter what complaints we may have, Japan has chosen to follow the West, and there is nothing for her to do but move bravely ahead and leave us old ones behind. But we must be resigned to the fact that as long as our skin is the color it is, the loss we have suffered cannot be remedied. I have written all this because I have thought there might still be somewhere, possibly in literature or the arts, something which could be saved. I would call back at least for literature this world of shadows we are losing. 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. I do not ask that this be done everywhere, but perhaps we may be allowed at least one mansion where we can turn off the electric lights and see how it is without them.”