Study Guide: Tanizaki Jun’ichirō “In Praise of Shadows” (In’ei raisan; 1933)
*To purchase Edward G. Seidensticker and Thomas J. Harper’s translation, click here.
*To read the original, click here.
Tanizaki Junichirō 谷崎潤一郎 (1886-1965): Novelist, essayist. A prolific writer whose popularity extended through the reigns of three emperors, Tanizaki is perhaps best known for Sasameyuki (1943-48, tr. The Makioka Sisters, 1957). A detailed account of an Osaka family that embraces a tradition-bound way of life, it was the first major Japanese work of the post-World War II period. Tanizaki’s other novels include a modern version of The Tale of Genji; Some Prefer Nettles (1928, tr. 1955); Quicksand (1928-30, tr. 1994); The Key (1956, tr. 1961), and Diary of a Mad Old Man (1961, tr. 1965). A witness to the Tokyo earthquake of 1923, which destroyed half the city, he moved to the Kansai region (the greater Kyoto-Osaka area), where a more traditional lifestyle still prevailed. The new environment influenced his outlook, and many of his works carry an implied condemnation of excessive interest in Western things. Tanizaki often writes of women, taking as his themes obsessive love, the destructive forces of sexuality, and the dual nature of woman as goddess and demon. His other work includes the selected short stories of Seven Japanese Tales (tr. 1963) and The Gourmet Club (tr. 2001) and the novellas The Reed Cutter (1932, tr. 1994) and Captain Shigemoto’s Mother (1949-50, tr. 1994). (Source: The Columbia Encyclopedia).
Warning: Do not read this essay as a tract on Japanese aesthetics. Tanizaki is a novelist. Novelists perform. They make up stuff. They entertain. They play roles. Here he is playing with the public persona of an old grumpy man who dislikes everything about modern civilization and complains a lot, yet does nothing about it, and constantly fails to live up to own standards. The key to the essay is in the last paragraph.
1. The essay consists of sixteen sections. Discuss this structure. How does it move from one subject to the next? What is the overarching theme?
2. Who is the narrator? Why does he refer to himself as an “old man” (Tanizaki himself was only in his mid-40s when he wrote this)? Is the narrator the author? How does he resemble the old man in Tanizaki’s novel Tade kuu mushi (Some Prefer Nettles; 1929)?
3. Describe the tone of the essay. Where is the narrator joking/being ironic? Where is he serious? How can you tell?
4. Among the topics Tanizaki discusses are: traditional architecture, electric lights, fans, candles, screen doors (shōji), electric stoves, gas stoves, fireplaces (danro), bathrooms, tile roofs, wood, radios, films, oil paintings, traditional lacquer (urushi), ceramics, roofs in traditional Japanese architecture, uses/value of gold, Japanese food, yōkan confectionary, walls, study bays, alcoves (toko no ma), hanging scrolls (kakejiku), flower arrangement (ikebana), traditional Japanese rooms, the importance of silence/quietude/pauses, temple architecture, priest’s robes, Noh costumes, the skin of Noh performers, Kabuki, puppet theater (bunraku), teeth blackening (o-haguro), etc. Discuss each of these and their relation to the essay’s main theme (the importance of shadows). How do they each illustrate “the magic of shadows”?
5. Discuss the narrator’s remarks on the toilets in the East. Is he being ironic? What is he parodying? Explain.
6. What value does the narrator place on dirt, grime, stains, impurity, uncleanliness, oldness, rusticity, patina, etc.? What does he mean by “elegance is filthy”? Can these remarks be read as a challenge to the discourses of “Japanese purity” that were prevalent at the time? Is his insistence on the importance/beauty of “grime” “dirt” “impurity” a challenge to cultural nationalists of day?
7. Make a list of all binaries that appear in the work (e.g. East/West, country/city, Kyoto/Tokyo, night/day, light/shadows, vulgar/elegant, etc.). Are these binaries problematized/collapsed at any point? Explain.
8. Discuss the narrator’s description of the Japanese “national character” (kokuminsei)? What examples does he give to illustrate this character? What is a “national character”? Is there such a thing? What is Japan’s/your “national character”?
9. Explain the narrator’s comments about the possibility of an alternative modernity, of a science/technology/arts “more suited to our national character.” What would this alternative look like? Is an alternative modernity possible?
