In praise of shadows

by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki

Book, 2001



Call number


Call number



London : Vintage, 2001

Original publication date

1991 (Great Britain ∙ Jonathan Cape)
1977 (Leete's Island Books ∙ Inc)

Physical description

73 p.; 20 cm

Local notes

An essay on aesthetics by the Japanese novelist, this book explores architecture, jade, food, and even toilets, combining an acute sense of the use of space in buildings. The book also includes descriptions of laquerware under candlelight and women in the darkness of the house of pleasure.

User reviews

LibraryThing member technodiabla
I found this essay tremendously interesting. it is basically a renowned novelist's musings on the Japanese aesthetic. It touches on everything from architecture, to women, to toilets, and generally makes a stark contrast between Easy and West. It made many things fall into place for me regarding Japanese art/architecture, literature, film, and food. Although the style was rambling and not entirely cohesive, it was fine that way-- a nice combination of serious analysis and humor, and very accessible. I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in anything Japanese. It will change your perspective and understanding. 4.5 stars… (more)
LibraryThing member claudiadias
It can be easily said of this essay that it is a set of jottings about the aesthetic power of darkness. The author's writing is like a stream that runs through architecture, takes a turn into gastronomy, goes swiftly by human beauty and ponders on old age, with a turn of prose so compelling that makes you wish you owned minimalistic decorated japanese house and were reading by candle light.

The considerations on architecture and decoration can be taken as the oriental counterpart to Bachelard's Poetics of Space, taking the way the lived experience of the space is that which matters for his aesthetics and practical purposes.

Tanizaki is a man who can write beautifully about sensuous experiences like sight or taste never losing from sight his theme.

But what exactly is the theme? It seems to me to be a mourning of a traditional way of life, or should we say of lighting, that was quickly disappearing. The view that glorifies darkness which makes lacquer and gold stand out or that softens the whites as opposed to artificial light which makes everything glitter and brings the unbearable brightness can also be just a romantic vision of a lost Japan that never existed. But that really isn't an issue if you are aiming to enjoy this book for its sheer beauty and bits of witty humor.


"It has been said of japanese food that it is a cuisine to be looked at rather than eaten. I would go further and say that it is food to be meditated upon, a kind of silent music evoked by the combination of lacquerware and the light of a candle flickering in the dark."


This edition is lacking a glossay of unstranslated japanese terms used throughout.
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LibraryThing member AnthonyTFS
In the morning of August 6th 1945 the American B-29 aeroplane Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Reports always speak of the blinding light and fireball that formed with a surface temperature hotter than the sun. Estimates suggest that the Little Boy atomic bomb killed 80,000 people in a single day and another 140,000 of radiation poisoning and burns by the end of the year.

Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows was published in 1933, an essay length reflection on a Japanese architecture and sensibility destroyed by modern (Western) illumination. Though published 12 years before the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Tanizaki’s polemic is haunted with a prefiguring of the mass destruction that was to come.

As in most recent Western-style buildings, the ceilings are so low that one feels as if balls of fire were blazing directly above one’s head. ‘Hot’ is no word for the effect, and the closer to the ceiling the worse it is – your head and neck and spine feel as if they were being roasted.

No clairvoyance was involved in Tanizaki’s elegy. It is a privileged viewpoint. His essay is more ironic in tone, a baggy, rambling piece of writing that ranges from architecture to hygiene to jade to women to heating levels. And I use those terms as a reader that loves to read discursive, seemingly unstructured essays.

Tanizaki writes, ‘Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty’. To read his essay is to recall a lost world, liminal spaces no longer permitted in a time of of what Pascal Quignard refers to as ‘dazzling, puritanical, imperialist, American neon light.”

