Sei Shonagon, “The Pillow Book”

Image of Sei Shonagon.

Sei Shonagon lived in an ear where men could have many women at their sides, all classified by hierarchy of importance to the Lord. She was a court woman who was well know among the her court and others for being a skilled writer and poet, even gaining the rivalry of others such as Murasaki Shikibu. While she may have written other note worthy pieces, Shonagon is well known for her work The Pillow Book.

In this piece The Pillow Book Shonagon recounts her time in the court, sometimes giving us a shot of court life and other times allowing us a glimpse into the culture that she was accustomed to. One of the moments we get a glimpse into is how superstitious the Japanese seem to be in their beliefs. In class we mentioned about how there was a gamification to the idea of the getting hit with as a stick in “2. Times of year.” Shonagon writes, “It’s miraculous fun when someone manages somehow to get in a strike…” It seems like harmless fun, but once someone gets struck, the court beings to laugh while the victim cries. It seems that while the gamification is clearly there, there is also this underlying belief that if one is struck with the stick surely they will be the next to have a child. While this is the eventual end goal, there is no real rush to get there as a court woman. Once you have a child all your fun is gone, you spend your days caring for the child rather than the court men.

In some ways this would explain the feeling of having so much time to create such details within the pieces she writes. She was known to have at least one child and thus would’ve had to spend much time watching over them versus visiting with the court men. While, yes, there are some piece about time spend with the court men, those could be reminiscent from the times she was without child, allowing her that free time to spend with them. Now however, she has become the observer, giving us the gift of seeing what she had seen through intricate details of the people and things around her. A prime example of this comes from a passage in “20 The Sliding Panels That Close off the North East Corner.” In this passage she describes the clothes His Excellency Korechika “wearing a rather soft and supple cloak in the cherry-blossom combination, over deep violet gathered trousers of heavy brocade and white under-robes.” If anyone has ever had a peek at what a traditional kimono looks like, they’ll be able to see this image that Shonagon has masterfully painted with her words. Similarly she takes the time to describe the type of clothing the women are wearing as well, which is equally as beautiful as what the men are wearing, “..we gentlewomen sat with our cherry blossom combination Chinese jackets worn draped loosely back from the shoulders. Our robes were a fine blend of wisteria and kerria-yellow and other seasonal combinations, the sleeves all spilling out on display below the blinds that hung from the little half-panel shutters.” Instantly the image of a traditional court room fills the mind, the face and bodies of the court women hidden leaving only the rivers of fabrics to be seen from the half opened blinds. These descriptions don’t diminish the true power of Shonagon’s skills, in fact they play hand in hand with her intellect.

In the same section as the above paragraph, Shonagon improvises a poem for her Lady. The piece is an adaptation of a poem written by a father to his daughter:

“With the passing Years

My years grow old upon me

yet when I see

this lovely flower

I forget age and time.”

Shonagon took this poem and on the spot changed the meaning with the simple switch of the line ‘flower of spring’ to ‘your face, my lady’ giving Her Majesty a great compliment while fulfilling the task she was given. Not only was Shonagon great with her use of words and the images she could paint with those words, but she had an intellectual view pushing forward throughout each of the pieces discussed and all of the pieces she wrote in her lifetime.

Works Cited:



Ukiyo-e Search. Accessed, November 13, 2019.