Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s Contemplative Model for Cultural Understanding

cultural understanding

“We tend to seek our satisfactions in whatever surroundings we happen to find ourselves, to content ourselves with things as they are and so darkness causes us no discontent.”

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Many people from Western cultures hold an association of shadow/darkness with evil. Subconsciously perhaps, but consistently. The Western concept of shadow originates in the Judeo-Christian tradition that out of darkness, God created light and life. This interpretation was further solidified as heaven and hell by early Christian dramatists and poets; Milton gave us “Long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to light” in “Paradise Lost.”

The Western cannon seized and repeated this symbolism well into the nineteenth century, at which point psychology emerged and reinforced the association anew: the Jungian shadow came to mean that which is repressed, unaware, and therefore harmful. Fast forward to Star Wars (and the dark side of the Force), which was more impressible on most of our young minds than the Bible, certainly more than Milton or Jung.

In Praise of Shadows, written in 1933 by Japanese novelist Jun’ichiro Tanizaki (1886–1965), will challenge your notions of shadow and darkness by finding in them a mystery, a depth, and ultimately, an understanding.

“Such is our way of thinking—we find beauty not in the thing itself, but from the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates.”

Tanizaki’s beautiful, patient, and informal prose is wistful, even elegiac. He compares Japanese shadows to Western preference for sheen and sparkle.

“We do not dislike everything that shines, but we do prefer a pensive luster to a shallow brilliance, a murky light that, whether in a stone or artifact, bespeaks a sheen of antiquity.”

Shallow brilliance, such as the opaque, pearly glow of a freshly cracked chestnut. Yet, it isn’t against Western ideologies that Tanizaki makes a case for shadow; rather, he celebrates it in small domestic items like candles, paper, and lacquer bowls. In fact, one of his most thoughtful sections could be titled In Praise of the Toilet. It is a reverential ode to the importance of this singular necessity, avoiding all bathos:

“Anyone with a taste for traditional architecture must agree that the Japanese toilet is perfect. … The parlor may have its charms, but the Japanese toilet truly is a place of spiritual repose. … I love to listen from such a toilet to the sound of softly falling rain. … Here, I suspect, is where haiku poets over the ages have come by a great many of their ideas.”

Tanizaki’s choice to study the banal, everyday objects with which we’re all familiar could render this book a light, lovely, casual praise of Japanese aesthetics, namely Sabi, or that which is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete). That interpretation, though correct, ignores historical context and the real gift of this short book.

In Praise of Shadows is an important and considerate attempt to bolster Japanese cultural identity in a time when modernization threatened to erode it.

Less than one hundred years prior to Shadows’ publication, Japan, by virtue of being isolated by water and more or less content with its own prosperity, had neither seen nor integrated Western inventions into its society. Pens, cotton cloth, structural glass, bricks, ceramics, even iron and (lamentably for Japan) guns and war ships were simply not part of their lives. When Japan opened to the West (or was opened), the country was changed, disjointedly, by the influx of what Tanizaki calls “machines.” This change affected Japanese culture to its core, change seen in the items Tanizaki so lovingly reviews: paper, writing, building materials, and, most of all, art.

“We prefer the soft voice, the understatement. Most important of all are the pauses. Yet the phonograph and radio render these moments of silence utterly lifeless. So we distort the art themselves to curry favor with the machines. Machines that are the invention of the Westerners and well-suited to Western arts. But precisely on this account they put our own arts at a great disadvantage.”

The detritus of modernization (and the globalization that follows) is often the remains of local culture, custom, and technique. When this happens, not only is culture—a way of life and peoples’ identity—lost, but there follows a sense of isolation, of despair, so deep it can form a vacuum into which steps tyranny. Collective embrace, engagement, and what Anna Deveare Smith called a connected, creative life, is critical, imperative.

Moreover, it is critical to celebrate, understand, put down monuments to that which exists because they might not always. In Praise of Shadows shows us how to do exactly that.

Although Tanizaki’s thoughts on Western culture are less developed (and at times, quite shallow), a reader of Shadows would seek in vain phrases of propaganda or vilification of Western culture just because it is non-Japanese. Instead, Tanizaki refers to “difference of taste” or “temperament,” as he seeks to understand the West’s aesthetic penchants as much as he understands his own. He do so in a soft, unassuming way, almost disappearing into that which he aims to see, a technique of sight that Annie Dillard perfected in her deep, penetrating observations of nature. He also recognizes the limitations of Japanese styles as the needs of the people change (an electric fan, for example, can be quite necessary). Though, he is unwilling to give up a love for small rooms, a space with which I am intimate.

In an incredibly difficult era of pressing nationalism and global tension, Tanizaki gently shows us how patient consideration and sharing begets reflection, open-mindedness, and, ultimately, cultural understanding.

“The quality that we call beauty, however, must always grow from the realities of life.”

One wonders if he’s speaking of patinas or of humanity at large. Both, I think.


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Today, sadly, it is not only modernization that threatens fragile cultural traditions, but also violence, war, and extremism. Cultural understanding needs to be more active than ever. In Mali, the birthplace of blues music, an organization called The Timbuktu Renaissance promotes cultural understanding as a basis for development and peace. Their efforts includes the widely popular Festival in the Desert (now Festival in Exile) and plans for a Center for Culture and Education. A great initiative that made me think of Tanizaki’s celebratory writing. Learn more here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mddA6iaYiBs



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