Quignard draws a central part of The Roving Shadows from Tanizaki’s essay, about which he writes: ‘I think these pages are among the finest ever written in any of the various societies that have arisen over time …’
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LibraryThing member dlweeks
I had a professor of Japanese history who argued that this book was actually meant to praise modernity and mock the old ways. I agree with him wholeheartedly after a few more reads.
LibraryThing member courtneygood
This was a required textbook for a humanities class I took in college. I was amazed at the beauty of Tanizaki's prose. Reading this book was a fulfilling experience for me.
LibraryThing member heterotopic
Wanting to see the Oriental perspective of space, I was eager to read this book. Jumping from one subject to another, Tanizaki is quite easy to follow, yet his over-all study of light, shadows and space aren't fleshed out in this book. It may have to do with the translation, though, and the afterword by the Australian professor doesn't do the book justice at all, too, and only reminds us of the nuances and, perhaps, impossibilities of translation.… (more)
LibraryThing member cmbest524
This was a fascinating and quick read. The author has an interesting viewpoint.
LibraryThing member hohlwelt
The book was written in the 1920s and is a very personal critique of modernity (electric light, modern livestyles) changing the traditional Japanese way of life. Interesting is Tanizki poetic sensitivity and his unique observations. The english translations is not very good, whereas the German version captures his style much better. As a result its quite popular with German designers.… (more)
LibraryThing member justsade
I found this in a gift store at Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater House, not knowing what it was about but enjoying the discussion about patina and oldness. Perhaps that is what hooked me into Japanese literature for sure.
LibraryThing member johnxlibris
Tanizaki discusses the role that darkness plays in the Japanese aesthetic and the jarring realization that light (influenced by Western architecture) forces upon objects and styles created in and meant to be viewed in low-light. Although he recognizes the utility that modern architecture and lighting brings to a room, he laments the loss of "visible darkness." Like the silences of John Cage, darkness is a presence, a tangible object of beauty rather than an absence. His meditation flows from discussions of architecture to women, from calligraphy to history, and from theatre to food.… (more)
LibraryThing member Meredy
Six-word review: The beauty in things seen dimly.

Extended review:

Earthy and sublime by turns, this brief study sheds light--and shadow--on the aesthetic principles of a culture that typically mystifies Westerners. Never on my own would I have thought of the still, spare lines of a dim and empty Japanese room as a showcase of shadows. Never would I have realized that the bold glare of black lacquerware was meant to be seen as a muted glow within a darkened space.

The Japanese novelist writes with an awareness of Western sensibilities that enables him to look at his own native tradition as if from the outside, zeroing in on what seems so alien to us, while at the same time honoring the sense of beauty and harmony so prized in that tradition.

Donald Richie's 1977 A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics clearly owes something to this 1933 work, which Richie references in his bibliography, and the two essays make excellent companion pieces. Together they have significantly enlarged my understanding.

This is a five-star work on its own scale, not possible for me to rate appropriately alongside books ten times its size and scope.
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LibraryThing member poetontheone
Tanizaki's essay on aesthetics is in the Western mind closer to a stream-of-consciousness narrative, exploring a multitude of topics with informed views, some of which might appear as idiosyncratic, such as the meditative value of the toilet or the tone of Japanese skin as an innate cultural defense mechanism. Before reading, I thought this text was going to be analysis of subjects such as ukiyo-e or Tanizaki's literary predecessors, though it is not quite that. It is a broad and almost haphazard series of meditations on everything from lacquerware to Kabuki theatre to how the style of a Japanese house lends itself to the shadows. However, Tanizaki does make a plea for literature and art to preserve the value of shadows and darkness as American aesthetics have, at this time, begun to supplant Japanese tradition. This an elegy more than an essay, and a fascinating one that is marked by Tanizaki's signature cynicism.… (more)
LibraryThing member missizicks
On the surface, an inconsequential set of ramblings about how Japan's pursuit of Western illumination has ruined certain aesthetic traditions. I had to remind myself that it was written in the 1930s, at a time when Western-style "progress" was eating away at centuries of tradition in Japan. Tanizaki posits some interesting theories about why Japanese architecture and notions of beauty developed the way they did, embracing shadows and focusing on single aspects of beauty to be highlighted by the existence of the surrounding shade. I'm one of the Westerners he's perplexed by - I love light, and would throw open curtains, doors and windows to let it in. But I also understand his love of muted light, natural light, preferring it to the harsh glare of electric light as he does. Japan has changed too much over the past 80 years for me to ever experience the aesthetics Tanuzaki appreciated and mourned, so I won't ever be able to fully understand this essay, but I enjoyed it all the same.… (more)
LibraryThing member rmckeown
One of my real joys about reading fiction involves a literary novel sprinkled with art, music, or literary allusions, which usually help round out a character. These novels tend to the inhabit the category of intellectually challenging. One writer who constantly challenges, amuses and intrigues me is Muraki Harikami. Of the three of his novels I have read, all have music and art as a background. His literary allusions – of Japanese and Western literature – always intrigue. As I near the end of his latest novel, I have already ordered three books, which play an important role in the story. Most often, these obscure books come as a complete surprise. In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki really surprised me.

