Sei Shōnagon Completes

Sei Shōnagon, a lady-in-waiting to the Japanese empress Sadako, finished The Pillow Book, a collection of anecdotes, lists, and assorted writings that is one of the best sources of information concerning the court society of the tenth century and is considered an influential landmark in the history of Japanese literature.

Summary of Event

The details of the life of Sei Shōnagon are not well known to scholars. Even the date of her birth is conjecture. It is know that she was a daughter of Kiyohara Motosuke Kiyohara Motosuke , a provincial official, and that she served as a lady-in-waiting to the Japanese empress Sadako Sadako in the 990’s for nearly a decade. Some scholars have made the argument that she was married to a government official and even gave birth to a son, but this aspect of her life remains unclear. So scant are details concerning her life that even her name is unknown. Shōnagon (“minor councillor”) is a reference to her position at court and Sei to the Kiyohara family. [kw]Sei Shōnagon Completes The Pillow Book[Sei Shonagon] (c. 1001)
[kw]Pillow Book, Sei Shōnagon Completes The (c. 1001)
[kw]Shōnagon Completes The Pillow Book, Sei (c. 1001)
Sei Shōnagon
Pillow Book, The (Sei Shōnagon)
Japan;c. 1001: Sei Shōnagon Completes The Pillow Book[1460]
Literature;c. 1001: Sei Shōnagon Completes The Pillow Book[1460]
Cultural and intellectual history;c. 1001: Sei Shōnagon Completes The Pillow Book[1460]
Sei Shōnagon
Kiyohara Motosuke
Murasaki Shikibu

Although the information about Sei Shōnagon’s life is scant, of all the Japanese historical figures of her day, it is she whose thought and opinions concerning daily life are most intimately known. This is because of the character of her major literary work, Makura no sōshi (c. 994-c. 1001; Pillow Book, 1929; best known as The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, 1967, or The Pillow Book). “Pillow book” was a common way to refer to any collection of random writings during the tenth and eleventh centuries; Sei Shōnagon probably did not give her work this title. Scholars believe that she started the work as a private endeavor and did not intend it to be read by an audience.

The work is a collection of essays, lists, anecdotes, random musings, poems, and descriptive passages with little connection to one another other than the whims of the author. The Pillow Book was probably written over a ten-year period while Sei Shōnagon served as the lady-in-waiting to Empress Sadako. This position placed the young woman in the inner circle of court life at what was the height of classical Japanese society, and aside from its purely literary interest, The Pillow Book provides the best information available about the daily realities of Japanese court society at that time.

The Pillow Book is written entirely in Japanese. During the late tenth and early eleventh centuries, Japanese men typically wrote in Chinese, using Chinese characters, while Japanese women wrote almost exclusively in their native tongue, using hiragana, a syllabary derived from Chinese characters. The only Chinese terms that appear in The Pillow Book are place-names and personal titles. The Pillow Book is a part of a larger tradition of women’s literature Literature;Japan
Japan;literature . Other works of this period, such as Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji monogatari (c. 1004; The Tale of Genji, Tale of Genji, The (Murasaki Shikibu) 1925-1933), considered to be the first true novel in world history, are notable as works of literature, but the beauty and simplicity of Sei Shōnagon’s style have resulted in it being used as an example of the finest Japanese prose to this day.

The majority of The Pillow Book is devoted to short anecdotes or sketches. The subject matter is amazingly varied; Sei Shōnagon provides her impressions and observations of everyday life at the court as well as descriptions of nature. Many readers have described her attitude as arrogant or confrontational; certainly, she expresses her opinions freely and employs a sharp wit. She frequently disparages other members of the court’s inner circle and makes no secrets of her prejudices. One of her most famous and controversial statements comes in her description of a number of commoners who have been brought to the area of the palace as carpenters. She suggests that they are almost akin to beasts and that watching them while they eat is almost frightening. This, no doubt, is one of the most direct examples of the aristocratic prejudice of the Japanese court that is available to modern readers. It is also an invaluable indication of just how removed Japanese court society was from the lives of the people at large.

Sei Shōnagon’s scorn was not reserved for members of the lower classes. In another famous section, she made known her attitude concerning the bizarre emotions of men. The aspect of men’s behavior that Sei Shōnagon found most mystifying was their ability to fall in love with women viewed by others as unattractive, even leaving more beautiful women for these plain women. Modern scholars have described the society of the Japanese court as having been obsessed with appearances, and many sections of The Pillow Book contain comments on inappropriate clothing or actions. Passages such as the ones described show Sei Shōnagon to have been a forceful woman who was not afraid to express any type of opinion in her work.

