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[751] The Pillow Book – Sei Shonagon


” ” I have written in this book things I have seen and thought, in the long idle hours spent at home, without ever dreaming that others would see it, fearing that some of my foolish remarks could well strike others as excessive and objectionable, I did my best to keep it secret, but despite all my intentions I’m afraid it has come to light. ” ([S29], p.255)

The Pillow Book is Sei Shonagon’s diary during the time she serves as a gentlewoman (lady-in-attendance) to Empress Teishi toward the end of 10th century. The world and the scope of this book, originally meant for her own amusement, are the walled palace grounds and most particularly the household of the Empress. But throughout most of Japanese history, the Emperor himself, for all his prestige, has been effectively powerless. During Shonagon’s time, the real power lay in the hands of the Fujiware family, whose members dominate top positions in the court hierarchy. One of the chief aims is to provide from their immediate family the woman who would become the mother of the future emperor. Teishi is Emperor Ichijo’s first Empress through an arranged marriage by her father, so her position as the Empress rests precariously on the continued power of her father Fujiwara Michitaka. Her Majesty (as Sei Shonagon addresses her) enjoys a quiet life of artistic and literary pursuit on the palace ground and favors Shonagon over all the other gentlewomen.

Although Shonagon is profoundly affected by these political events in the court, they are almost entirely absent from her pillow book. In entries ranging in size from brief reflections (like a status update) to longer, lyrical tales, Shonagon’s gaze is determinedly fixed on the delights of this confined court life. She describes in details the pleasures of poetry, fashion, ceremonies, flirtations, and the excursions that puncture the monotony of court life.

From behind the haze of fine reed blinds and curtains, the world she observes is far from dull to the senses. Her writing revels in the nuances of sound and scent—the soft tap of a lid placed on a kettle, the ruffle of fine paper, the faint susurration of fire tongs gently stirring ash in a brazier, or the lingering scent of incense impregnated on clothes. Visual acuteness is also acute. She is quick to observe, to compliment, to criticize on colors and style of clothing. This heightened awareness of taste and aesthetic sensibility is ubiquitous apparent in the court culture that Shonagon so lovingly documents, and nowhere more so than in relations between men and women. Her taste and opinion affirm her identity with others in her social circle, and so individual variation is often looked at askance. She is as perceptive in observation as she is cruel in her commentary.

355 pp. Penguin Classics. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

“The Pillow Book” Continues

Interesting how what I think is a nuisance at my local cafe, at the store, in the restaurant also irritated the ladies in the palace.

Reading “The Pillow Book”


After some name dropping, place naming, the diary of Sei Shonagon gets more personal and juicy. She pays close attention to clothes and apparel of courtiers regardless of their ranks. She can be humorous and acerbic at the same time. Remember that this was 11th century Japan, in the palace grounds, where strict formality is observed. Court lady might be visible by many men during comings and goings, but they refrain from making eye contact. I especially enjoy reading about her pet peeves:

From entry [25] Infuriating things — A guest who arrives when you have something urgent to do, and stays talking for ages. . . . A hair has got on your inkstone and you find yourself grinding it in with the inkstick. . . . A very ordinary person, who beams inanely as she prattles on and on. . . . People who sit warming themselves at a brazier, stretching their hands over it and endlessly turning them this way and that. . . . It’s also disgusting to witness men getting noisy and boisterous in their cups, groping around inside their mouth with a finger or wiping their whiskers if they have them . . . I also really hate the way some people go about envying others, bemoaning their own lot in life, demanding to be let in on every trivial little thing, being venomous about someone who won’t tell them what they want to know, and passing on their own dramatized version of some snippet of rumor they’ve heard, while making out that they knew it all along.

At times the diary nudges to more intimate subject. She seems to have had several lovers during her period at court, a situation probably not uncommon for gentlewomen, but although she recorded her close relationships with these men, there is never a hint of any physicality in her descriptions.

From entry [60] I do wish men, when they’re taking their leave from a lady at dawn, wouldn’t insist on adjusting their clothes to a nicety, . . . One does want a lover’s dawn departure to be tasteful. There he lies, reluctant to move, so that she has to press him to rise. ‘Come on, it’s past dawn,’ she urges. ‘How shocking you are!’ and his sighs reassure her that he really hasn’t yet had his fill of love, and is sunk in gloom at the thought that he must leave.

