entry 2

  • What is the current relationship in Tokyo between urban form, light conditions, and the city inhabitants?
  • What factors have synthesized the aforementioned urban relationships?

Describing Tokyo as either a ‘light’ or ‘dark’ city is a highly subjective assessment and is influenced heavily by prior environmental conditions. As an inhabitant of Tokyo who had previously lived in America, the city is unquestionably dark, and the apparent cause of it is derived from high urban density, small scale spaces, apertures and thoroughfares, and a seeming lack of usable windows and views. Many areas of the city are in total shadow for the duration of the year, and an unending amount of private spaces see no direct light. Despite its perceptually infinite sprawl into the outlying areas, the city is immensely layered and compact - with nodes of circulation forming multi-leveled, interwoven public space and blurring the distinctions of spatial types. The resulting darkness of the urban environment can be equated to many other urban centers as well, nonetheless, there are certain aspects about Tokyo as an amalgamation of structures which make it distinctly ‘Japanese.’ 

In today’s era a design perspective of light in a Japanese setting is incomplete without an acknowledgment of “In Praise of Shadows” by the author Jun’Ichiro Tanizaki. His book became the cornerstone of the visual aesthetic of Japanese space and architecture, and despite having been written in the early 20th century, many of the concepts he identified are still visible in Japan’s built world today. While there has been of course, a move away from the traditional Japanese architectural style in favor of modern construction methods in the last century, many spatial conceptions adapt principles that originate in traditional design, and the overall attitude (see below) remains considerably similar. 

In Praise of Shadows talks in many ways about how the tectonics of Japanese design result in very atmospheric spaces enshrouded in shadow and diffuse light. Combined with a minimalist treatment toward interior spaces, natural materials and a heavy emphasis on horizontality and this aesthetic reaches its quintessentially Japanese state. Tanizaki discusses the Western critique of this aesthetic, which he argues is too accustomed to overly-lit environments to truly appreciate the beauty in shadow. The western image of Japan at the time of Tanizaki’s writing was very much one that depicted Japan as a “dark and mysterious land lit by lanterns,” which aptly described the end of the Meiji period to a considerable degree, yet it was around that time that electric lighting was beginning to spread very rapidly throughout the islands. Out of any symbol of modernity which came to Japan during the Meiji period, it was electric lighting which was adopted the fastest and most widespread. Over the rest of the century Japan would come to lead the world in fluorescent lighting, and very much create a new image - one characterized by electric light and neon signs, bright city lights and billboards. 

Between Japan’s two opposing states of light and darkness was two major punctuating events: the Great Kanto Earthquake in the early Showa period, and of course, World War II. Both of these proved to be setbacks in the development of electric lighting in Japan, and further contributed to the contrast of the pre- and post-electric light contrast by essentially creating clean slates on which to build. And it was between these two events that Tanizaki wrote In Praise of Shadows - when electric light was slowly but abruptly leaking into the built environment. The unique atmosphere is captured vividly in his writing, whereby a pleasing view of electric light is presented - one “dressed in Japanese aesthetics,” filtered through layers of paper or shining from beneath the extended eaves of traditional architecture. Interestingly, Tanizaki also argues that the electric bulb nonetheless engenders an aura of loneliness, drawing attention to the expanse between objects in space and the human eye. He is likely referring to the brilliance and continuity not achievable by a flame, which can essentially eliminate subtle changes in space by bringing them into the detailed, highly visible field of perception. The subtlety of darkness attained by the use of candlelight and lamplight can be likened to the visual changes brought on by the afterglow of twilight, where forms begin to dissolve and flatten, and it is this state of shadow which was culturally upheld by the Japanese through their spatial environment. Tanizaki uses such terms as invasive, excessive, and blinding, when describing the Western aesthetic of lighting driven by the creation of artificial light. And he describes Japanese light as falling beyond the reaches of [bright] light, protected by the safe haven of kageri (a term referencing a kind of murky light). Kageri is a gradation of light that involves something gradually fading away into darkness. The treatment of shadow is further reinforced by Japanese art as much as it is architecture, where it tends to take on its own dynamic form entirely. For example, shading in Japanese painting had traditionally been conceived of in the same way as patterns or designs and may be accompanied by patches of gold; the intent is to display shadow as another material rather than create 3-dimensionality (Hokusai). 

Thus, there is undoubtedly an irony to this concept when looking at Japan in a modern-day context, or at the least Tokyo, which conjures an image of extensive use of electric light of many colors and in many commercial forms. In lively urban centers like Shibuya and Shinjuku, light can literally be seen pouring into the night skyline at immense levels. The modern-day “Tokyo” is in many points of view a concept imbued with an aura of sleeplessness and energy, nightlife and color. This image is attributed to Japan in the same way that the shadowy image of olden times is. They are polar opposites under the same aesthetic. Interestingly enough, according to the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, the concepts of light and shadow in Japan were intertwined before the Edo period and the perception of each as a discrete value is a relatively recent phenomenon. If they are both high light and high shadow are still visible today in the Japanese city, the question is what conditions tie these two together? It is this relationship which defines the new Japanese aesthetic, one that contains a full spectrum from kageri to “play of brilliants” but curiously remains distinct to Japan. 

“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.”  Jun’Ichiro Tanizaki In Praise of Shadows