Japan’s Meiji period was a crisis moment. Commodore Perry had forcibly opened the nation to outside trade in 1853 with American gunships in the Tokyo harbor. The last Tokugawa shogun abdicated in 1868, the year Meiji began, ending the feudal military government. This time there was no possibility of the Heian period’s intentional isolation. Rattling trains and electric signs invaded the once-dark and quiet night. Wooden buildings grew into skyscrapers with windows made of glass instead of paper. Young people emigrated to study at western universities and wore collared shirts and top hats—the shock. The nation had to negotiate the west’s overwhelming influence, in the process deciding what it meant to be Japanese as well.
One way of confronting such precipitous change was to retreat into an ideal of fundamental Japaneseness, reaching back to history for a sense of stability and continuity. Artists and writers set about envisioning this identity in reaction to, rather than in isolation from, the western incursion. A new version of Japaneseness had to be created or curated, one that could adapt to a new global order. As borders opened Japanese influence was expanding abroad as well, and one always sees oneself with sharper contrast in the face of the other.
One cross-cultural emissary was Kakuzo Okakura, a heavily mustachioed, glum-looking poet-curator-administrator who dressed in traditional Chinese robes as easily as western suits. In 1901 he wrote a manifesto of exceptionalism, “The Ideals of the East,” arguing that, “Japan is a museum of Asiatic civilizations… the singular genius of the race leads it to dwell on all phases of the ideals of the past.” To Okakura, his people were the perfect stewards of their continent because they had already carefully adapted the best parts of the Indian and Chinese civilizations. These touchstones—Shinto, Buddhism, Zen, Noh theater—could also turn Japan into a “modern power.”
One scholar has described Okakura’s ideology in the essay as “aesthetic nationalism”: using art and culture as politics, turning aesthetics into a tool for inflating the self and excluding outsiders. “Victory from within, or a mighty death without,” the 1901 essay ends.
Okakura was pushed out of office by an ill-fated affair (which had aftershocks of its own) and moved to Boston in 1904 to advise the Museum of Fine Arts. There, he befriended the likes of Ezra Pound and the collector Isabella Stewart Gardner, turning them into committed Japanophiles. In 1906 he published The Book of Tea, an eloquent English- language introduction to the Japanese sensibility through the lens of the tea ceremony. A century ago Okakura was already decrying American clutter in his book: “To a Japanese, accustomed to simplicity of ornamentation and frequent change of decorative method a Western interior permanently filled with a vast array of pictures, statuary, and bric-a-brac gives the impression of mere vulgar display of riches,” he wrote. Instead of sheer material accumulation, the tea ceremony is “a worship of the Imperfect… a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.”
There’s a dilemma in Okakura’s double-sided arguments. On one hand he was at pains to defend his own people’s claim to a unique art and beauty that belong to them alone; on the other hand he also tried to communicate these values to a wider, international audience drawn in by his exotic aura, which burnished his reputation as a man of culture, an influencer of global tastes to this day. Was the Japanese sensibility something that should be shared or should it be kept close at hand, in what seemed to be its purest form? No matter how simple, quiet, or reserved the attitude, this dichotomy of preservation and expansion drove Japan into the violent heart of the 20th century, even as the pared-down Japanese aesthetic spread around the world.
Kyoto is a city of facades, especially in Gion, which lays to the southeast of the original Heian imperial palace across the Kamo River. From the street, even if you can read the signs, it’s hard to tell what a building holds or what’s going on inside because the storefronts of the old merchant townhouses are obscured by vertical wooden slats like so many window shades. Hanging curtains disguise inner entrances and long corridors lead to far-off doors. You can’t look through plate-glass windows to gauge how popular a restaurant or bar might be; you’re lucky to catch a bare glimpse through the slats. Instead you hesitate for a moment before each new possibility, listening for the murmur of many voices or the clatter of plates.
The hiddenness reflects a wider attitude of withdrawal. As the latest inheritors of centuries of discernment—the same ethos captured by Murasaki and Shonagon—locals take care to preserve the city’s cultural microclimate for themselves and whoever might come after. There’s a clear dichotomy to the architecture: The facades are aggressively simple, as if designed to repel strangers (thus attracting us), but the inner spaces once accessed are more intimate and welcoming than in metastasized, anonymous Tokyo. I was reminded of the ancient Chinese aesthetic of “blandness,” the English translation for han in the French philosopher Francois Julien’s essay In Praise of Blandness. Blandness means the absence of prominent defining qualities, the value of neutrality in painting, poetry, or comportment. One who gives off nothing of her personality is better than a charmer who blathers. It’s about being boring but avoiding the blatant or obvious.
