I have no background knowledge of Japanese history whatsoever but am always looking to read classic books from around the world, especially those written by women. So when I was looking to read something from Japan, there were two books that kept coming up in my searches. Of The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu and The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagan, Kris Kosaka says in The Japan Times that “No Japanese literary education is complete without considering these two works.”
While others may be more familiar with The Tale of Genji as an example of classic Japanese literature of the time, I chose to read The Pillow Book instead (I always lean toward bucking the trend). I was intrigued by what I had read of Sei Shonagon’s attention to detail, unflinching honesty, and acerbic wit in her endless quest for the perfect comeback.
It’s been said that during the Heian period (794 to 1185 CE), Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon were rivals in the same literary circle and that the former found Sei Shonagon conceited, too clever for her own good. While The Tale of Genji is a long and layered tale of politics, love, and loss, The Pillow Book is less serious — and to me, more telling — and full of Sei Shonagon’s observations, wonders, and criticisms.
Dr. Meredith McKinney, an expert in Japanese literature and translator of this edition of The Pillow Book, posits that Sei Shonagon was probably born around 966 CE and shares that the last known reference to her was in 1017 CE. Sei Shonagon was a member of the court of Empress Consort Teishi (Sadako), a wife of Emperor Ichijo, where she served as a gentlewoman or lady-in-waiting beginning around 993 CE until Teishi’s death in 1000 CE.
Despite (or perhaps because of) her astute and often sentimental observations, Sei Shonagon would’ve been brought into court for her knowledge of literature and poetry and for her writing skills; she served as a tutor of Teishi. According to Ohio State University professor Ryan Schultz, she brought a level of “sophistication and elegance” to the court, which were cornerstones of court culture during this period.
While specific details about Sei Shonagon and her book are difficult to confirm, it is believed she completed the book around 1002 CE. There are several editions of the book; it has been copied and recopied multiple times. I read the Penguin Classics edition which includes an informative introduction written by Meredith McKinney and is full of notes throughout. Well-researched and thorough, it also includes appendices such as a glossary as well as explanations of colors and clothes, social statuses, and more.
The Pillow Book is akin to a diary; an example of the zuihitsu genre of Japanese literature. In it, Sei Shonagon mostly shares with readers stories of her daily life, gossips about her peers, comments on fashion and the seasons. The book was supposed to have been kept private, but after it was discovered left out on a mat one day around 996 CE, it was circulated among court members long before it was published. Today it provides a perspective on imperial culture in all its luxury, privilege, and poetry. While Kris Kosaka and Charlotte Ahlin liken it to a modern-day vlog or blog, it is also considered a masterpiece of Japanese literature.
I love memoirs, poetry, historical fiction, and diaries but have never read a book quite like this before. While I enjoyed it for its unique content and perspective, it lacks the cohesion I’m used to as it jumps around throughout time periods, thoughts, and miscellany. This isn’t a bad thing; just an exercise in patience.
At times, Sei Shonagon uses the pages to list simple observations and examples of seemingly arbitrary topics of her choice, sometimes as ordinary as naming mountain peaks, plants, or bodies of water. At other times, the lists are more reflective, humorous, or downright cheeky.
Here are some of my favorites:
Though it’s the same it sounds different ~ The language of priests. Men’s language. Women’s language.
Rare things ~ A pair of silver tweezers that can actually pull out hairs properly. A person who is without a single quirk. Two women, let alone a man and a woman, who vow themselves to each other forever, and actually manage to remain on good terms to the end.
Times when someone’s presence produces foolish excitement ~ A mother who’s pampering and praising her spoilt child, who is actually nothing out of the ordinary. The little introductory cough you give when you’re about to address someone who overawes you.
Things now useless that recall a glorious past ~ A fine embroidery-edged mat that’s become threadbare. A painter with poor eyesight. A switch of false hair seven or eight feet long, that’s now fading and taking on a reddish tinge. A man who was a great lover in his day but is now old and decrepit.
While I took these as fascinating insights into the life of an elite Japanese court woman at that time, I can see how some readers may become tired of the gossipy tone or her whiny judgments. Many readers would be satisfied with a summary of the book and a sampling of representative passages, but I would encourage others to read it in its entirety precisely because it doesn’t conform to modern (Western) writing conventions — and this is a good thing.
The Pillow Book provides accessible entry into a slice of Japanese culture, history, and literature in a form that is swift, smart, and sharp; but it also encourages explorations of parallels to modern writing, cultural traditions, and social connectivity.
Overall, The Pillow Book is beautifully written. Beauty and comfort were central themes of the book and Sei Shonagon spends time describing clothing, fabrics, festivals, the weather, sounds, and colors; all in a signature poetic style that makes for lovely backdrops to the stories she tells.
One aspect that kept me reading was noticing the way women were presented in the book. While the type of life represented in the book was not that of most women of the time, it was interesting to examine how court women were thought of and treated. It seems that women were mostly hidden away, in certain palace rooms, behind curtains or screens, or in carriages.
That being said, it didn’t seem that these court women minded this. The court was the center of their worlds and according to Sei Shonagon, they seemed fairly satisfied with it. In fact, in her examination of the construction of womanhood during the Heian period, Rebekah A. Hunter explains that power was shared between men and women to the benefit of both. Court women during this time were exercising autonomy and agency through writing and in other surprising ways.
In this polygamous, polyamorous time, Japanese court women of the Heian period enjoyed taking multiple lovers, seemingly without shame or judgement. Sei Shonagon even discusses how a man should be sure to not overstay his welcome in his lover’s chambers after a night of pleasure, and that he would do well to deliver a well-written (and prompt) “morning after” note expressing his satisfaction and gratitude.
Those who are interested in learning about this era of Japanese history or life will find this book compelling. I would also recommend this book to poetry lovers, as poetry was an integral part of court society during this period. One’s knowledge of poetry indicated their intellect, wit, and social standing; not only was one expected to know the greats but also to come up with original poetry on the spot.
Communication between friends, colleagues, and lovers often took place via notes sent by messenger and these notes were often written in poetry, so one needed to be able to read, interpret, and create poems full of flirtation and puns for attention and glory. This was one of Sei Shonagon’s talents; she aimed to entertain and surprise with her poetry and humor.
The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon is unlike anything else I have read. Along with Murasaki Shikibu, Sei Shonagon laid the foundation for Japanese literature and the importance of women’s voices within it. I would recommend it to readers of poetry and women writers, those interested in Japanese or women’s history, or anyone who is looking for a unique classic read.
Title: The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon
Author: Sei Shonagon
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Pages: 404 pages
Publication Date: 2006 (this translation edition)
Tags: Japan, women writers, memoir, history, poetry, classics
Rating: Highly recommended
For further reading:
“‘The Pillow Book’ By Sei Shonagon Was Written In The 11th Century, But It’s Basically A Modern Day Blog” (2018) by Charlotte Ahlin for Bustle
The Pillow Book on Ancient History Encyclopedia
Pillow Book on Encyclopedia Britannica
The Pillow Book: Translating a Classic (2011) by Meredith McKinney for Kyoto Journal
The Pillow Book of Sei Shônagon (with excerpts and study questions) on Asia for Educators
Heian Literature and Japanese Court Women video by Ryan Schultz of The Ohio State University
Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon: Two pioneering women in Japanese literature by Kris Kosaka for The Japan Times
Aesthetics of Womanhood in Heian Japan by Rebekah A. Hunter (2014)
This article is adapted from the article originally published at https://www.karlajstrand.com on October 2, 2018.