Sei Shonagon’s “The Pillow Book”

Sei Shonagon, courtesy of Wikipedia

Sei Shonagon, from a 17th century medieval illustration, courtesy of Wikipedia

Moving on to other topics, before leaving for Japan a few months ago, I finally finished the famous Heian-era diary, The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon.1 Until now, I haven’t even had a chance to write about the book due to other pressing issues, but now I want to go back and talk about the Pillow Book. :)

The Pillow Book, or makura no sōshi (枕草子), was completed by the year 1002. The term “pillow” here has no romantic connotations and instead refers to things like idling and poetry. It has an unusual format comprising almost entirely of lists. It’s amazing how many different lists of things Sei Shonagon came up with, like awkward and embarrassing things, trees, birds, incantations, things that make you feel cheerful, things that make you feel nostalgic and so on. Sometimes the lists come across as terribly elitist or snobbish, true to her role as a lady-in-waiting in the aristocratic Heian Court. In one example, “unsuitable things”, she lists snow falling on the houses of commoners, presumably because it mars the poetic scene. In another, she talks about an outdoor feast with the Emperor and various nobles, and a “hilarious” scene involving the commoners who came to take away the food scraps discarded by the nobles. There are plenty of things in the diary that would infuriate readers today, given Sei’s haughty attitude, but she was an observant and excellent writer too.

Throughout, she also adds many anecdotes from her time serving the Empress Teishi, who was the first wife of Emperor Ichijō, when Teishi’s inner-circle was the high-point of the Court. As history shows, a rival branch of the Fujiwara clan wedded the Emperor to Empress Shōshi, daughter of Fujiwara no Michinaga, as a second wife. With the death of Teishi’s father, Fujiwara no Michitaka, she and her inner-circle were sidelined and forgotten as Michinaga’s fortunes rose instead through the Emperor’s second wife. Coincidentally, Lady Murasaki was a lady-in-waiting for Empress Shōshi, certainly adding to the ancient rivalry. Many of Sei Shonagon’s anecdotes come after Empress Teishi had fallen out of favor, and Sei had retired from service, marginalized and somewhat of a has-been, so the tone of these anecdotes is often a bit melancholy or nostalgic. It’s also a nice reminder how fortune can change overnight.

On the lighter side, Sei often fondly remembers her love interests (which did not include her estranged husband Tachibana Norimitsu whom she found dull-witted), her battles of wits with men of the Court, or with fighting rumors by other ladies-in-waiting. Court intrigue was as catty as ever. Sei also describes in wonderful detail some of the excursions the ladies made, tearful moments when Empress Teishi’s father died and so on. In many ways, the Pillow Book is like an extended diary of the life of a woman in the Heian Court. Where the contemporary Diary of Lady Murasaki is brief and revolves around a single incident (the birth of Fujiwara no Michinaga’s grandson), this is much more detailed, but difficult at times due to the dry lists, scattered format, and abundant foot-notes necessary to help explain the subtle jests Sei makes. Life in 10-11th century Japan was quite different than today, or even the more well-known samurai-era in medieval times. It was a life of poetry, Court intrigue, romances on the side, a strange hybrid of Chinese and native culture, and a lot of broken dreams. I was pretty sad when the book was over, though slightly relieved too as it was pretty long. ;)

If, like me, you are interested in Japanese Classical culture and a detailed look at life in the Court, I definitely recommend this book. The Penguin edition linked above had a lot of good background information provided about the life and times, maps, lists of people, ranks and so on, so it’s a good choice if any. :)

Also, you can look online for quotes and bits from the Pillow Book as well if you’re curious to get just a sample. Enjoy!

P.S. Speaking of Sei and her husband, there is a poem in the Hyakunin Isshu written by Sei (number 62) where she scolds her husband for coming home late:

夜をこめて yo wo komete
鳥のそら音は tori no sorane wa
はかるとも hakaru tomo
よに逢坂の yo ni ōsaka no
関はゆるさじ seki wa yurusaji

The translation is:

The rooster’s crowing
In the middle of the night
Deceived the hearers;
But at Osaka’s gateway
The guards are never fooled.

The “joke” here is a reference to a Chinese story where a man named Mōshōkun (孟嘗君) was being chased by guards and was trapped inside the city. He came to the famous gate of Kankokukan (函谷関), which was closed for the evening, and imitated the sound of a crow so well, that the guards were fooled and let him out. Sei Shonagon was reminding her husband that this wouldn’t work, so don’t bother (and thanks for being late). :)

1 Sei Shonagon is not her real name. It was very common practice then for women authors to use their husband’s title in the Court (or their own title), plus surname. The word “shōnagon” (少納言) means “minor counselor to the Emperor” and “sei” (清) is the Chinese way to read her name. Lady Murasaki and all the other female authors of the time are basically the same.

About Doug

A Buddhist, father and Japanophile / Koreaphile.
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2 Responses to Sei Shonagon’s “The Pillow Book”

  1. yrene yuhmi says:

    What a wonderful blog…I am very interested in Japan, culture, language, literature…all arts。。。and I always read your posts by notification email, but today I wanted to pay you a visit ^^ you are helping me a lot, because of my LOVE towards Nippon….どうもありがとうございます!!

  2. Doug says:

    Bienvenido Yrene! I am always glad to hear from people from the EU, so welcome and thank you. :)

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