The Pillow Book of Sei Shônagon

The Pillow Book, written about 1002, is a collection of impressions of court life by the court lady Sei Shônagon. A contemporary of Murasaki Shikibu, who wrote The Tale of Genji, Sei Shônagon reflects the same concern with style and taste typical of the period. Unlike the wistful and sometimes tragic mood of The Tale of Genji, however, the author of The Pillow Book expressed the feeling of okashi, or a delight in the novelty of life at court. Sei Shônagon's perceptive eye allows little to slip by; her writings have taught later generations much about the daily life of the aristocracy — and of women — during the classical period.

— By Dr. Amy Vladeck Heinrich, director, C.V. Starr East Asian Library, Columbia University

Excerpts from The Pillow Book

... I set about filling the notebooks with odd facts, stories from the past, and all sorts of other things, often including the most trivial material. On the whole I concentrated on things and people I found charming and splendid; my notes are also full of poems and observations. ... It is written entirely for my own amusement and I put things down exactly as they came to me. ... I am the kind of person who approves what others abhor and detests the things they like.

THINGS THAT CANNOT BE COMPARED

Summer and winter. Night and day. Rain and sunshine. Youth and age. A person's laughter and his anger. Black and white. Love and hatred.

THINGS THAT HAVE LOST THEIR POWER

A large boat which is high and dry in a creek at ebbtide.
A woman who has taken off her false locks to comb the short hair that remains.
A large tree that has been blown down in a gale and lies on its side with its roots in the air. ...
A man of no importance reprimanding an attendant. (1)

STRAY NOTES

One has been expecting someone, and ... there is a stealthy tapping at the door. One sends a maid to see who it is, and lies waiting, with some slight flutter of the breast. But the name one hears when she returns is that of someone completely different, who does not concern one at all. Of all depressing experiences, this is by far the worst. (2)

Notes
(1) First three excerpts from Ivan Morris, tr., The Pillow Book of Sei Shônagon (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1971), 263-264, 88, 145.
(2) "Stray Notes" from Donald Keene, Anthology of Japanese Literature from the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century (New York: Grove Press, 1955), 137.

Student Exercises

  1. Compare Sei Shônagon's observations with those you may have written in a personal diary. Do you find her humorous? Insightful?
  2. Select a category from the excerpts above and try to add your own example. Can you think of another example of things that cannot be compared? Things that have lost their power?
  3. Keep a journal of your thoughts and observations for several days, then compare your entries with those of your classmates. What kinds of things seem to be most interesting to students in your class? How are they different from the interests of Sei Shônagon?
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