• Jason Khoh

In Praise of Shadows



I caught up with one of my best friends in Tokyo the other day - the first time since coming back to Japan.


As he enjoys the occasional sip of sake, I thought a bottle of Onbashira sake from the nearby Miwatari brewery in Okaya, Nagano Prefecture would put a smile on his face.


I wasn’t expecting anything from him in return, so it was a lovely surprise to be gifted a book by novelist Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965) - In Praise of Shadows - the English version translated by Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker.


Now, I’m definitely not a bookworm like my scholarly friend, so admittedly, I hadn’t heard of Tanizaki san before, but he’s considered one of Japan’s great writers. In 1949 he received an Imperial Award for Cultural Merit. He was also the first Japanese citizen to be appointed an honorary Member of the American Academy and the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1964.


The book itself is less than sixty pages long, so it can be easily read in a day or two, but the profoundness of his writing really left an impression on me.


In short, Tanizaki san explores the intimate relationship Japan has with darkness and shadows, which is quite at odds with the West’s love of light and 'bling bling' culture (?) of the 21st century.


The way he describes the beauty of shadows cast in traditional Japanese homes is oh-so exquisite. Tanizaki san writes, ‘the beauty of a Japanese room depends on a variation of shadows heavy shadows against light shadows – it has nothing else. Westerners are amazed at the simplicity of Japanese rooms, perceiving in them no more than ashen walls bereft of ornament. Their reaction is understandable, but it betrays a failure to comprehend the mystery of shadows.’


‘We do our walls in neutral colors so that the sad, fragile, dying rays {filtered through paper-paneled doors} can sink into absolute repose.’


‘We delight in the mere sight of the delicate glow of fading rays clinging to the surface of a dusky wall, there to live out what little life remains to them.’



And refreshingly, his thoughts on Japanese architecture, Japanese complexion, and Japanese Noh and Kabuki theatre, to name a few, aren’t delivered in a pompous Nihonjinron fashion. That is to say, he’s not trying to portray the Japanese as the superior race, rather he considers his countrymen’s unique tastes and aesthetics a reflection of their history and surrounding environment.


As someone who has always enjoyed subtle indirect lighting at night, Tanizaki san's musings were an absolute delight to read. Thanks to his unique insights, I will never look at shadows in the same light again (pun intended).




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