The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon

apanese 2017

OK, it’s December, and Japanese Literature Challenge 11, organised by Meredith at, is almost at an end, but it runs until the end of January, so I’ve got a few weeks yet to join in. My track record on this challenge is not good – I’ve signed up a couple of times, only to find Life, the Universe and Everything got in the way. Last year I spent so much time with my mother that I did very little else, and this year I don’t seem to have got myself into gear at all. But during that time I have read several Japanese books, and even typed up a few notes, but never got round to posting them. So I’ve done some re-reading (I hope that is OK) and tried to knock my thoughts into shape.

First up is The Pillow Book, by Sei Shonagon, which I’ve read several times, and dip in and out of it when the mood takes me, and on each occasion different things leap out me. It is, I think, utterly delightful – a description that Sei herself uses frequently when telling us about life at the imperial palace in Japan a little over 1,000 years ago. She was a lady-in-waiting for the Empress Teishi, and the book is the most wonderfully lively, gossipy account of her life, like a diary on a grand scale, with stories, poems, lists of things she did and didn’t like, historical information, comments about people, and details about clothes, customs, festivals, weather and so on. Actually, I guess the nearest modern equivalent would be a blog!

downloadSei is very entertaining, and very opinionated (in a nice kind of way), and her voice comes down through the centuries loud and clear. She was clever, quick-witted, could be very funny, loved clothes, and had a keen enjoyment of the small things in life – sunshine, a flower, a lovely view, a beautifully written and presented letter, floorboards polished to a reflective shine… She joked with her female companions, flirted with good-looking men, and was an astute observer of people, capturing the characters and foibles of courtiers, officials, servants, priests, dancers and whoever else she came into contact with.

Her adulation of the imperial family sounds excessive, but they were regarded more or less as Gods, so her attitude reflects the time. And she didn’t suffer fools gladly (she was awfully snippety about people she didn’t like), and was very conscious of her position and her own abilities, so she can seem a little self-important and pompous. However, to offset that she had a sense of humour and could laugh at herself. Above all, I think, she had a great joy in life.

I suppose she could be regarded as a bit of an air-head, because she ignored major events and concentrated on the everyday, but it’s those little details that bring her world to life (and, in any case, most people are much more interested in small issues that affect them directly – when I worked on a local paper we would get swamped with letters about dog poo and bus shelters, but plans for roads or huge developments often went unnoticed).

download (1)The imperial palace where Sei lived and worked was a city within a city, a world apart and women were were enclosed within that. Their lives were circumscribed, and Sei and her companions peered out at the world through the blinds in their carriages, or the screens that surrounded rooms in the palace. They received visitors (for themselves and the empress) from behind these screens, but would make sure the edges of their garments could be seen, even if their bodies and faces were hidden! There were rank upon rank of officials, all with the most splendid titles, with clearly prescribed duties, clothes and areas of interest. There is mention, for example, of a Minister of the Left, of the Smaller Palace of the First Ward… Doesn’t that sound grand? Appearance and position were paramount, and the court was aesthetic, refined, elegant, with rules and rituals, where nothing seems to change.

At this point I’m pondering which way to go next – sometimes it’s difficult writing about a book you like, and deciding what to put in and what to leave out, so this is going to be way too long. But I must mention the poetry. Courtiers, men and women alike, were expected to recite from an extensive catalogue of classic poems – and to produce their own offerings, referencing the older works.

And I’m fascinated by their letters which seem to take the form of short, allusive poetry, written with brushes on coloured papers, which were attached to twigs or flowers. They were little works of art, the paper and plant selected with great care so they would be perfect partners for the subject, adding layers of meaning to the message. And recipients were required to send an immediate poetic response, referencing the poem received, as well as any earlier works alluded to – which of us today could do that as quickly and competently as Sei and her friends?

download (2)I’m equally intrigued by the clothes, made from layers of beaten silk, with the edges of each hem a set distance from the surface below, with the women’s wide flowing sleeves artfully arranged so the many edges could be clearly seen. How tricky would it be to replicate that I wonder… And there were strict rules about the colour combinations that could be used, and the styles and colours work at different levels of society.

Alongside the civilised sophistication there are moments of pure fun, like this odd ritual during the New Year festivities:

On the fifteenth day, the day of the full moon, a delightful scene always takes place in the houses of the nobility after the festival food is served. Both the senior and the junior gentlewomen of the house go about looking for a chance to strike each other with gruel sticks, constantly glancing behind them to make sure they aren’t hit themselves. It’s marvellous fun when someone manages somehow to get in a strike and everyone bursts into delighted peals of laughter – though you can certainly see how the poor victim herself feels upset.”

And there’s a wonderful description of how, after a heavy fall of snow, the Empress orders palace servants to make a snow mountain (the equivalent of our snowmen perhaps) and the women bet on how long it will take to melt, and Sei (who has guessed the longest time) goes to great lengths to ensure a groundsman cares for the mountain, and ensures children don’t climb on it and destroy it.

An illustration of Sei Shonagon from an issue of Hyakunin Isshu, produced during the Edo period, at least 400 years after Sei’s death (Wikipedia).

Then there are the lists, which are far more than a simple register of words or names, because she gives her thoughts on her choices, and frequently takes diversions to recount stories, details and explanations that may be only loosely connected. There are ordinary categories like wells, plains, rivers and mountains. But others are very idiosyncratic, with entries which I’m sure many of us would still relate to today. Things that Make the Heart Lurch with Anxiety is headed by watching a horse race (as hard on the nerves now as it was then), and I’m sure most gardeners would agree with her inclusion of slugs in Horrid Filthy Things! There are Repulsive Things, Dispiriting Things, Infuriating Things, Things that Make your Heart Beat Fast, Things that Make you Feel Cheerful, Refined and Elegant Things, Things that Look Better Painted, Common Things that Suddenly Sound Special… the list is endless. I particularly like Things that Give you Pleasure, which features the first volume of a tale you haven’t come across before and are longing to continue – then you find the other volume! I get just as thrilled when I discover a book by an author I love, or track down something I’ve been searching for. Actually, I think it would be rather fun to spend a year compiling lists inspired by those Sei drew up.

330px-Fujiwara_MichinagaNames, spellings and interpretation vary, depending on which translation you read. I have a Penguin edition (on the Kindle), translated by Meredith McKinney, which has an excellent introduction, and lots of appendices, with details about various aspects of life in Japan in the late 10thC and early 11thC. She reveals the little that is known about Sei Shonagon, and reflects on what the purpose of the book may have been. It helped put things into context, because the world portrayed in The Pillow Book often seems very alien – but I think people are much the same, wherever and whenever they lived. The picture (right) by Kikuchi Yosai, shows Fujiwara no Michinaga, was chancellor during part of the time Sei was at court.

For more information about the Japanese Literature Challenge  11, and to find links to see what other people have been reading, go to