“The Pillow Book”


Today I begin The Pillow Book, a collection of diary entries by a gentlewoman named Sei Shonagon (her name actually is unknown, Shonagon is a rank of government official), who inhabited in the imperial court during the Heian Period in 11th century. She is a court lady to Empress Teishi, who was ensconced in the large Inner Chamber, and much of the comings and goings of life around her were conducted in the wide aisle area that surrounds this central room. Witness to these comings and goings, Shonagon is in a position of advantage to write about the life in the court.

Shonagon lives a very confined life within the walled palace grounds. It’s only when these gentlewomen could be sure of being unobserved that the ladies would venture out to sit on the veranda or wander in the garden beyond. Far from the dulling senses, however, this dimly lit and circumscribed world in fact vivified the perceptions f its inhabitants. Sei Shonagon’s writing revels in the nuanced on a kettle, the faint susurratip of a lid placed on a kettle, the faint susurration of fire tongs gently stirring ash in a brazier, or the lingering scent from someone’s incense-impregnated clothes resonate with peculiar intensity. Visual awareness is very acute. Her writing is steeped in aesthetic sensibility.

[739] Beauty and Sadness – Yasunari Kawabata


” Even now Oki’s words had not faded from her memory. The dialogue in his novel echoed them and seemed to have taken on a life apart from either Oki or herself. Perhaps the lovers of old were no more, but she had the nostalgic consolation, in the midst of her sadess, that their love was forever enshrined in a work of art. ” (126)

This eloquent and lyrical novel allures to a motif, the strange and nihilistic self-love pf the character Otoko. Ueno Otoko has established to be a successful painter in Kyoto. At age 16 she gave birth to a stillborn child from a forbidden love affair with a married man, Oki Toshio, who is almost twice her age. She managed to escape from mental hospital after her suicide attempt because of her unrequited love for Oki.

I suppose even a woman’s hatred is a kind of love. (94)

The novel begins as Oki, now in his mid fifties, is on a train to Kyoto for the New Year’s Eve belling tolling, which gives him an occasion to visit Otoko, whom he has not seen for 24 years. Otoko, too, has remained single and unmarried since the traumatic affair. During the visit, Oki meets Keiko, Otoko’s young portege and lover, in whom he sees the full bloom of Otoko’s lost beauty and passion. His affair with her has been an instrument to his success in literary career—he used the affair with Otoko to write his first novel, which brought hurt and humiliation to Otoko but wealth and fame to himself. Keiko sets out single-mindedly to revenge for Otoko by seducing Oki and his son Taichiro, using her beauty as a weapon.

Kawabata’s story takes place in that ethereal realm that lies between abstraction and reality. In the novel her writes Oki has immortalized his passion for Otaoko. Otoko wants to express her sense of loss, her grief and affection for the child she had never raised in her painting. Keiko wants to prove her love for Otoko by seeking a revenge for her. They are all entwined in this destiny but that neither one of them is comfortable with this destiny. They are all connected in a morbid way, and so their reflections abound, multiply, and reinforce the same locales and images. In a sense, they are lost in the confusion between image and reality.

Kawabata’s style is simple and light, but the novel is carefully constructed such that past events are often called and accumulated in the narrative to render a timeless quality. Since there is a poetic flow to it, the book is better relished slowly, to allow that bewildering array of reflections on the part of the characters to soak in. The recurring imagery—those flowers, temples, stone garden—all ingrained in characters’ memories, continue to reinforce and distort their reflections, and this is what makes the book very literary.

208 pp. Vintage International. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Polite and Honoific Form in Japanese Language


A passage from Kawabata’s elegiac Beauty and Sadness reminds me of the ordeal of learning honorific form in Japanese language class:

She was taunting him again. Oki came from the western part of Japan, and had never really mastered Tokyo polite speech; Fumiko, however, had been brought up in Tokyo, so he often asked her help with it. Yet he did not always accept what she told him. A tenacious argument would turn into an endless squabble, and he would declare that Tokyo speech was only a vulgar dialect with a shallow tradition. In Kyoto or Osaka, he would insist, even ordinary gossip was usually very polite, quite unlike Tokyo gossip. All sorts of things—mountains and rivers, houses, streets, heavenly bodies, even fish and vegetables—were referred to with polite expressions. (Strands of Black Hair)

Unlike most western languages, Japanese has an extensive grammatical system to express politeness and formality.

