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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.