Life in an old Japanese house Vol.9: Japanese Houses and In Praise of Shadows

When the aesthetics of Japanese houses are discussed, one often cited essay is "In Praise of Shadows" written by Junichiro Tanizaki. He writes about the modernization of Japan during the early Showa era (1920’s & 1930’s) and his malaise towards Japan’s Westernization and it’s affect on the Japanese classical sense of beauty. In one part of the essay he writes, “The quality that we call beauty, 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 toward beauty’s ends.” Indeed, many see Japanese architecture as typically dark, but I believe what Junichiro Tanizaki writes is only partially true.

If we were to categorize buildings as either bright or dark, I for one would say that Japanese wooden structures are rather bright. I would say the wall-less beach houses found in Samoa known as Fale are the brightest homes in the world. In the hot and humid tropical regions, it is common to see wood or bamboo homes built on stilts with few walls to allow the breeze pass through but since bamboo screens or curtains are typically hung, these homes are indeed darker than outside. However, they are rather bright when compared to homes built of stone and brick. Japanese wooden structures are similar to these tropical homes, since they also have comparatively few walls and utilize sliding screens that allow light to come in from outside. I would say Japanese traditional homes are brighter and more open than traditional Western architecture.

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A Samoan Fale beach home ©️Yashima

Western buildings are structurally dependent on their walls so making them with fewer walls or with more openings and large windows was a challenge. Houses north of the Alps in Germany and France in particular have small windows and few openings plus thick walls in order to protect inhabitants from the cold weather of the area. This tendency to have many walls and small windows is seen not just in buildings made from masonry but in also wooden structures. When compared to European timber framing, Japanese wooden structures have deeper eaves that protect the home from strong wind and rain and have more openings to better let in air and light. European timbered homes on the other hand have shallow eaves with small glass windows to let in light while keeping out the outside air.

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An English timbered cottage, source: wikipedia

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A Japanese wooden house with large openings (taken at Okayama’s Kawaratei)

Here is an expression in Japanese, "Kono-shita-yami" that expresses the darkness underneath an overgrown tree. Although it appears to be truly dark when looked at from a sunny spot, if you go in you’ll notice it is just the shade of a tree. This too seems to apply to the misconception of Japanese homes being dark. Japanese homes may be darker than outside, but during the day they are bright enough to live comfortably while the darkness found in old European homes surrounded by thick walls is like that of a cellar. Considering mankind’s natural need for light, the very cloudy and short winters north of the Alps especially when glass windows weren’t yet common must have been truly dark. The improvement to European’s quality of life when glass windows and electric light became commonplace can not be overstated and surely bears little resemblance to the change seen then in Japan.

I quite agree with Junichiro Tanizaki on one point. The refined style of the relatively bright Japanese home that hardly needs candle or electric lamp to illuminate it, loses some of its beauty when putting in Western elements such as electric light, glass, and tile which are intended to brighten a room. Further, shadows indeed have greatly influenced the Japanese sense of beauty. That said, I question whether it is appropriate to say that Japanese people long ago were forced to live in darkness and therefore found beauty in shadows. Perhaps it would be accurate to say instead that by darkness not inconveniencing their way of life, Japanese people had no need to pursue bringing in extra light into their homes and could therefore find beauty in shadows.

Though there are many people still nowadays that think the bright white light from fluorescent lighting doesn’t suit a Japanese room, the glass paned sliding doors and tile which Junichiro Tanizaki disliked seeing in a Japanese home now have a certain retro appeal to some.

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These glass doors were unsuited for Japanese homes to Junichiro Tanizaki, but are popular for their retro appeal.  The design characteristic of small glass panels being joined together was born out of the difficulty in producing large panels of glass at the time.

While home heating, insulation and double paned glass have become advanced enough that it has become possible for even European homes in cold regions to install large windows, Japan on the other hand has seen an increase in concrete buildings and homes with siding panels. With air conditioning efficiency becoming a priority now, Japanese homes are becoming like the old European cellar-like homes with walls being better insulated and the home’s openings getting smaller. I wonder what Junichiro Tanizaki would say if he saw these modern cave-like dwellings brightly lit all day and night.