MISFIT DOC: Japan in Light and Darkness, or Meditations on the Japanese Toilet

Architecture speaks. Its messages, spoken in the languages of size, material, dimension and style disclose the mind and soul of the builder, but not only that; if one learns how to read its language, architecture lays bare the way a society perceives and expresses its deepest beliefs about how life ought to be lived.

A basic, elemental place to begin is with the notions of light and darkness. It is through the lens of this spectrum that the writer, Junichiro Tanizaki, sought, in his 1933 essay, In Praise of Shadows, to examine the contrast between the traditional Japanese culture and that of the modernized West. The essay can be read as field report from a losing battle or even a requiem for the demise of a way of life which was in the process transitioning from one set of cultural standards to another. For even as he writes, Tanizaki knows that the ways of the brash, utilitarian, uncouth, west have already won.

To read the work today, over 80 years after its writing, is to encounter, in a way that only literature can impart, a mode of being in the world that no longer exists, in the sense that the technological advances of the 20th and 21st centuries have rendered it obsolete. To read it as I did, while travelling through Japan, is a particularly strange and transcendent experience. For here you are, in the very settings that Tanizaki discusses, reading a text that endows you with a set of different eyes.

“What incredible pains the fancier of traditional architecture must take when he set out to build a house in pure Japanese style, striving to make electric wires, gas pipes and water lines harmonize with the austerity of Japanese rooms…” he muses, and then elaborates, “The purist may rack his brains over the placement of a single telephone, hiding it behind the staircase or in  a corner of the hallway, wherever he thinks it will least offend the eye.” What sort of sensibility, I wondered, would consider a telephone an object to be hidden lest it offend the eye? The very quandary signals that one has entered a world in which such conveniences as the electric light bulb, gas stoves that burn with a “terrific roar”, or the “snarl and bulk” of electric fans, while having their uses, all seem to conspire to bring crass Western developments into a place that is meant to engender calm, quiet and subtlety.


These things, calm, quiet and subtlety, are not merely reflective of Tanizaki’s tastes; they speak for the values of a worldview, or comprehensive set of cultural traditions. The Japanese cultivated them as ideals over the many centuries during which they successfully shut themselves off from all foreign influence. It was only with the 1868 Meiji Restoration, which aimed to reinstate imperial rule in order to strengthen Japan against the threat of western colonialism, that European ideas and technology were introduced. Considering that Tanizaki was born in 1886, his ambivalence reflects that of an entire generation who were made to assimilate radical transitions into their daily lives.

“…I always think how different everything would be if we in the Orient had developed our own science. Suppose for example that we had developed our own physics and chemistry…In fact our conception of physics itself, and even the principles of chemistry, would probably differ from that of Westerners; and the facts we are now taught concerning the nature and function of light, electricity and atoms might well have presented themselves in different form.”

No matter how receptive and flexible we would wish our minds to be, we function, inevitably, out of the inalienable sense that things must be the way they are, that they could not be different. We cannot truly fathom our own subjectivity, because it so fully defines us. Indeed, our own mythologies about notions of light are grounded in our most definitive texts. For example:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 

Here is a dichotomy so absolute that it resonates into our subconscious. The world of Genesis has no place for shadow. A shadow is, well, shady, and there must be countless other metaphors to depict the value judgments implied in the terms “light” and “dark”. But to read Tanizaki is to approach notions of light in a very different way:

“And so it has come to be that the Japanese room depends on a variation of shadows, heavy shadows against light shadows− it has nothing else. The light from the garden steals in but dimly through paper-paneled doors, and it is precisely this indirect light that that makes for us the charm of a room…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.”



What might such a sensibility have to tell us about the world? What might it tell us about how to experience even the most prosaic aspects of our lives? What’s interesting about In Praise of Shadows is that it suggests answers by way of aesthetics. Nothing is merely what it seems. Even the smallest details are considered with conscious intent.

Nowhere is Tanizaki’s essay more delightful than when he waxes eloquent on the virtues of the Japanese toilet. Anyone who prizes attentiveness to everyday experience need look no further.

“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 by the singular virtues of Japanese architecture. The parlor may have its charms, but the Japanese toilet is truly a place of spiritual repose…No words can describe the sensation as one sits in the dim light, basking in the glow reflected from the shoji, lost in mediation or gazing out at the garden. The novelist Natsume Soeki counted his morning trips to the toilet a great pleasure, ‘a physiological delight” he called it…And the toilet is the perfect place to listen to the chirping of insects, or the song of the birds, to view the moon, or enjoy any of those poignant moments that mark the change of the seasons.”

I must admit, I’m enticed. One cannot deny that put this way, the depiction is tempting, and it’s easy to understand why Tanikzai laments the prospect of western amenities: “And so here too it turns out to be more hygienic and efficient to install modern sanitary facilities−tiles and a flush toilet−though at the price of destroying all affinities of “good taste” and “the beauties of nature. The burst of light from those four white walls hardly puts one in the mood to relish Soeski’s ‘physiological delight’.”


One’s first reaction is perhaps one of amusement. Are we to take these musings seriously, or, as more suited to our collective temperament, ironically? But if one approaches these passages in earnest, a shift of perspective evolves. Not only are aesthetics, it turns out, a matter of geography, but entrenched concepts of our own physicality might also be readily challenged.

What is lost when a culture decides, however regretfully, to acquiesce to another? The question, often neglected in the era of colonialism, is important even today, especially today, when every society on earth must reckon with the relentless realities of economic globalization and the internet. Under such pressure, one of the things that is lost is the way that we perceive our most commonplace objects. This is important to acknowledge, because like architecture, objects speak.

