In Praise of Shadow

In In Praise of Shadows, Junichiro Tanazaki describes many characteristics of the use of light in traditional Japanese architecture. Compared to the West and its emphasis on a bright, sterile atmosphere, the Japanese have appreciated the use of shadow, of creating very subtle variations in light through the extensive use of shadow. It was initially very difficult for me to understand why the Japanese are so interested in shadow. Yet, Tanazaki states,

“The quality that we call beauty, however, must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty’s ends” (18).

A range of subtly in the shadows of Katsura Imperial Villa, creating a focus on nature and on mediation

Their appreciation of shadow is a result of their architecture. Similar to China and Korea, Japanese traditional buildings had low pitch roofs and wide eaves in order to protect their wooden structures from the rain and provide adequate shade. Rooms were relatively dark as a result. However, the Japanese did the best with what they had and they made an artform out of it. It goes to show that all the tools we have to measure light (i.e. lumens) and to maximize it have little use in a culture that appreciates shadows.

Another view inside Katsura Imperial Villa. In the West, too dark. In Japan, beautiful!

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