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In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki

March 28, 2018


I heard about this book on the Tim Ferriss Show. He and Gretchen Rubin were talking about it, and it sounded interesting. Tanizaki, a Japanese novelist, published this short book on the aesthetics of Japanese architecture and materials in 1933. In it, he compares the Japanese philosophy with that of the West. “We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates. And he laments the ongoing movement toward the American tendency to light everything up, to obsess over clean and shiny metal and to in general eschew darkness.

He discusses different materials and sensations—the taste and look of food, the sound of crumpled paper and the way it reflects or absorbs light. He describes how certain materials—gold, lacquered pottery—seem alive in the shadows in a way they never would in light. And he points out that, similar to the wabi-sabi philosophy, Japanese love the weathering of objects much more than Americans.

I suppose I shall sound terribly defensive if I say that Westerners attempt to expose every speck of grime and eradicate it, while we Orientals carefully preserve and even idealize it. Yet for better or worse we do love things that bear the marks of grime, soot, and weather, and we love the colors and the sheen that call to mind the past that made them.

It’s a poetic notion, the idea that beauty shines more brightly in shadow. And a good reminder that many of our assumptions about aesthetics are just cultural constructs.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 29, 2018 3:38 am

    Interestingly, I learned recently that the Japanese like their sushi restaurants to be very brightly lit so that they can be sure that what they are eating in absolutely fresh.

    • April 5, 2018 4:01 am

      That is interesting. This book was written in the 1930s, so he was writing about a very different Japan—one where electricity was just making its way into many traditional and rural buildings.


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