Since most relationships are not (considered) equal in Japanese society, one person typically has a higher position. This position is determined by a variety of factors including position within the family, position within an organization, job, age, experience, or even psychological state (for example, a person asking a favor tends to do so politely). The person in the lower position is expected to use a polite form of speech, whereas the other might use a more plain form. Strangers will also speak to each other politely. Japanese children rarely use polite speech until they are teens, at which point they are expected to begin speaking in a more adult manner.

Most Japanese people employ politeness to indicate a lack of familiarity. Polite forms are used for new acquaintances, then discontinued as a relationship becomes more intimate, regardless of age, social class, or gender. Polite forms are also used to make a distinction between in-groups and out-groups. When speaking with someone from an out-group, the out-group must be honored, and the in-group humbled. One of the complexities of the inside-outside relationship is that groups are not static; they overlap and change over time and according to situation. This distinction between groups is a fundamental part of Japanese social custom.

Yasunari Kawabata


Yasunari Kawabata was another sad case in the Japanese literary scene in terms of how writers would end their lives by committing suicide. In 1972, Kawabata became despondent over the grotesque public suicide of his friend and portégé Mishima Yukio and, far more quietly and decorously, committed suicide himself.

When Kawabata was awarded the Nobel prize for Literature in 1968, the novel most often mentioned as his great work was Snow Country (which I have avoided for a long time), a tale of sexual obsession set in the snowy mountain vastness of northwestern Japan. But to my own taste Beauty and Sadness is a more subtle, and more moving, work. It tells of the reunion of an elderly man and a woman artist whom he loved long time ago, of the jealous rage the artist’s young portégé conceives on her behalf for having been jilted in that affair, and of the terrible revenge she wreaks on the old man’s family.

Kawabata is an author to read if you’re into obsessive qualities in writing style. Love, regret, obsession, eroticism, and evil blend in his slight, almost ephemeral prose, where more is implied than is ever made explicit.

“The Pillow Book”


The Tale of Genji has been a slump for me, so I shift to The Pillow Book. Sei Shonagon was actually a contemporary of Lady Kurasaki. She was in her thirties when she was active as a writer and on a tradition that she died under difficult circumstances at an advanced age. Unlike Lady Murasaki, not much was known about Sei Shonagon, whose personal name was not known. Shonagon was only her title as an imperial lady-in-waiting. In fact, the sole mention of her writings of her contemporaries is an uncomplimentary remark by Lady Murasaki, who disliked Sei Shonagon’s arrogance. Like most people, she would quickly have slipped into the obscurity of the past, savefor her one stunning achievement: For a few years, exactly a thousand years ago (as of this writing), she kept a “pillow book” of random jottings about her life as a court lady that has enthralled and entertained readers ever since.

Sei Shonagon lived during the Heian Period (795-1085) and was raised in an aristocrat family. It was a period in which art, poetry, and literature flourished, persuaded by the faith that life on earth is both illusory and ephemera. The Pillow Book is not a novel but a book of observations and musings recorded by Sei Shōnagon during her time as court lady to Empress Consort Teishi during the 990s. She was perfectly placed to observe and record events at court, and to comment upon them. The “pillow book” in which she wrote at night probably consisted of loose leaves of paper; much later, the leaves were copied in essentially random order, leading to the topical and chronological disarray of the book as is now.

The Pillow Book owes its enduring fame to the personality of its author, who was refined, demanding, censorious, sophisticated, witty, accomplished, and very outspoken. She was an egotist and a snob, admired by some of her contemporaries but probably not much liked. For me her personality is most alluring, and the fascination of reading this book is the realization of how badly one would fare under her critical eye.

[610] Ring – Koji Suzuki


” The tape had been rewound. It was an ordinary 120 minute tape, the sort you could get anywhere, and, as the manager had pointed out, the anti-erasure tabs had been broken off. Asakawa turned on the VCR and pushed the tape into the slot . . . He had high hopes that the key to unlock the riddle of four people’s deaths was hidden on this tape. He’d pushed play fully intending to be satisfied with just a clue, any clue. There can’t be any danger, he was thinking. What harm could come from just watching a videotape? ” (Part 2, Highlands, Ch.2, p.75)

This is the original novel that inspires the seminal 1998 Japanese horror film, Ringu, which obviously has outfamed the book since, at the time of the movie, Ring was yet to be translated into English. Four teenagers die in inexplicable circumstances—sudden heart failure. The news story piques journalist Asakawa, who dismisses the possibility that the deaths are coincidence. It turns out that one of the victims is his niece, Tomoko, and she and her friends all watched a certain videotape in a mountain log cabin. Whoever watches this tape will receive a mysterious, fateful phone call that announces death in a week. The tape originally contained instructions to avoid this fate, but they had been recorded over with another TV program.

