In Praise of Shadows

Jun'ichirō Tanizaki

Book cover

This was a very enjoyable book, although it is really more of a long essay. I originally read about it on the Brain Pickings blog, and decided to read it since I am going on a family trip to Japan next year (my first visit).

The author, a Japanese novelist, published the essay in 1933. It is a sort of idiosyncratic elegy to various aesthetic elements of traditional Japanese culture, which Tanizaki generally groups together under the heading of “shadows” (contrasted with the Western appreciation for brightness and light). He writes with a charmingly self-aware curmudgeonliness, and the book contained a number of LOL-lines for me–particularly the early section on traditional outhouses. Tanizaki is under no illusions that Japan would have been better off if it had never opened itself to Western influences, but still reserves the right to lament those valuable and unique things that were lost. He doesn’t have a program of revitalization in mind, and even writes amusingly about the tradeoffs he had to make in designing and decorating his own home. He also has an appealing inclination to try to understand national culture and aesthetics in terms of naturalistic causes and influences, rather than appealing to some ineffable national spirit (though I would say his efforts in this direction seem hit-and-miss; reasonable enough, given that he is a novelist by trade).

I’ll certainly have this book in mind when visiting Japan. For anyone who is interested, the essay appears to be “free for the Googling” online.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars