Essay Mondays: Tanizaki


(Each week I read four essays from Philip Lopate's anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, and write about the one I find the most compelling.)

In a stroke of good timing, I had just been reading about the work of Junichiro Tanizaki over at The Reading Life, and thinking that I should really check out this early- to mid-twentieth-century Japanese novelist, when along came Phillip Lopate to give me a taste of Tanizaki's style in the form of his long essay "In Praise of Shadows." And if I was anxious to dive into Tanizaki's novels before, I'm doubly looking forward to it now.

"In Praise of Shadows" is immediately notable for its unusual structure: it consists of sixteen sections, separated by white space, each one of which is linked to that before and after it by some passing idea or comment, and all of which relate to the broad topic of Japanese versus Western aesthetics. He begins, for example, by discussing the difficulties of incorporating modern, Western-style amenities into a traditional Japanese house. This section features discussions of heaters and electric fans, and ends with a brief mention of choosing a toilet. The following section is a paean to the beauty and organic qualities of the traditional Japanese toilet, which is so ardent that it almost convinces me to seek one out in my next home. As you can tell, his writing style is clean yet evocative, never dry despite my native lack of interest in comparative architecture:

As I have said there are certain prerequisites: a degree of dimness, absolute cleanliness, and quiet so complete one can hear the hum of a mosquito. I love to listen from such a toilet to the sound of softly falling rain, especially if it is a toilet of the Kantō region, with its long, narrow windows at floor level; there one can listen with such a sense of intimacy to the raindrops falling from the eaves and the trees, seeping into the earth as they wash over the base of a stone lantern and freshen the moss about the stepping stones.

Tanizaki writes that, although he ends up installing a modern flush toilet in his house, he wishes that they could be designed with the Japanese aesthetic in mind. From here, he segues into another section, in which he speculates about how technology developed by Westerners would have been different if Japan had remained isolated long enough to develop analogous technology on its own. Specifically, he discusses a more Japanese approach to the fountain pen, and how it might have effected modern Japanese writing and literature. From here he transitions into the next section, which has to do with Japanese paper. And so on. The sections leapfrog into one another, each one giving the reader a glimpse into the next, like an unexpected view through a small garden window. Lopate suggests in the introduction that Tanizaki borrowed this structure from the traditional renga or poem-chains, in which each haiku or tanka is a response to the one before it. In any case, it's very effective, both for its own sake and as a formal reflection of Tanizaki's main point: that in Japanese aesthetics, objects are valued for their interactions with the shadows of space and time. Just as the relation of objects creates an atmosphere deeper than the sum of its parts, the relationship among the different sections of Tanizaki's essay creates a larger whole.

...we find beauty not in the thing itself but in the the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates.
         A phosphorescent jewel gives off its glow and color in the dark and loses its beauty in the light of day. Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.

Whereas Westerners attempt to subject everything to the brightest possible light, and prize the qualities of newness and shininess, Tanizaki argues, the traditional Asian (he uses the word "Oriental") philosophy finds most beauty in shadowed rooms, in objects allowed to mellow and change over time, developing a rich patina. Objects that look merely gaudy or unremarkable when new, or when subjected to full electric light, take on a mesmerizing beauty in a surrounding of shadowed half-light:

Lacquerware decorated in gold is not something to be seen in a brilliant light, to be taken at a single glance; it should be left in the dark, a part here and a part there picked up by a faint light. Its florid patterns recede into the darkness, conjuring up in their stead an inexpressible aura of depth and mystery, of overtones but partly suggested. 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 the quiet room, luring one into a state of reverie.

This idea, that many objects we would now call "artifacts" are almost completely different, even irrelevant, if not imagined within their original context, is not a new one to me, but Tanizaki makes me feel it in a more visceral way than I have before. I strongly agree with his claim that many things ornamented with gold, for example—priests' surplices, lacquerware, gilt statues—look fairly tacky in broad daylight, and he reminds me to think back, as I look at them, to an era when that gold would just catch faint rays of light, and add a luminescence to the prevailing shadow. I love the precision of his language, and his ability to evoke the sensual reality of tiny details of life. His appreciation of subtlety and stillness is lovely, and his sense of humor disarming. Some of his racial and gender assertions are slightly alarming, but overall I can't wait to explore Tanizaki's work more thoroughly. I'm thinking of starting, as Mel U suggests, with The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi, although with so much intriguing work to choose from, it's difficult to pick.

Next week: Walter Benjamin vs. Jorge Luis Borges!


Badge photo courtesy of Liz West:


  • What a fascinating essay with its comparisons. I never considered toilet design as having aesthetic importance. I've got the Lopate book at home, I'm going to have to look this one up sometime.