My innkeeper was an exuberant older woman named Rico, who had been renting the old house from its owner for a decade, adding some modernized showers and bathrooms for her guests without disrupting the overall atmosphere of gentle decay. She wasn’t from Kyoto but Kyushu, a southern, more Mediterranean part of Japan known for warm, boisterous personalities. It was hard to make friends with any native Kyotoans, she told me over tea from a kettle boiled on top of a cozy gas heater in the small lobby room.
There’s even a saying: “Here, it takes five years to be invited through the front gate, and then ten to get inside,” she said. An invitation for tea and rice is a hint that it’s time to leave.
During the inn’s early days Rico used to get complaints that she didn’t rake the leaves in the alleyway fast enough; it turned out that she was raking in the afternoon, while everyone else got it done in the morning. She had to contain her annoyance and play along. “Sumimasen, sumimasen!”—Excuse me! Don’t mind me! I’m sorry!—she said while madly pantomiming sweeping up. Sure, Kyoto is lovely, the temples, the cherry blossoms, the surrounding hills rusting orange in autumn, but did everyone really have to be so pretentious?
The inn room I picked was the largest, with a small porch overlooking the pocket garden in Japanese style at the back of the house, where sunlight sluiced in around noon after it cleared the abutting homes. The room and the garden formed one permeable space separated by pairs of sliding windows and doors, one layer of rice-paper and the second plexiglass, to better keep out the cold. In the morning the plants cast silhouettes onto the gridded paper as I looked up from the futon on the floor. (Japanese even devotes a word, komorebi, to the dappled pattern of light shining through leaves.)
The boxy interior of the space, stayed dim. The monochrome texture of the sand-plastered walls made the corners hazy and mysterious. On one side of the room was the tokonoma, a small recessed alcove. The feature emerged in the 16th century as a space devoted to art: flower arrangements go on the raised dais on the floor and a solitary print, painting, or piece of calligraphy hangs on the interior wall—a miniature gallery for contemplation. (During the tea ceremony, important guests are sat facing away from the tokonoma so the host doesn’t seem to be bragging.) Mine was installed with a long scroll with an ink-wash painting of a monk, above a tall porcelain vase with a single pink flower and its branching leaves emerging. That was it; there was no HGTV-mandated salon-style art collection or clutch of souvenirs. Objects in the tokonoma are framed by empty space, their presence intensified by the absence surrounding them like blank paper.In Praise of Shadows is like a pair of sunglasses that allow you to see in the dark.
The effect is a kind of beauty-by-negation. “Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty,” wrote the novelist Junichiro Tanizaki in a 1933 essay, In Praise of Shadows. He was living in Kyoto at the time and worked from a low desk like the one in my room, gazing out the sliding doors toward the garden. “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.”
Tanizaki was an eminent tastemaker who wrote short riffs of cultural commentary when he wasn’t completing one of his many novels or laboring at a decades-long project to translate The Tale of Genji into modern Japanese, a nostalgic attempt at preserving its sense of style. Born to a Tokyo merchant family in 1886, Tanizaki made his name with noir-influenced short stories by 1909 and became a symbol of the ascendant literati class of early 20th-century Japan. Erudite, urbane, and frequently salacious, he befriended western ex-pats, learned to ballroom dance, and wrote fiction about bisexual love quadrangles and young women emulating the starlets seen in newly available Hollywood movies. His literature changed along with the Japanese identity.
Tanizaki also argued, in his own arch way, for Japan’s exceptional aesthetics of absence. In Praise of Shadows—like The Pillow Book, a seemingly random collection of observations that coheres into something profound—begins with Tanizaki trying to a design a house for himself. He wanted it to mingle new, convenient western technology with his homeland’s love of softness and shadow, “striving somehow to make electric wires, gas pipes, and water lines harmonize with the austerity of Japanese rooms,” he wrote. Heaters, lightbulbs, and porcelain toilets are useful, the novelist argued, but they’re also ugly, anathema to the beauty that comes with worn-in wood and candlelight.
