Recommended Book: In Praise of Shadows by Jun’inchiro Tanizaki

“Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.” Jun’inchiro Tanizaki, 1933

Some books become a favorite just for a single line. It’s the essence of this 42 page essay, published as a book. In Praise of Shadows is an poetic defense of the Japanese aesthetic and the act of thinking differently from whatever dominates. He notes that the West has never delighted in shadows and thereby fails to see so much of the beautiful. That’s a bit of overstatement, but for now, we’ll go with it.

Tanizaki says that in the West, everything has to be lit up and cleaned up. All details are noted, even when elaborately covered. He praises the honesty of a bare bulb. He praises age and patina. He praises what we try to ignore.

Japanese music is one of reticence, but when recorded and amplified, loses its charm. Even in conversations, voices are meant to be softer, the pauses more important than the content.

Paper, invented by the Chinese, becomes just a tool for most of the West; an efficient thing, neglecting the potential of the texture, color, warmth. Instead of inviting us into the moment, it is reduced to the momentary.

Toilets. The famed novelist begins his essay with the aesthetic of the Japanese toilet. He notes that their ancestors made poetry of everything in their lives, and made that room the most poetic. The modern mind doesn’t know what to do with such sentiment. (If you get the chance, stay at The Inn at Langley on Whidbey Island, north of Seattle. It was my first encounter with localized Japanese architectural style. When I redesigned my own bathroom, it was one of the inspirations.)

One of my conclusion from this isn’t that the West is wrong, it is that it is too often incomplete and, in its accumulative nature, denatures the essence, leaving out what takes time to consider. In that, at least we are not alone. Ignorance and arrogance curses us all. Impatience only makes it worse.

Ries and Trout in the book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, also have a singular memorable line: cherchez le creneau, conveniently translated from the French into “Look for the hole.” Look where others are not looking, see what others are not seeing. I don’t think this is about geography, it’s about self-imposed limitations, which we all have. Sometimes we build them up into an entire corporation, sometimes into an entire culture, but more often than not, those things we are not seeing are just within ourselves.

[Note: the links to buy the books goes to bookshop.org. I do not get any remuneration from sales. I just think that we should support small, local businesses, especially small, local bookshops. We might pay a little more, but consider it a very local taxation to pay for nice, walkable neighborhoods.]

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