In 1933, when Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965) published his short but landmark essay “In Praise of Shadows,” it could hardly be seen as anything other than a riposte to the “enlightening” agenda of the great cultural critic Fukuzawa Yukichi of the preceding Meiji Era (1868-1912).

Fukuzawa (1835-1901) had sought to sweep away the anachronistic practices of the medieval Confucian mindset and bathe Japan in the warm rays of European enlightenment, ensuring that the nation could resist the imperial incursions of predatory Western powers.

But Tanizaki laid his finger on exactly the precious aspects of traditional Japanese culture that were in danger of being destroyed in the name of “enlightenment” — and not just in the metaphorical sense.

By the 1930s, Tanizaki claimed in his essay, with the single exception of America, no country in the world suffered from an excess of electric lights and neon than Japan: Einstein, on a visit to Kyoto, observed that artificial lights burned in Japan even during the day.

Yet so many aspects of Japanese culture, Tanizaki argued, relied on the nuance of shade — hints and allusions and an appreciation of age and patina. Whether discussing Japanese ceramics, noh or the sense of space in a traditional Japanese house created by the interplay of light and shadow, Tanizaki argued for a deep appreciation of darkness and the unknown.

He tellingly concluded his essay by arguing that in a Japan flooded by the spotlight of “modernity” the one place where an appreciation of “shadows” — rituals, tradition and the exploration of the irrational — could be achieved was the world of Japanese literature. Although superficially a tract on Japanese aesthetics, “In Praise of Shadows” was actually Tanizaki laying down a literary agenda.

The traditional interpretation of the lives of both Tanizaki and his great contemporary, Kafu Nagai (1879-1959), is that both had been profoundly Westernized writers in their youth, but came to argue instead in middle age for the unique appeal of a Japanese aesthetic that had been ignored. In Tanizaki’s case, following the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 he had actually moved from Tokyo to Kyoto, where he immersed himself in traditional Japanese culture.

Tanizaki deliberately set up his ideas on Japanese aesthetics in contrast to those of the West, which he characterized in terms of a relentless obsession with progress. Yet he carefully concealed the true origins of his thought, which actually lay in the surge of European “counter-culture” that swept over Japan from the turn of the 20th century.

The year 1901 — which saw the death of enlightenment thinker Fukuzawa — also saw the outbreak of a ferocious but now almost completely forgotten controversy in Japan’s literary circles known as the “aesthetic life” debate. Some of the leading cultural critics, picking up on European ideas of “art for art’s sake,” — and rocked by the revolutionary ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche that were then making landfall — argued over whether literature could truly separate itself from a moral agenda and indulge in purely aesthetic concerns.

From that point on, waves of new European thought that were fiercely critical of the starchy, high-minded moral certainties of the mid-Victorian period began to be absorbed by Japanese intellectuals. Far from seeing European thought as nothing more than “progress” and “enlightenment,” Tanizaki — who turned 16 at the time of the “aesthetic life” debate — passed his youth absorbing the avant-garde ideas of art nouveau, symbolism and cubism.

The golden age of Japanese literature was created not by the certainties of Western civilization but by the furious debates and clashes that occurred within that civilization. Exhilaratingly, the new Japanese authors of the 20th century were simultaneously exposed to translations of the complete works of William Shakespeare and Nietzsche, the psychological analyses of William James, the detective stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle, the pioneering work of sexologists like Havelock Ellis and the thinking of Karl Marx and Henri Bergson.

The enormous tumult of these intellectual stimuli inspired writers such as Tanizaki to reach back into the traditions of Japan. He became fascinated by the dark spaces of the irrational unconscious and how that neglected part of the psyche found representation in traditional aspects of Japanese beauty and culture.

Tanizaki’s critical work is the clearest expression of an intellectual quest to delve into the world of suppressed desires that we find in a host of later Japanese novelists, from Yasunari Kawabata to Yukio Mishima, all of whom internalized both avant-garde Western ideas and traditional Japanese aesthetics.

Perhaps the person who best put Tanizaki’s literary theory into practice was the man himself, in his great work “The Makioka Sisters,” a novel serialized from 1943 to ’48 immediately after he finished translating the Heian Period (794-1185) classic “The Tale of Genji.”

“The Makioka Sisters” — a sumptuous, magnificently written exploration of the daily life of the four daughters of an Osaka merchant family, set in 1936-41 and quivering with nuance, mood and style — is Tanizaki’s ultimate expression of “art for art’s sake” and a late contribution to the “aesthetic life” debate of decades earlier. The style of his prose — in which a single sentence sometimes meanders, curvaceous and sensual, over an entire page — was the ultimate riposte to a demand for short “rational” sentences in books with a clear didactic purpose.

In the exterior world of 1930s and 1940s Japan, the “logic” of masculine modernity — all bright lights, throbbing engines and sparkling uniforms — had set Japan on a course of disastrous militarism and imperial expansion. Tanizaki was beckoning the reader back into the sensuous allure of the feminine shadows, showing how much of civilization was to be found there.

This is the second of a three-part series called “The critics who shaped modern Japan.” The final installment will appear on the first Sunday of September.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.