Books for designers: In Praise of Shadows by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki

Written by Owen Priestley on 21st January 2020

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Books for designers: In Praise of Shadows by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki

As a designer, I have an interest in perception - not specifically from a visual design point of view, but more the cultural differences in the perception of everyday objects, the spaces we occupy and how we interact with them.

So I am always interested in books that explore these themes. I came across In Praise Of Shadows while I was looking into texts on aesthetics. It's author, Jun'ichirō Tanizaki (1886 - 1965), was a well known Japanese writer and his novels often feature juxtapositions of east and western culture. This rambling essay (I could easily call it a mild rant) written in 1933 is a personal plea against homogeneity and a commentary of the influence of Western culture on the East and a passionate defence of the Japanese aesthetic.

As the title hints at, Jun'ichirō Tanizaki concerns himself with the difference in attitudes regarding light, and how western influence has diluted the Japanese love of shadows and low light. Tanizaki makes the claim that traditional Japanese objects such as lacquerware and the home itself are traditionally made for low light, or, to use the home as an example, the light produced as the day closes. The central living space of a Japanese home would traditionally  have a Matt 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, yet 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, unsanitary, 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 are quite the opposite of the East: 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 walls, reflecting the change in light throughout the day. This harmonious relationship with the changing light of the day and season brings the rhythms of nature into the home, anchoring the home to the land. 

An example 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. 

So why would this book interest the designer? Possibly for no reasons … but maybe this book can serve as a reminder of the differences in our perceptions depending on our cultural background and cultural baggage. It’s a text that might make you look at the workl; around you in a different light. It’s also a reminder that design decisions and our ability to critique will always be fundamentally subjective no matter how objective we believe our logic or rationale to be.

Originally published in Japan in 1933. The English translation was first published in 1977 and is still widely available.

This article was posted in Design, Musings by Owen Priestley

  • Owen Priestley

    Owen Priestley

    Owen is an award winning designer, strategist and user experience practitioner with over 20 years experience working within the digital design and communication industry. @owen20three

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