Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book

A painting of Shonagon on a blue gradient background. She is combing her long black hair and looking down.


Shonagon and Her Style

Shonagon was a woman of status, and thus carried authority and influence. Her writings deal primarily with the courtly events of women, and portray them with autonomy and personality, as opposed to the often more domestic depictions of women in literature at the time. Her writings show strong wit and personality, and are brimmed with sharp opinions and seemingly hypocritical statements in her passages about anyone who crossed her path. Though a shit-stirrer herself, she snubs those who stir shit in a way unfitting of their status. She served Empress Teishi, and it is thought that many of Shonagon’s digs at other people in the court were meant to raise the overall impression and favor of the Empress.

“Though capable of great tenderness, Sei Shōnagon was often merciless in the display of her wit, and she showed little sympathy for those unfortunates whose ignorance or poverty rendered them ridiculous in her eyes.” x

The Heian Period

The Heian Period lasted from 794 to 1185, and was described by Encyclopaedia Brittanica as follows, “The period was characterized by the flourishing culture of the court aristocracy, which actively engaged in the pursuit of aesthetic refinement, leading to new developments in art and literature.” It is also said to be ” the last division that makes up classical Japanese history.”


The Pillow Book

The Pillow Book itself was likely never meant to be published. She wrote it like a diary: short, unrelated pieces that depict the events of court from Shonagon’s perspective that highlight her cultural and personal values. The three types of entries in The Pillow Book, according to Kikan Ikeda, are lists, personal opinions and thoughts, and narrative stories of her time in court. There are several entries that are more ambiguous, which makes sense with the idea that the book wasn’t meant to be published. It was just a woman’s thoughts and opinions that got shared and has since given historians insight into the lives of women in court during the Heian period.


Works Cited

Puchner, M., Akbari, S. C., & Denecke, W. (2018). The Norton anthology of world literature Volume B. New York ; London: W.W. Norton et Company.

The Pillow Book: Translating a Classic

池田亀鑑, Complete Lectures on The Pillow Book (全講枕草子』解説), 1957 via




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