The acceptance of austerity and ambiguity, imperfection as perfection, was a way of being in the world. It went along with a critique of industrialization, early globalization, and the greed of capitalism. “The progressive Westerner is determined always to better his lot,” Tanizaki wrote. “His quest for a brighter light never ceases, he spares no pains to eradicate the minutest shadow.” (The novelist might have meant this figuratively, but now it’s literal: A 2016 study found that more than 99 percent of United States and European populations live under light-polluted skies, which confuse nocturnal animals, increase algae growth, and cause anxiety and melatonin suppression in humans.)
If such creeping light represents greed then shadow is satisfaction with the existing dimness, the way it muffles sensation and slows perception. Tanizaki advocates appreciating what is there, letting your eyes adjust to a different wavelength. The novelist’s preferences aren’t for the clean, denuded room or the glass window-wall but the interiors of old houses; the cloudiness of miso soup in the dark gloss of lacquered dishes; the green lips of a classical Kyoto geisha, whose black-painted teeth he described as “elfin fires”; the way the single candle flame in a high-ceilinged mansion room illuminates a particular flavor of shadow not found elsewhere: “lofty, intense, monolithic,” the resulting darkness “a pregnancy of tiny particles like fine ashes, each particle luminous as a rainbow.”
Darkness deserves as much poetry written about it as sunlight. Tanizaki caught himself up in daydreams, wondering where this fugitive realm had disappeared to amidst the neon landscape. By capturing all these experiences of shadow, he salvaged a particular way of seeing:
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 come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration.
Tanizaki was a quiet iconoclast. He reminds us that we are surrounded by particular regimes of taste created by history and politics but we can step outside of them if we so choose in order to enter a different space—his “world of shadows.” Over the past century the problems he observed have only worsened; no wonder that Tanizaki’s message has resonated so much beyond his own time and place. In Praise of Shadows was first published in the United States in 1977 by a tiny press in Maine called Leete’s Island Books, with a cover featuring a stark black-and-white photograph of a gridded rice-paper door. Over decades the book has sold more than 100,000 copies across a dozen printings, the cover never changing, spreading like a kind of meme dissenting with modernity.
While I was researching in Marfa, I was surprised to come across a vintage copy of In Praise of Shadows facing up on the geometric wood shelves of Donald Judd’s personal library, where he placed it in a position of prominence—the same cover that I’ve collected and given away to friends, posed as an art object. But then I understood: Judd was fascinated by anyone who experienced the world, almost to the point of unreason, through their aesthetic sense. Judd’s own work also embraced obscurity and presented the opposite of what viewers expected. As much as visual austerity, this contrarianism drove Minimalism.
I called the founder of Leete’s Island, Peter Neill, to find out why he picked up such an esoteric text and why it became so popular. Neill had lived for a time in Tokyo, but after he was introduced to Tanizaki’s essay by its translator, it permanently changed his perspective. While reading, he told me, “you’re essentially clearing your mind, coming into this space between light and dark, between noise and silence, and it is revelatory.”
In Praise of Shadows is like a pair of sunglasses that allow you to see in the dark. You put them on as you turn the scant few-dozen pages, noticing what Tanizaki noticed, taking second glances into corners and closed rooms. The blandness, in the positive Chinese sense, and slight remove of the writing allow room for subtle truths. You can both desire something and know it’s not good for you, or mistake clarity for truth when ambiguity might be more accurate. Above all, the world of shadows is against absolutes—there is no one right way of looking or being.
Lest his appreciation be mistaken for extremism of any kind, Tanizaki also admitted that modernity would march on despite the advice of a novelist, and he mocked his own anachronistic tastes. Nothing was ever quite as perfect as he depicted it in writing.
Restless to experiment with different spaces, he moved between more than 30 houses in his lifetime. His widow, Matsuko Morita, once recalled the story of an architect who consulted with Tanizaki about designing yet another new home. The architect explained that he had read In Praise of Shadows and so knew exactly what Tanizaki was looking for. “But no,” the novelist replied. “I could never live in a house like that.”
From The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism by Kyle Chayka. Used with the permission of Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2020 by Kyle Chayka.