Bowls, for example. Perhaps you are familiar with the lacquered Japanese bowl. Perhaps you have seen it, or something similar, and barely taken notice. After all, there is, at first glance, little in its appearance to excite the senses. But perhaps modern culture has not trained us in the art of noticing. “…in the still dimmer light of the candle stand, as I gazed at the trays and bowls standing in the shadows cast by that flickering point of flame, I discovered in the gloss of this lacquerware a depth and richness like that of a still, dark pond, a beauty I had not seen before.”


Tanizaki doesn’t merely see the beauty; he experiences it: “With lacquerware there is beauty in that moment between removing the lid and lifting the bowl to the mouth when one gazes at the still, silent liquid in the dark depths of the bowl… the palm senses the gentle movements of the liquid, vapor rises from within forming droplets on the rim, and the fragrance carried upon the vapor brings a delicate anticipation.”

One gets the sense of an alternative universe where the most familiar of actions are slowed, savored, appreciated. Time itself slows down; consciousness both relaxes and heightens. The speaker has succeeded in creating a sensual event, and in doing so, has been fully present in the moment. What is interesting here is that Tanaziki is not merely speaking for himself, but depicting what this, his culture’s temperament, has to offer.

In Praise of Shadows is full of examples which, like this one, offer us a glimpse of the collective subconscious of Japanese civilization, and in doing so, suggest alternative ways of considering the most prosaic of our own cultural norms.

The western version of paper, for example, causes him genuine dismay. “Paper, I understand, was invented by the Chinese; but western paper is to us no more than something to be used, while the texture of Chinese and Japanese paper gives us a certain feeling of warmth, of calm and repose…It gives off no sound when it is crumpled or folded. It is quiet and pliant to the touch as a leaf of a tree.”

Space itself takes on its own meanings.“Whenever I see the alcove of a tastefully build Japanese room, I marvel at our comprehension of the secrets of shadows, our sensitive use of shadow and light….when we gaze into the darkness that gathers behind the crossbeam, around the flower vase, beneath the shelves, though we know perfectly well that it is mere shadow, we are overcome with the feeling that ….here in the darkness immutable tranquility holds sway…That was the genius of our ancestors, that by cutting off the light from this empty space they imparted to the world of shadows that formed there a quality of mystery and depth superior to that of any wall painting or ornament.”

Shadow, we come to see, is a synonym for the esoteric. It adds depth, weight, layers of meaning. It doesn’t announce its gifts, but offers them slowly, quietly. It rewards patience, forbearance and thoughtfulness. It is conducive to careful examination of the world, and an acceptance that we can never truly comprehend it.

It is only in the final quarter of the essay that something troubling happens. Tanizaki’s writing reveals that though he felt compelled to question notions of western aesthetic superiority, he readily internalized western racism. What must have been largely received knowledge is on display here, with unabashedly voiced prejudices about Jews, Blacks, and even his fellow Japanese.  Here he is describing Japanese women at a gathering with foreigners: “For the Japanese complexion, no matter how white, is tinged by a slight cloudiness…Thus it is that when one of us goes among a group of Westerners it is like a grimy stain on a sheet of white paper. The sight offends even our own eyes and leaves none too pleasant a feeling.”

Had Tanizaki known what was waiting for Japan, and for his much admired west, just around the corner, it may have given him pause. And if could see even further into the future, he would have surely been astounded.

We are all captive, whether we know or not, within the boundaries of our own time. For in many ways, to adopt a mode of being that prizes simplicity, ambiguousness, patience and subtlety, is to tune out of the 21st century. We can no more choose to reject the technologies of our time than Tanizaki could. He understood that the battle was lost. Surrender was the only option.

“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…

I did not plan my trip to Japan, as many travelers do, to coincide with what is known as the “cherry blossom season”. Rather, it happened by co-incidence. My interests tend toward manifestations of customs, history, philosophy and theology. Flowering trees, no matter how pretty, are low on my list.

What I didn’t understand, (for it has no equal in our own culture) was that the celebration of the cherry blossoms is a synthesis of all of these things. In the world of shadows that was traditional Japan, the blossoming of the cherry trees was a riotous event of light, color and vibrant renewal. And even today, in ultra-modern, industrialized, technologically sophisticated Japan, it still is.

All over the country, the sight of a pink or white tree against a dark background of green or brown stirs everyone. People come out in droves to photograph the trees. Artists sketch them as though trying to capture the glamour of a diva. Maps showing the progress of the Sakura blossoming are broadcast on the nightly news. Shops sport fake blossoms and sell pink cakes and snacks. The parks fill with picnickers.



The season is unbearably brief – 10-14 days and it’s all over. A little wind, a little rain, and the blossoms fall, sometimes in a shower of color, sometimes in a fluttery, gentle descent. The scene speaks powerfully, to everyone who witnesses it, as a metaphor. A brilliant moment of impossible beauty, and then a melancholy demise. The trees return to their quotidian green. The landscapes calms. The world retreats again into the complex, weighted quiet of shadow.


Janice Weizman is the author The Wayward Moon, an award winning historical novel set in the 9th century Middle East. Her work has appeared in Consequence, Lilith, The Jerusalem Report, and other places. She serves as a fiction editor at The Ilanot ReviewMany years ago, Janice traded the calm of Canada for a life of non-stop adventure in Israel. She's still there. 

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