In Praise of Shadows…

‘In Praise of Shadows’ is a book first published in 1933 by the notable Japanese author Junichiro Tanizaki.

The beating heart of the text is a deeply poetic and graceful exploration of: what beauty means, and where it is to be found.

And over the course of what first appears to be a brief and somewhat meandering essay concerning Japanese aesthetics, Tanizaki manages to take almost everything that we think we know for certain about this subject and, with the deft and matchless elegance of a master magician…

Turn it inside out.


Tanizaki begins by telling us that shadows are to the Japanese aesthetic of beauty, as light is to the Western one.  And not only the shadows cast by light, but also the shadows bestowed by usage, old age, and time.

He illustrates this principle with examples scattered throughout the book that run the gamut; from architecture, to music; from precious stones, to the ambience of tea rooms; from the deepest mysteries of Japanese theater, to the lines of the female form dancing in the near-dark.

In one such example, when discussing Japanese lacquerware he writes:

“Darkness is an indispensable element of the beauty of lacquerware.  Nowadays they even make a white lacquer, but the lacquerware of the past was finished in black, brown, or red, colors built up of countless layers of darkness, the inevitable product  of the darkness in which life was lived.”

While of Japanese cuisine Tanizaki states quite simply:

“Our cookery depends upon shadows, and is inseparable from darkness.”

Yet for all his certainty, Tanizaki does not claim any kind of moral superiority or absolute truth to the view he is putting forward – he is not saying that his is a better way, he is merely offering an alternative.

Part of the reason for this is the organic source of the aesthetic.  Tanizaki explains that it is simply a perspective that evolved naturally, in direct response to the actual circumstances of the oriental life.  In one of the book’s most striking passages he explains:

“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 the shadows, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty’s ends.”

And later on, in the book’s defining explanation of the contrasting viewpoints:

“…we Orientals tend to seek our satisfactions in whatever surroundings we happen to find ourselves, to content ourselves with things as they are; and so darkness causes us no discontent…If light is scarce then light is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover it’s own particular beauty.  But the progressive Westerner is determined always to better his lot.  From candle to oil lamp, oil lamp to gaslight , gaslight to electric light – his quest for a brighter light never ceases, he spares no pains to eradicate even the minutest shadow.”

The greatest thing about this essay is that, while it offers a strikingly alternative way of perceiving beauty in the world it never seeks to exclude our own.

Instead, what Tanizaki is offering the Western reader is: a widening of scope, a deepening of perception – the ability to see the poetry inherent in the blank page.

“Such is our way of thinking – 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.”

Because ultimately, the message hidden between the lines of this book is:

As humans, our conception of beauty is, to some degree at least, a learned perceptual filter; so by working to widen our own view of what beauty is…

…we are able to find much more of it, in our own lives.

Thanks for reading.  I wish you well.


Did you like this?

If you enjoyed this you may also like: my post about why reading is a superpower, my essay concerning the greatest book of advice ever written, or  my love letter to the mountains of Scotland.


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74 Comments

  1. James, thank you so much for this. As a family that reveres much about other cultures and in particular Japanese culture this makes me want run out and find this book read it and share it with them. Often I find that reading cross culturally provides a rich diversity that allows us to not only view a different way of thinking but also sets me on a course of introspection. And isn’t that the beauty of our multicultural world! I love it.

    From the quotes you’ve chosen, I love how the author demonstrates the quintessential example of balance…never underestimating the importance of darkness…not only on its own but in contrast and in tandem with light. Yin existing with Yang always. Brilliant.

    Safe to say I will be looking for this book soon. Thank you! As always you manage to strike a chord.🍻

    Big hug!
    Sandra

    1. Hey Sandra, Thankyou so much for this! You made me smile.
      Yes, the book is a very beautiful read. It is incredible how reading someone’s words can make you look at the world in a different way.
      Oh! And if you havn’t seen this before, you may want to sign up for the blog email (different from mailing list) – form is on the front page. Hope this is useful, feel free to discard if not.
      Thanks again for writing to me, have a great evening,
      – J

  2. Oh yes! to become more perceptive, more open to all the forms of beauty around us. That is a goal to hold fast to; And to then live deliberately and in a meaningful way share our personal growth. That is the challenge. Thank you for sharing this work.

  3. The shadows of usage, age and time. That place, the “isness” created by those words you have gathered for us touches deeply. I’ve been in a fallow pause myself and it’s full of ‘shadow’ of the sort that lurks in any of my resting moments. When the high end of the wave peak is pulsing, seems like all the doubts, what if’s, darker places in my creative rhythm all disappear in the radiance of that blast of ‘good juju’. Yet I know that whenever this /my rhythm can flow freely into and out of action and resting, both offer me a richness that I need to be nourished. So, thank you. Your current posting was a spark as I wandered through and around, wondering what the heck has me muddle-ling along this time, do I really need another round of the fallow to bring forth the juicy? Of course, yes I/we do need that brilliant quiet pause to gather from the shadows.
    Thank you for the reminder.

  4. Whenever someone conveys a new way to see beauty, I am compelled to listen. Who’s to say that we have a vantage point and that beauty is what it always has been?

    1. Exactly 😉
      I am the same way – couldn’t agree more.
      Thanks so much for stopping by, and for taking the time to leave a comment.
      Have a good one,
      – J
      P.S. – Apologies for the lateness of my reply, I have been away for a while in a place with no internet.