10. According to the narrator, how did Japan’s process of modernization differ from that of the West?
11. Can this essay be read as a critique of the Meiji-era ethos of “civilization and enlightenment” (bunmei kaika)? What other anti-bunmei kaika works have we read? Explain.
12. How does this essay relate to the “return to Japan” (Nihon kaiki) cultural movement of the 1930s? Does it challenge/subvert this dominant discourse in any way? Explain.
13. How is China (and to a lesser extent India) described in this essay? How does the narrator view the traditional paper, jade, food, and crystals of China? Is the China he describes the China of 1933, or the China of the ancient past?
14. Explain the phrase “elegance is frigid.” How do these remarks about elegance compare with other “treatises on elegance” (fūryūron) written around the same time?
15. Explain the narrator’s view of the relationship between beauty and everyday life/material conditions/fūdo. Discuss the significance of the line: “The quality that we call beauty, however, must always grow from the realities of life” (18).
16. Discuss the narrator’s description of Japanese women/female beauty. What are the defining features of the “typical woman of old” (29)? How does he recall his mother?
17. The narrator makes numerous generalizations. For example: “Such is our way of thinking—we find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates” (30). Are such generalizations verifiable, consistent with evidence? Is it true that the West has placed less of a value on shadows (30-31)? Doesn’t Western art abound in shadows? (Think: Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, gothic writers, fin de siècle writers, Romantic/Symbolist poets, chiaroscuro in Renaissance painting; extreme chiaroscuro of Caravaggio, El Greco, Rembrandt; Shakespeare, etc.) Is there any validity to the narrator’s claim that East=shadows, West=light? That “We Orientals find beauty not only in the thing itself but in the pattern of the shadows, the light and darkness which that thing provides.” (31)
18. Discuss the narrator’s concept of races/skin colors and their relation to “cloudiness” and “grime” (31-32).What contemporary racial discourses are evoked in essay? Explain.
19. Discuss the connection between the narrator’s description of women as white disembodied ethereal faces wrapped in darkness, and the female characters in Tanizaki’s fiction. Is it true that women exhale/exude darkness from their orifices/bodies?
The darkness wrapped her round tenfold, twentyfold, it filled the collar, the sleeves of her kimono, the folds of her skirt, wherever a hollow invited. Further yet: might it not have been the reverse, might not the darkness have emerged from her mouth and those black teeth, from the black of her hair, like the thread from the great earth spider?
20. The narrator decries Japan as the world’s second greatest waster—second only to America—of energy/electricity (35-38). How might we read these remarks today in the wake of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake/tsunami/nuclear crisis? What might Tanizaki’s answer to the current energy crisis be? What does the narrator recommend for keeping cool in the summer?
21. In the final section, the narrator compares himself to the old griping women of England who complain about the modern age. How is he similar?
22. On page 9, the narrator states that behind shadows is a mere void, i.e. that shadows are the reality/more real that the object that casts them. In what other works of this period have we seen this idea? (Think: Tanizaki’s “Mr. Bluemound,” Kajii Motojirō’s “Ascension of K,” Hagiwara’s “Town of Cats,” etc.) Explain.
23. The last paragraph is the key to the entire essay. After reading this paragraph, what do you think the essay’s actual/implicit subject is? What are “shadows” a metaphor for?
I am aware of and most grateful for the benefits of the age. No matter what complaints we may have, Japan has chosen to follow the West, and there is nothing for her to do but move bravely ahead and leave us old ones behind. But we must be resigned to the fact that as long as our skin is the color it is the loss we have suffered cannot be remedied. I have written all this because I have thought that there might still be somewhere, possibly in literature or the arts, where something could be saved. I would call back at least for literature this world of shadows we are losing. In the mansion called literature I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark, I would push back into the shadows the things that came forward to clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration. I do not ask that this be done everywhere, but perhaps we may be allowed at least one mansion where we can turn off the electric lights and see what it is like without them.” (42).
1. Margherita Long. This Perversion Called Love: Reading Tanizaki, Feminist Theory, and Freud.
 Originally published in December 1933 and Jaunary 1934 issues of Keizai ōrai . Full translation by Edward G. Seidensticker and Thomas J. Harper was published in 1977.
 Watsuji Tetsurō wrote Fūdo ningenteki kōsatsu from 1928-1935; its main theme: climate, in a broad sense, determines national character. Traces of work can be seen here, perhaps in parodized form.