from Shadows of the Past to a Future of Individualism

Authors Sōseki Natsume and Tanizaki Jun’ichirō struggle to accept the fate of Japan’s waning culture in the face of rapid modernization in their vibrant essays In Praise of Shadows, “The Civilization of Modern-Day Jan, and “My Individualism.”

When comparing Tanizaki Jun’ichirō’s In Praise of Shadows (1933) to Sōseki Natsume’s earlier essays “The Civilization of Modern-Day Japan” (1914) and “My Individualism” (1911), one feels a sense of longing for a true Japan that has been lost. Yet while Tanizaki’s somewhat erratic narrative style conveys an uneasy and pessimistic view of lapsed culture, Sōseki’s structured arguments lay the groundwork for an intrinsically motivated future in which Japan can claim its rightful place in the modern world.

Shadows is a love letter to Japan’s traditions of old. Tanizaki interweaves evocative descriptions of mysterious Japanese beauty with an acerbic attitude toward Western glitz. He eloquently reminisces on the dying arts, and writes as if the Western world offers nothing but a mismatched piece to an already completed puzzle. “When ceiling, pillars, and paneling are of fine Japanese stock, the beauty of the room is utterly destroyed when the rest is done in [Western] sparkling tile” (3).  The essay infers that the uniquely developed tastes of Japan cannot fully absorb extrinsic thought and technology without damaging the tranquil spell of traditional Japanese aesthetics. Happiness and serenity, it seems, can only be found by reverting to a now dream-like, romanticized past which is entirely removed from the modern world.

The inevitability of change is ever-present in both author’s work, yet where Tanizaki dwells on the sad passing of cultural arts and aesthetics, Sōseki questions the state of the future. He asserts that it is human nature to grab hold of modern conveniences in order to maximize efficiency and to satiate one’s want for pleasure. He laments that Japan, however, is commiserable for not having the strength to remain true to itself, un-swayed by external temptations of modern convenience.  He thus suggests that his fellow countrymen use awareness as a tool with which to reclaim control over Japan’s intrinsic development. “If… we remain unconscious of the civilization of modern-day Japan or if we do not have a clear understanding of what it means, this can adversely affect everything we do. We will all be better off, I believe, if, together, we study this concept and help each other understand it…” (154). Here, Sōseki is resigned to the fact that Japan has become swallowed by Western influence—even going to far as to say “we have no choice in the matter’ (159)—yet hope, he proposes, lies in the individual’s ability to take the power back.

In contrast to Tanizaki’s purist devotion to traditional ways, Sōseki also adduces that happiness comes not with the careful preservation of the past, but with a push toward absolute individualism. “The development of your individuality will have a great bearing on your happiness… We must keep for ourselves and grant to others a degree of liberty such that I can turn left while you turn right, each of us equally unhindered so long as what we do has no effect on others” (169). In a sense, Tanizaki’s Shadows is a sentimental reversion to the past, whereas Sōseki’s essays serve to inspire the individual to take charge of Japan’s future development.

Tanizaki’s ideal Japan is hidden in darkness and mystery, and is closed to the world. In Shadows, he begrudges the fact that the Japanese world is subjected to foreign thinking, and posits that alien technologies will forever contrast Japanese aesthetics in an unbecoming manner. Sōseki, while similarly regretting Japan’s increasing external motivation, begs future generations to incorporate the inevitable changes with fervent ingenuity, and illustrates an ideal Japan which is populated by intelligent, informed, and confident individuals who work toward reclaiming a path of individuality and internally motivated progression.

Works Cited

  • Rimer, J. Thomas. The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature. Abridged. ed. New York: Columbia UP, 2011. Print.
  • Tanizaki, Jun. In Praise of Shadows. New Haven, Conn.: Leete’s Island, 1977. Print.

© 2015 Devon Lois Duncan. All rights reserved. For usage, please contact author.


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