This video hadn’t been recorded by a machine. A human being’s eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin—all five senses had been used to make this video. These chills, this shivering, were from somebody’s shadow sneaking into him through his sense organs. (Part 3, Gusts, Ch.5, p.146)

Asakawa, who suspects that there is more to the world than modern science can account for the eerie aftermath of the tape, enlists the help of his friend Ryuji, a philosophy professor, as they rummage through history archives and travel to rural Japan to investigate the origin of the video.

The book is creepy, and it makes more sense reading the book before watching the film. But it’s also entertaining to delve into the novel and see the solid bedrock of the plot in place even though the outer layers are vastly different from the film. The protagonist is a male reporter rather than a female one in the film, with a spouse and a child, who also watch the tape, so that his entire family is doomed if he does not solve the riddle.

Innumerable evil spirits undulated like seaweed, hands outstretched toward the exit. He couldn’t drive away the image. A pebble fell into the ghastly shaft, barely a meter across, echoed against the sides of the well, and was swallowed into the gullets of the evil spirits. (Part 4, Ripples, Ch. 12, p.242)

The book provides a lot more details on the video’s origin, describing shot-by-shot the scenes of the video, including those that are either different or omitted in the film. The video in the book I find to be less scary, even though Suzuki builds tension brilliantly early on. The book’s presentation of the video also feels more like an intriguing puzzle than a sensuous demonstration evil, and the last two-thirds of Ring somewhat degenerates into wooden comments about the paranormal. Although the reading experience lacks the fearsome sensory assault that gives the film’s success, it still creeps me out and delivers a much more tragic story on the main antagonist’s life. It has more depth on what Sadako’s previous life was like. It makes readers sympathize with her fate and understand why she turned into a vicious, revengeful, unexorcized ghost.

This is the first of the Ring trilogy.

282 pp. Vertical, Inc. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[512] Hotel Iris – Yoko Ogawa

” His mouth probed my legs. Even his breath made my nerves cry out. I felt as though I was being torn apart, split between fear of what he would do next and the desire to be shamed even more. But out of the tear, pleasure came bubbling like blood from a wound. ” (Ch.4, p.52)

Unlike The Housekeeper and the Professor, which delineates the charm of an unlikely friendship, Hotel Iris retreats into darker territory by which contemporary Japanese literature is known to me. The book follows an unusual love story—between 17-year-old Mari, the daughter of a hotel hostess and a 60-something widower who translates from Russian. They meet under the most peculiar circumstance” the distressed widower is having a noisy altercation with a prostitute who calls him a pervert. It’s in this lively opening scene that the old man, neatly dressed in shirt and tie, lingers in Mari’s mind. His voice, calm and imposing, “like a hypnotic note from a cello or a horn.” (3) She decides to follow him when she spots him in a shop a fortnight later.

No, everyone dies. This is something else, like being drawn toward an invincible chasm. I feel I’m being singled out for some sort of punishment . . . I pay these women to help me escape this fear. The desires of the flesh confirm my existence. (Ch.5, p.65-66)

And so this affair begins. It’s one based on bondage, dominance/submission, and sado-masochistic violence. In Mari the translator fulfills his sense of existence. The two loners, despite difference in age, finds mutual affection and sexual fulfillment in each other. One lives in an almost deserted island with minimal amenity and the other trapped working in a crumbling seaside hotel managed by her controlling, parsimonious mother. The arrival of a nephew who will reveal the circumstances by which the translator’s wife died complicates the matter.

Hotel Iris goes into what nost contemporary authors dare not to go. It’s not the most original work but Ogawa manages this audacious territory with sharp focus, bringing us scenes of breath-taking disturbance. The physicality of the relationship is disturbing because it’s not how we perceive love and intimacy. But the novel shows the length to which human beings can go, sexual speaking, to obtain reassurance of love and one’s sense of existence. This is a dreamlike novella of sexual dependency and damage.

164 pp. Picador. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]