I came across this slim book (which is more an extended essay) while looking into texts on aesthetics. I was particularly interested in books about the differences in perception. Not specifically from a design point of view but more general ideas on cultural differences in the perception of everyday objects, the spaces we occupy and how we interact with them.
I call this book an essay – I could easily call it a mild rant. A personal plea against homogeneity. In Praise of Shadows (Amazon UK US) concerns itself with the difference in attitudes regarding light, and how western influence has diluted the Japanese love of shadows.
Originally published in 1933 in Japanese, the English translation was published in 1977 and as the title hints at Jun’ichirō Tanizaki makes the claim that traditional Japanese objects such as lacquerware and the Japanese home itself have been made specifically for low light, or to be specific, the light produced as the day closes – for example the central living space in a traditional Japanese dwelling would always have a sand or neutral finish, all the best to subtly highlight an evenings fading light.
Why should this propensity to seek beauty in darkness be so strong only in Orientals? The West too has known a time when there was no electricity, gas, or petroleum, yest so far as I know the West has never been disposed to delight in shadows. Japanese ghosts have traditionally no feet; Western ghosts have feet, but are transparent. As even this trifle suggests, pitch darkness has always occupied our fantasies, while in the West even ghosts are clear as glass. This is true too of our household implements: we prefer colours compounded of darkness, they prefer the colours of sunlight. And of silverware and copperware: we love them for the burnish and patina, which they consider unclean, insanitary, and polish to a glittering brilliance. They paint their ceilings and walls in pale colours to drive out as many of the shadows as they can. We fill our gardens with dense plantings, they spread out a flat expanse of grass.
Tanizaki argues that the West is quite opposite to the Japanese: the West emphasize brightness and uniformity. Tanizaki believes that western culture associate brightness with cleanliness and hygiene. In modern western architecture light is a premium. Buildings are designed to be as bright as possible, no matter what the time of day. Shadows, dim corners, nooks and crannies are reduced. By contrast Japanese architecture regards light in a much more subtle fashion; light is seen as liquid and as having different properties depending on the time of day and season. Tanizaki believes that in Japanese culture shadows and low light are intrinsic to how their homes have evolved. Japanese homes filter and diffuse light through paper walls, letting it absorb onto neutral surfaces, reflecting the change in light throughout the day. This concept of varying light is not alien to western architects but Tanizaki’s bugbear is of western hegemony and to address this he needs to generalize.
An example of a Japanese interior he uses early in the book, and one that made me smile, is of the water closet. Tanizaki bemoans the loss of the traditional Japanese toilet – the western equivalent is made up of shiny metal faucets, highly reflective tiles or surfaces invariably white. The Japanese closet according to Tanizaki is a place of spiritual reflection:
“Every time I am shown to an old, dimly lit, and, I would add, impeccably clean toilet in a Nara or Kyoto temple, I am impressed with the singular virtues of Japanese architecture. The parlor may have its charms, but the Japanese toilet truly is a place of spiritual repose. It always stands apart from the main building, at the end of a corridor, in a grove fragrant with leaves and moss. No words can describe that sensation as one sits in the dim light, basking in the faint glow reflected from the shoji, lost in meditation or gazing out at the garden. The novelist Natsume Soseki counted his morning trips to the toilet a great pleasure, ‘a physiological delight’ he called it. And surely there could be no better place to savor this pleasure than a Japanese toilet where, surrounded by tranquil walls and finely grained wood, one looks out upon blue skies and green leaves.”
In Praise of Shadows jumps around from subject to subject with no apparent rhyme or reason – for such a slim book there is a fair amount of repetition, but this only adds to the character of the text, and the slightly chaotic feel seems to reflect the personal and singular attitude that Tanizaki takes with his subject matter.
The passage regarding skin colour was also quite revealing, discussing as it does the Japanese tradition of teeth blackening combined with green lipstick. Of course teeth blackening is not just a Japanese tradition and why this was seen as attractive or desirable in Japanese culture is never explained by Tanizaki. His explanation of why Japanese culture has such respect of the days changing light seems to be one of not surrendering to progress and the respect of tradition – I came away from this book thinking that Tanizaki had created a swansong to a disappearing culture – whether that is what he intended I can only presume, but the Japan he wistfully talks about probably does not now exist apart from in a few rural areas. I have never visited Japan, but I wonder what would Tanizaki think about my perception of the modern Japan, a perception gleaned from people I have met, movies, books, magazines, the internet and the TV: modern, technologically advanced, clean, bright – and neon.
So why would this book interest the designer? Maybe this book can serve as a reminder of how differently we view and use spaces and ‘things’ depending on our cultural background; that design decisions will always be fundamentally subjective no matter what the logic or rational that underpins them. Maybe it is a reminder to keep one eye on the passage of time and that ‘good’ design can be timeless.
This review also appears on The Designer’s Review of Books.