However, most of the pieces found in The Pillow Book are positive in nature, inspired by curiosity and aesthetic sense. For example, in the well-known opening passage of the work, Sei Shōnagon describes what time of day is most beautiful in each season, beginning with Haru wa akebono (“In spring it is the dawn that is most beautiful”).

In addition to the anecdotes and sketches, The Pillow Book contains 164 lists. They range from collections of “Things That Should Be Short” and “Things That Should Be Large” to lists of “Poetic Subjects” and “Elegant Things.” Although many of these lists are of aesthetically pleasing items, some of them are, if anything, less diplomatic than her anecdotes. Under the heading of “Things Without Merit,” she lists an ugly person with a bad character. Her long list of “Hateful Things” includes fleas, mosquitos at night, elderly people warming their wrinkly hands over a brazier, loud drunken men, and visitors and men who behave badly, for example, “A man with whom one is having an affair keeps singing the praises of some woman he used to know. Even if it is a thing of the past, this can be very annoying.”

In the end, there is little attempt to impose any type of order on these lists and anecdotes. In assessing the quality of literature of Sei Shōnagon’s time, scholars have concluded that a disorganized, whimsical approach was considered to be a virtue by many. Lack of any complex agenda or thematic purpose in the work has made it accessible to consecutive generations of readers and has contributed to the enduring popularity of the work.

Shortly after she finished writing the main body of The Pillow Book, Sei Shōnagon’s tenure at court ended. Although it is clear that much of The Pillow Book was written while at court, scholars believe that parts of it were based on her memories and were set down during her later life. What is known, however, was that the book was read by many Japanese nobles during Sei Shōnagon’s own lifetime. However, it is known that not all the members of the imperial court appreciated Sei Shōnagon’s candor and whimsical style. Murasaki Shikibu, Sei Shōnagon’s famous contemporary and the author of The Tale of Genji, wrote in her diary that Sei Shōnagon had the most extraordinary air of self-satisfaction and that her writings were presumptuous and flawed. She also worried about Sei Shōnagon’s future, saying that her trivial writings would no doubt cause her to fall from favor.


The details of Sei Shōnagon’s later life are not known to scholars. Traditions tell of her dying lonely and in poverty, but many scholars consider this to be an invention. In any case, accurate information does not exist concerning the date or circumstances of her death. What is well known, however, is the influence of her work, both during her own lifetime and in later periods of Japanese history. Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book inspired a genre of Japanese writings known as zuihitsu (assorted or random writings). Later works such as Yoshida Kenko’s Tsurezuregusa (c. 1330; Essays in Idleness, 1967) are a part of this same tradition. Zuihitsu, Zuihitsu many of which share Sei Shōnagon’s desire to capture the essence of everyday life and lack of concern with structure, remain a popular part of the Japanese publishing industry.

The Pillow Book itself has enjoyed enduring popularity. It continued to be circulated in court circles after Sei Shōnagon’s death. Hand-copied versions were popular during the middle ages, and it was first printed and widely distributed in the seventeenth century. In modern times, The Pillow Book is looked to by authors, scholars, and average readers alike for insight into the everyday happenings and aesthetic insights of the classical Japanese court society as well as for the beauty of its prose and the fascinating character of its author. In this regard, it has remained not only an important historical source but also an acknowledged literary classic.

Further Reading

  • Keene, Donald. Seeds in the Heart. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. The first volume of Donald Keene’s history of Japanese literature, which deals both with The Pillow Book and the literary climate of Sei Shōnagon’s lifetime.
  • Mulhern, Chieko I., ed. Japanese Women Writers: A Bio-critical Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. Contains information about Sei Shōnagon and her contribution to the Japanese literary tradition. It also makes reference to other important authors of her time and provides valuable contextual information.
  • Murasaki Shikibu. The Diary of Lady Murasaki. Translated by Richard Bowring. London: Penguin, 1999. Provides insight into the lives of ladies-in-waiting in the Heian court and gives a context in which to understand Sei Shōnagon.
  • Okada, Richard. Figures of Resistance: Language, Poetry, and Narrating in “The Tale of the Genji” and Other Mid-Heian Texts. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991. Focuses on the importance of literature in the lives of women during the time of Sei Shōnagon. It provides valuable background concerning the literature of the period and the daily character of the lives of the authors themselves.
  • Sansom, George. A History of Japan to 1334. Vol. 1. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1958. The first volume of Sansom’s three-volume study of Japanese history remains a detailed and authoritative work on the subject.
  • Sei Shōnagon, The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon. Translated by Ivan Morris. 1967. Reprint. New York: Columbia University, 1991. A beautiful and authoritative translation of The Pillow Book by a famous scholar of Japanese literature, Ivan Morris.