Fairies Thrive in Darkness

By Bastian Florian Rohr
January 25, 2023

It has been years since I read In Praise of Shadows by Jun’Ichiro Tanizaki. No essay has ever influenced me as profoundly as this masterpiece. And not because of how cohesive or convincing Tanizaki’s words were but instead because of the way almost every one of them opened new avenues of thought.

That is how you can distinguish what the French call a “faiseur” from a true thinker. A “faiseur,” which translates as a maker, is a writer who uses his style to pass empty content as deep and meaningful.

Such writings will always look extremely impressive at first glance. Until they get taken apart, that is. At this point, the analysis will reveal how they have been woven together, not to open and clear the readers’ minds but to ensnare and confuse them. Ultimately, any “faiseur” seeks but one goal: to forcefully impose his views upon his audience.

Not that this is always a bad thing. After all, some people need lullabies to lure them into sleep.

Still, the way I read him, Tanizaki is on the opposite side of that spectrum. He imposes nothing. Instead, Tanizaki gently lights different pathways for us to understand Japanese aesthetics and culture better. That is also why I have always resisted the temptation to reread In Praise of Shadows: I do not want to spoil the fantastic first imprint it carved deep inside my synapses.

And Tanizaki’s lights, in keeping with his theory that Asians prefer darkness, are superbly dim. I bought a place in the Tsurumi Ward a few days ago. Strangely enough, I had to wait to move to this new area of Osaka to realize just how true Tanizaki’s gentle light also shone on this argument.

I explored these unfamiliar narrow streets as I walked my dog in the freezing night air. All were engulfed in almost total darkness and pristine silence. The only lights visible were strictly functional: showing the name of a house owner, signaling the presence of an entrance or a neighborhood shrine open for worship.

Walking these new alleys I now proudly call home made me feel like I had entered another realm. A fairyland of sorts, with added shadows, whose inhabitants refuse to insult the beauty of the night with excessive brightness. Because, as the Old Lurid Food Tanizaki suggests, Japanese culture is all about underlining natural beauty rather than creating an artificial one.

Put in the literary context, that means always suggesting but never telling.