Japanese approaches to light have long fascinated Western audiences. Novelist Junichiro Tanizaki's 1933 book In Praise of Shadows articulated the unique qualities of Japanese light found within the shadowy recesses of traditional Japanese dwellings. Tanizaki claimed that the Japanese approach to illumination prioritized subtlety, smoothness, and depth—in contrast with the West's stark treatment of light. In today's variegated design culture, contemporary Japanese designers explore light in myriad ways, but this subtle and meaningful treatment of light remains a principal characteristic of Japanese design and architecture. The following themes of atmosphere, integration, dematerialization, and emanation describe common approaches used by Japanese designers who are particularly adept at harnessing the complex interplay between light and material.

ATMOSPHERE Atmosphere is critical to Japanese design. Originally evoked within the sacred enclosures constructed at early Shinto ritual sites, atmosphere is an important quality that imparts meaning and distinctiveness to spaces. Today, it is often embodied within contemplative refuges set apart from the frenetic Japanese city. Artist Eriko Horiki is particularly interested in meditative spaces that convey utsuroi—or the feeling of time passing. Her interior environments and installations feature washi paper as the primary material, which filters light from a variety of sources to impart a contemplative ambience. Artist Tokujin Yoshioka seeks to summon natural phenomena such as clouds or waves in his work—a condition he calls “second nature.” By aggregating vast numbers of materials such as optical fibers, crystals, or torn paper, Yoshioka creates spatial assemblages that express a sense of weightlessness and mystery.

INTEGRATION Light is often treated as an integral component in Japanese design, and lighting systems are typically incorporated seamlessly with other materials in Japanese architecture and interiors. This subtle integration can generate surprising effects, and can enhance the functionality of surfaces and products. Designer Oki Sato leads Nendo, a multidisciplinary design firm that strives to generate small moments of surprise by shifting viewer expectations. Nendo's Rakuyo bench emits a subtle leaf pattern via LED lights on the floor when sat upon, and the color slowly changes the longer the user is present. The firm's Sorane is an audio speaker combined with a laser-driven light fixture, conceived as an audible slice of sky. Architect Yasuhiro Yamashita seeks to prioritize daylighting considerations in his building façades in order to conserve material and energy resources. His Lucky Drops house is clad in translucent fiber-reinforced plastic sheeting, for example, which illuminates all of the levels within.

DEMATERIALIZATION A fascination with lightness has inspired many Japanese architects to push the limits of structures and materials in their work—resulting in buildings and surfaces that appear to dissolve into their surroundings. These designers effectively erode materials to give presence to light—an approach derived from traditional Japanese architecture's intimate relationship with nature. Architect Kengo Kuma pursues dematerialization in an effort to mesh buildings with their contexts. The thin material filigree he employs for façades allows sunlight to penetrate the building envelope—creating what he calls “particles” of filtered illumination. Architect Jun Aoki treats architectural surfaces as multilayered, experiential fields that render unusual optical effects. His Louis Vuitton storefronts are visual experiments with glass tubes, metal screens, and window frit patterns. The concrete façade of his Ginza Namiki store incorporates inset translucent stone that is opaque by day, but glows at night.

EMANATION The increased availability of light-emitting fibers has inspired Japanese designers and manufacturers to work directly with luminous material technologies. This medium encourages integration with sensors and adjustable, low-voltage energy-delivery systems to create flexible and interactive displays. Akira Wakita has expertise in both computer science and fashion design, and develops textile-based technologies that bridge digital and analog worlds. His Fabcell material is composed of conductive fiber that emits multicolored light with an electrical charge, and may be used to create a textile video screen. Lumen designer Koichi Baba's Delight Cloth is a light-emitting textile made of thousands of fiber-optic strands. These 0.25-millimeter to 0.5-millimeter fibers are woven to form an expansive, luminous tapestry for vertical or horizontal applications. Both Fabcell and Delight Cloth demonstrate the extent to which the realms of lighting and materials are converging—a phenomenon that demonstrates a broader conceptual trend within Japanese design.