    1. I take this as a great compliment 😉
      Thanks a lot for taking the time to read, and for leaving this comment – made me smile.
      Have a good one my friend,
      – J
      P.S. – Apologies for the lateness of my reply, I have been away for a while in a place with no internet.

  5. Thanks for bringing this book to our attention. Your review gave me a lightbulb moment, ironically! Darkness is at the root of much of my art, but not for sinister reasons. Have a great trip.

    1. This is really good to hear. I am very, very glad.
      Thanks for taking the time to comment – I appreciate it, and have a good one,
      – J
      P.S. – Apologies for the lateness of my reply, I have been away for a while in a place with no internet.

    1. That is an extraordinarily kind thing to say; Thankyou.
      Have a good one,
      – J
      P.S. – Apologies for the lateness of my reply, I have been away for a while in a place with no internet.

  6. Another beautiful post, James! The light has changed here on the West Coast and just the other day as I walked through the forest, I could suddenly see more shadows – undulating on the trunks of trees and moving over the gravel path, I love shadows! Tanizaki has got me thinking about those other shadows that are only present in deepest night (and alas, my library does not have a copy). Here’s hoping you enjoy every moment of your retreat, it sounds wonderful, Kim.

    1. It was very wonderful, Kim – Thankyou so much for the sentiment.
      Reading this book has changed the way that I look, not only at shadows, but at many other things that I deemed ‘normal’. It is a really great gift. I very much enjoyed writing this post, and am very glad that you liked it 😉
      I hope you are somewhere beautiful, and that you are happy right now.
      Big hug,
      – J
      P.S. – Apologies for the lateness of my reply.

      1. Hey, you were away somewhere beautiful – no worries! Me, I am here on a warm, sunny morning catching up on e-mails and blog notes. I do have an adventure coming up next month, I will be heading back East to Toronto for about 3 weeks – I will be spending some time in downtown Toronto , up North in wolf and bear country as well as in the charming town of Paris and by one of the Great Lakes in Ajax. I’m looking forward to coming back well-rested and full of inspiration! My summer has been full of sky, trees and shadows – I will try and track down this beautiful book – right now, I’m reading the Harry Potter books for the first time after watching the films many times over and wondering why I haven’t sooner – I thought they would add an atmospheric note to the change in the seasons! I must have missed writing to you, this is a long comment – take care and enjoy catching up with everyone!

        1. I really was.
          That sounds beautiful. Well rested and full of inspiration is the way to go – more power to you.
          The Harry Potter books are total comfort food for me. Let me know what you think of them.
          I always love getting your messages – feel free to write whenever you want.
          Apologies for the lateness of my reply – I am slowly catching up on all my correspondence 😉
          Hope your night is lovely, speak soon,
          – J

          1. Thank you so much for this, I’m reading the first Harry Potter book and I’ve just reached the part where he is off to Hogwarts on September 1st (today!, I love when that happens…). I’m anticipating the thrill of the whole series and most likely will have a volume in my backpack later this month. I’m running late with my reply as well, life has a way of keeping one busy! I hope this finds you well on this first day of September and happily immersed in your studio.

    1. Hey! I’m just back. You could totally have come 😉
      Isolation, especially from the internet, can be a beautiful thing. I very much enjoyed it 😉
      Thanks for taking the time to comment, really glad you liked it.
      Be well,
      – J

  7. Enjoy the pondering thoughts that it illicits. For me, recognizing the beauty from the light as well as the darkness. Some of my greatest inspiring thoughts evolve from coming into the light after darkness.
    A deep literary piece that evokes exploration of ones life and thoughts. Mysteriously attracting!

    1. Thankyou very much – I am very glad that it sparked some reflection. I take this as a great compliment 😉
      Have a good one, I hope this finds you well,
      – J
      P.S. – Apologies for the lateness of my reply, I have been away for a while in a place with no internet.

  8. Beautifully captured essence of the book, and definitely will place on my list! From Eastern way of writing, I recently read ,,East wind melts the ice,, by Lisa Dolby. Really pleasant to read as it transfers one into a nature perceived by Lisa, but may also seem boring for those who try to find some actions in a book :). All the best!
    By the way do you play somewhere at Fringe this year?

    1. Hey there 😉
      Thanks a lot – really glad you liked it. Let me know what you think if you manage to read it.
      I am not playing in the Fringe this year, I have been working on a recording project, and am just about to head north to stay in a cabin for most of the rest of the fringe.
      Nice to hear from you, Be well,
      – J

        1. It absolutely was 😉
          Thankyou very much, this made me smile.
          Hope you are well, have a good one,
          – J
          P.S. – Apologies for the lateness of my reply, I have been away for a while in a place with no internet.

  9. What an interesting book. ANother to add to my list of library loans. I hope your time in the cabin is soothing, restorative, productive – all you want it to be and more.

  10. Darkness and light are both of one nature different only in seeming,
    For each arose from the source of all
    The Principal of Polarity.
    Where does darkness leave off and light begin.
    Beautiful piece of writing, as ever btw.
    Nikki

  11. Beautifully written… it takes a lot for me to finish reading something until the end. I get bored very easily. You captured my attention and kept it. You have also intrigued me in reading “In Praise of Shadows”

      1. Like always, you’re welcome! I’m also like everyone else here…going to check this book out. Just hope, library I work at has it.

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