In Japan, sometimes, it is hard to know what you are looking at.
I gaze at the symbols beside me, my underwear still around my ankles. There are at least ten. It is the one to flush I am looking for. Not the one that sprays perfume in the bowl, or worse still sprays to "clean" from various angles and intensities, nor the one that blows hot air to dry you afterwards or plays the sound of tinkling water when you are urinating so no one outside the door can hear you. Nor the one that heats the seat although I must have already pressed that as I feel my nether regions are cooking the longer I sit here. No. I simply want to push the one that will flush. The toilet is made of one piece of pressed plastic of a worrying flesh colour. In fact the whole of the room is made from a single piece of plastic, no joins anywhere. Easy to clean I imagine. For one moment I wonder if there is a button which will set off a tsunami of cleansing product to sluice the entire room. I hesitate with my finger over the icons.
"The Japanese toilet truly is a place of spiritual repose. It always stands aside from the main building, at the end of a corridor, in a grove fragrant with leaves and moss. No words can describe that sensation as one sits in the dim light, basking in the faint glow reflected from the shoji, lost in meditation or gazing out at the garden... surely there can be no better place than a Japanese toilet... looking out upon blue skies and green leaves... I love to listen from such a toilet to the sound of softly falling rain, especially if it is a toilet in the Kanto region... Compared to Westerners, who regard the toilet as utterly unclean and avoid even the mention of it in polite conversation, we are far more sensible and certainly in better taste... our forebears, making poetry of everything in their lives, transformed what by rights should be the most unsanitary room in the house into a place of unsurpassed elegance, replete with fond associations with the beauties of nature."
So wrote Junichiro Tanizaki in his 1933 essay on aesthetics "In Praise of Shadows". But here in 2008, gazing at the buttons at the side of my all-in-one plastic computer-loo on the 22nd floor of my high-rise in Tokyo, I would be hard pressed to term this "a place of unsurpassed elegance, replete with fond associations with the beauties of nature." And when, finally, I take the plunge and press on a button with what seems to me an icon for "flush", I am electrified by the powerful spurt of extremely hot water in a delicate area of my anatomy.
When I first read "In Praise of Shadows" in 1996 I was rapt. As Charles Moore in his introduction says, "It comes with the thrill of a slap for us to hear praise of shadows and darkness... darkness (which) illuminates a culture very different from our own; but at the same time allows us to look deep into ourselves to our own inhabitation of the world..."
Our inhabitation of the world: where light is synonymous with progress. We talk, in the West, of "enlightenment" as a term of understanding. Yet the understanding which Tanizaki requires us to engage in is another way of looking, to see something in the unknown, seeing beauty in shadow and darkness.
"The quality 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."
A Westerner, Tanizaki suggests, has no sense of how the blackness of the lacquer bowl is beautiful precisely because you cannot see the soup within. You must divine what is in it by closing your eyes and smelling; you must imagine, see without seeing. "What lies within the darkness one cannot distinguish... but the fragrance carried upon the vapour brings a delicate anticipation."
The beauty of an old pot, for example, is enhanced because age has darkened it and time cracked its perfection. Its imperfection is an essential part of its beauty suggesting a life lived, rather than a goal achieved.
And if you really want to meet your love, then the best place is in the very heart of a Japanese house where the light almost does not penetrate, and where to make herself even more beautiful the woman of your dreams blackens her teeth. This last image anathema to us given our obsession with the white plastic smile.
In 1933, at the same time as publishing "In Praise of Shadows", Tanizaki writes another story about seeing without seeing. "Shunkin Sho", the story of Shunkin, is the true account of a blind female shamisen player and composer, who lived in the mid-19th century. Unconventional and ravishingly beautiful, the musician Shunkin lived with her servant Sasuke. At first simply a serving boy whose duty it was to lead her around, he later became her pupil and then her lover; it is a shadowy love story that places at its centre the power of the imagination in darkness. Because Shunkin was blind, her servant Sasuke, in his desire and love to inhabit Shunkin's world, blinds himself. The story begins with the facts...