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Tea Leaves

Japan sheds light on shadows of the past

How the country's 'dark valley' of 1930s paved the way for a brilliant future

Lanterns diffuse the light in the Omoide Yokocho alleyway near Tokyo's Shinjuku Station. (Photo by Stephen Mansfield)

It is a nightly routine with little variation. After my bath, I repair to the living room, dim the lights and settle into a good book. An hour or so later, my wife, who is Japanese, emerges from her soak and switches on the main lights -- a fluorescent, halogen and neon cocktail that solarizes the room, leaving me blinking and dazed, like a rabbit caught in the headlights of an approaching truck.

Japan's adoration of brilliance is far from new. By the time the writer Junichiro Tanizaki published his 1933 essay on aesthetics, "In Praise of Shadows," the appreciation of muted light had already begun to lapse into a cult of quaintness. The author, who celebrated the merits of meager light and perishable, organic materials, noted that in the case of the zashiki (Japanese tatami mat room) walls are made from soil and sand, in order to "let the frail, melancholic, ephemeral light saturate the solemn composure of their earthy tones."

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