On this day, over a hundred years ago, Lafcadio Hearn wrote a journal entry in Kyoto that found its way into the collection of essays in his book Kokoro (1896). Here, long before Kawabata wrote his well-known thesis In Praise of Shadows, Hearn describes evocatively the attraction of silhouettes on shoji (paper screens) and the delicacy of the aesthetics built into the architecture of Japanese houses.
“Kyoto, April 16. The wooden shutters before my little room in the hotel are pushed away; and the morning sun immediately paints upon my shoji, across squares of gold light, the perfect sharp shadow of a little peach-tree. No mortal artist – not even a Japanese – could surpass that silhouette! Limned in dark blue against the yellow glow, the marvelous image even shows stronger or fainter tones according to the varying distance of the unseen branches outside. It sets me thinking about the possible influence on Japanese art of the use of paper for house-lighting purposes. By night a Japanese house with only its shoji closed looks like a great paper-sided lantern, – a magic-lantern making moving shadows within, instead of without itself. By day the shadows on the shoji are from outside only; but they may be very wonderful at the first rising of the sun, if his beams are leveled, as in this instance, across a space of quaint garden. There is certainly nothing absurd in that old Greek story which finds the origin of art in the first untaught attempt to trace upon some wall the outline of a lover’s shadow. Very possibly all sense of art, as well as all sense of the supernatural, had its simple beginnings in the study of shadows. But shadows on shoji are so remarkable as to suggest explanation of certain Japanese faculties of drawing by no means primitive, but developed beyond all parallel, and otherwise difficult to account for. Of course, the quality of Japanese paper, which takes shadows better than any frosted glass, must be considered, and also the character of the shadows themselves. Western vegetation, for example, could scarcely furnish silhouettes so gracious as those of Japanese garden-trees, all trained by centuries of caressing care to look as lovely as Nature allows. I wish the paper of my shoji could have been, like a photographic plate, sensitive to that first delicious impression cast by a level sun. I am already regretting distortions: the beautiful silhouette has begun to lengthen.”