But we Orientals…create a kind of beauty of the shadows we have made in out-of-the-way places. There is an old song that says
“the brushwood we gather—
stack it together,
it makes a hut,
pull it apart,
a field once more.”
Such is our way of thinking—we find beauty not in the thing itself but in the pattern of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates.
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.
And so it has come to be that the beauty of a Japanese room depends on a variation of shadows, heavy shadows against light shadows—it has nothing else. Westerners are amazed at the simplicity of Japanese rooms, perceiving them no more than ashen walls bereft of ornament. Their reaction is understandable, but it betrays a failure to comprehend the mystery of shadows.
[from IN PRAISE OF SHADOWS by Juńichirō Tanizaki, Leete’s Island Books, $9.95]