Sei Shounagon and The Pillow Book

February 12, 2012

by Wataru Meguro

Sei Shounagon is one of the Japanese poets who lived in the Heian period, which started in 794 A.D. and lasted until 1185 or 1192 A.D. She is known as the author of The Pillow Book, which is regarded as one of the most valuable historical sources on life in the Heian period as well as being a masterpiece of literature in Japan. Compared to the Tale of Genji by Murasaki Sikibu, The Pillow Book has a reputation for its jestful descriptions of the life of nobility during that period.

Shounagon was born the daughter of the poet, Kiyohara no Motonosuke, and given an education in literature. She married when she was 16, but divorced shortly after. At age of 28, she started to serve in the palace, where her literary talent was recognized by Fujiwara no Teishi, the empress of the time. There she worked both as a secretary and private tutor of Fujiwara no Teishi. In addition to that, she kept a journal about her observations palace life and its seasonal cultural practices. The collection of these journals eventually came to be called The Pillow Book at a later date in time.

The Pillow Book consists of about 200 short chapters. It has achieved a high reputation for its lively description and expressive words. The quotes from the book can be seen in almost all of the literature textbooks in Japanese high schools. Also, since it contains detailed descriptions of the life of Heian nobility, The Pillow Book is considered to be one of the most important historical records of that era. The most famous quote from the book is below.  

春はあけぼの
やうやう白くなりゆく山際、少しあかりて、紫だちたる雲の細
くたなびきたる –第一段

which means,

I think the most beautiful hour in the spring is early morning.
The sun is yet behind the peaks. Outside is getting light a little bit. And the thin cloud, which appears slightly purple, is hanging in the sky. – Episode 1

Summer Sunrise Over Jizoudake

Summer Sunrise Over Jizoudake

Sei Sounagon is famous for such writings that mention the beauty of nature and the four seasons, but the episodes about her daily life comprise a large portion of the book.

There are several things that I cannot stand to hear. For example, it’s the sound ofkoto, which is played without proper tuning, by somebody who is not good, but does not know that herself. Or it’s the voice of the people who are chatting loudly in the other rooms while we are hosting our guests. – Episode 92

Among these episodes, some of them tell us about the atmosphere of ancient Kyoto. For example, there is a chapter describing the time when Sei Shounagon visited Fushimi Inari shrine, which is located in the south east part of Kyoto city. She says,

I thought I should visit Fushimi-Inari and actually went to the shrine. But I was exhausted in the middle of the approach. When I was taking a rest and regretting my foolhardy attempt, an older lady in casual dress went passed me. That was impressing. -Episode 152

Sei Shonagon

Sei Shonagon

It seems like making a circuit around the Fushimi Inari shrine was a hard job for Heian people. It is the same for many of us living in modern times. Considering the fact Sei Shounagon had to walk all the way from the palace, which existed near what is now Marutamachi Station, there is no wonder she ran out of energy on her way. Through her words, we can see what the Heian people were thinking. Some people might find it similar with what they are thinking now. Sei Shonagon shows us a different world through her book, but also tells us that the way we feel is not too different from what people felt a thousand years ago.

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