Tanizaki was born July 24, 1886 and he died July 30 1965) was a Japanese author, one of the major writers of modern Japanese literature, and perhaps the most popular Japanese novelist after Natsume Sōseki, who happens to be my favorite Japanese author. Some of Tanizaki’s works present a rather shocking world of sexuality and destructive erotic obsessions, while others, are less sensational and subtly portray the dynamics of family life in the context of the rapid changes in 20th-century Japanese society. His stories frequently narrate a search for cultural identity in which constructions of "the West" and "Japanese tradition" are juxtaposed.

This essay on aesthetics was originally published in 1933, and the English translation was published in 1977 by Leete's Island Books. The translation contains a foreword by architect and educator Charles Moore and an afterword by one of the translators, Thomas J. Harper. Harper was Senior Lecturer in Japanese Literature at the Australian National University in Canberra. The other translator, Edward Seidensticker, was Professor of Japanese Literature at Columbia University. Much shorter than the author's novels, this book is a small meditative work tells the story of building his dream home, which he freely admits cost more than he could afford.

Tanizaki writes, “What incredible pains the fancier of traditional architecture must take when he sets out to build a house in pure Japanese style, striving somehow to make electric wires, gas pipes, and water lines harmonize with the austerity of Japanese rooms – even someone who has never built a house for himself must sense this when he visits a teahouse, a restaurant, or an inn. For the solitary eccentric, it is another matter. He can ignore the blessings od scientific civilization and retreat to some forsaken corner of the countryside, but a man who has a family and lives in the city cannot turn his back on the necessities of modern life – heating, electric lights, sanitary facilities – merely for the sake of doing things the Japanese way. The purist may wrack his brain over the placement of a single telephone, hiding it behind the staircase or in a corner of the hallway, wherever he thinks it will least offend the eye” (1).

As a person who lives in a home decorated in the style of post-modern clutter – that is, everything in the place where it fits – I would have the opposite trouble: finding more wall space, more book shelves, and fewer empty spaces.

I now have a window on the character in the novel, whose meticulous attention to order seemed odd to me. In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki is a pleasant read with a cup of tea one fine afternoon. 5 stars

--Chiron, 7/30/14
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LibraryThing member Neftzger
This was an interesting book about light and shadows, but it's more or less a commentary on the differences between cultures and a desire to maintain a cultural identity and values in the modern age. I use the term "modern" loosely, because while the book was written several decades ago (the publication date is listed as 1977, but the essay appears to have originated much earlier), the basic principles of aesthetics still apply today. We're still grappling with influences in architecture, technology, and design that have the potential to change the manner and pace through which we approach life.… (more)
LibraryThing member RajivC
This is a slim book, and yet it took me a week to finish.

It is sparse, and yet not a word is wasted. The concepts he brings forth - the use of light, shadow to illuminate - are brilliant.

He sets Japanese lacquer, No, Kabuki, housing, restaurants and toilets into a context that is almost unimaginable.

When I was in steelmaking, we used to say that you need a good slag to make a good steel. In art and photography, we need shadows. We forget how shadows can bring mystery, and can illuminate in ways that we have sometimes forgotten.

We have forgotten to slow down, in our haste to move. We have forgotten the use of shadows.

A brilliant, deep, relevant book.
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LibraryThing member Niecierpek
A delightful little book, more of an article or an essay really, which juxtaposes the traditional Japanese aesthetics of home design with the Western style. It meanders into many other avenues and anecdotes and becomes a small treatise on Japanese culture in the end. A fantastic companion to any trip to Japan, and especially to Kyoto- the place where Tanizaki spent many years of his life, and which proudly remains one of the most traditional of Japanese cities.… (more)
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