  • I have the Lopate book but I don't remember this essay at all! I've been eager to read Tanizaki recently and this sounds like such a nice perspective. Thanks for these thoughts

  • This reminds me of an essay I wrote in college on the Japanese concept of self. I got the idea from Ghost in the Shell, my favorite manga. Basically, I looked at the similar ideas - the perception of an object as part of a whole. I then tried to attach it to Masamune Shirow's ideas about evolution but I think I went in way over my head with the complex, abstract topics. The professor liked it, but also said it relied too much on cultural stereotypes. Still, I'm thinking about posting it, maybe with a disclaimer.

  • Thanks very much for mentioning my post-The more I read of Tanizaki's work, the more impressed I am-I will read "In Praise of Shadows" soon and link back to your very perceptive post-thanks again

  • Stefanie: Haha, I read the part about toilets out loud to David, who has VERY particular ideas about bathroom architecture, and he was touched! :-) It's a good one - highly recommended.

    Rebecca: You should revisit! And I look forward to your thoughts when/if you get around to Tanizaki's novels...I'm still pondering which one to try first. Kind of want to just jump right into The Makioka Sisters, but also feel I should save it for later.

  • EL Fay: Yeah, the cultural stereotypes question is a prickly one vis-a-vis this essay and these issues in general. Tanizaki doesn't question ideas like "there is an Oriental aesthetic" and even "white skin is inherently preferable." But then, the essay was written in 1933 in a country that was about to ally itself with Hitler's considering the context, I didn't think the racism/sexism was that bad. It definitely struck me as "old-fashioned," though, the idea that one can generalize about huge groups like that. Still, interesting thoughts.

    Mel: But of course! Thanks for turning me on to this great writer. I look forward to your thoughts on "In Praise of Shadows," especially considering what a wealth of Tanizaki context you will bring to the essay.

  • I'm always interested by discussions of aesthetics especially as they are dictated by national identity. And this certainly sounds like it has a lot of promise but... I had to back up in one section of your post at the suggestion of isolationism as a protector of culture. Understand the affection with which we hold "what if?" notions, the viewed corrupting influence of western culture but does this border on ethnocentrism? I could be jumping to the wrong conclusion here.

  • Frances: It absolutely borders on ethnocentrism (Tanizaki's, not mine, I hope). But you have to consider that the essay was written in 1933 in Japan. Considering that backdrop I was actually surprised that Tanizaki wasn't more hostile to Western influences - there was a LOT of unexamined nationalism and national defensiveness in the air, after all. I'd say Tanizaki's ethnocentrism is about at the level of, say, Virginia Woolf or Richard Steele assuming that the standard of any heroism is British heroism, or the standard of any literature is British literature. So you know - it's there, it's of the time, but I don't think it oversteps the bounds of enjoyability if you keep those things in mind.

  • I vote for Borges! I'd love to hear what you think of his writings :)

    It might interest you to know that one of the reasons why I enjoy reading your thoughts about these essays is because you usually write them with a kind of relaxed atmosphere even though the thoughts themselves appear to be the product of serious contemplation---and this is something I closely associate to Japanese writing.

    It's just like two friends talking to each other at the park. But it just so happens that one of them is a thoughtful scholar :)

  • Emily, I believe this is the second Japanese writer with a toilet fixation that you have chosen to spotlight here in less than a year. Since I'm still on vacation out of the country in a land where the bidet is king, I will use my suddenly heightened multicultural awareness skills to draw absolutely no conclusions whatsoever about either Japanese writers or you from this odd interest in international plumbing aesthetics!

  • Mark David: That is a serious compliment! Thanks very much - that's a quality I admire in Japanese literature as well. A seeming ease, layered over a depth of thought. It's something I love about Woolf, too. (And I am going with Borges next week! He beats Benjamin, hands-down.)

    Richard: Haha, it's not me, I swear! There does seem to be something of a cultural fixation, given that Wikipedia has an entire lengthy article devoted to "Toilets in Japan." (There is no corresponding "Toilets in the United States.") It's so funny that you made that connection, though. Given the choice, I would DEFINITELY read "In Praise of Shadows" over The Ark Sakura. Hope Argentina has been wonderful! :-)

  • I remember loving this essay back when I read it years ago. I've been wanting to try his fiction ever since, but I haven't gotten there yet. One reason may be that I have The Makioka Sisters on my shelves, and it's fairly lengthy. I should probably get a shorter book of his and start there.

  • Great! Can't wait for Borges :)

  • Tanizaki wrote another lesser-known essay just on the Japanese toilet, "Kawaya no iroiro" (Aspects of the Japanese toilet). A French translation was done in 2001, I think. I translated it myself nearly 30 years ago for a local literary magazine called The Raddle Moon, but I don't have any copies left or any note of which issue it appeared in.

    It was pretty hilarious, I recall.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography