Review: The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon

front pageThe Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon, was written in the approximate period of 990 to 1000 by a court lady serving empress Teishi. It is one of the earliest surviving pieces of Japanese literature.

The book consists of small and large fragments of text with observations made by Sei Shonagon. As such it is comparable with many diaries and blogs that have been written over the ages. Indeed, our blog is very similar in function to this millennium-old piece of literature. What makes The Pillow Book remarkable is not only that it is so old, but Sei Shonagon was also a sensitive and sharp observer of people and surroundings.


Since The Pillow Book was written in ancient and poetic Japanese, it is only directly accessible for experts in classical Japanese. For the rest of us (including most Japanese), a translation is necessary, augmented with annotations that explain customs, habits, and knowledge of the time. Unavoidably, something is lost in this process, but nevertheless The Pillow Book is an involving and convincing document of Sei’s world. We learn about her daily life as a court lady, her interaction with the people around her, the yearly cycle of events, the role of Shinto and Buddhist religion in her life, and also some glimpses of her romantic life. In all this Shonagon comes across as a real person. She has a very sharp mind, and is quick-witted, sensitive, and playful.


The Pillow Book consists of small and large text sections that are mostly independent. Although there are occasional links between the sections, there is no overarching story or even much of a chronological order in the sections. Some of the sections are observations, for example:

Another delightful moment is in winter, on a fiercely cold winter when you’re lying there listening snuggled far down under the bedclothes, and the sound of a temple bell comes to you, with such a deep and distant reverberation that it seems to be emerging from somewhere buried. And the way the cock will crow first with its beak still hidden under its wing, in a muffled cry that sounds deep into the far distance, but with the growing light its cry will seem to move closer – that is also lovely.

(from item 69 in Meredith McKinney’s translation, (c) Penguin books 2006).

Other sections are lists. For example, she lists pools, ferry crossings, tombs of emperors, plants, flowers, delightful things, and much more. Items are included in the list because she likes them, because the name reminds her of a poem or story, or because there is some interesting pun  on the name. Sometimes she cannot resist to explain the reason, and she wanders away from the pure list, sometimes we are left to guess.

Of course there are also stories that tell about her life at the palace. They can be about a visit to a temple or an event, a festival, or some other event. Also, literature, and in particular poetry, is important in court life. Someone who can quote the classics (mainly Chinese authors), recognise quotes, and preferably respond with a witty quote or adaptation, is greatly admired. Sei is an expert in this game. Obviously she is more inclined to report on the `duels’ she wins, but it is clear that she can stand her ground, and that she has a reputation to uphold. This is a typical exchange:

A branch of plum from which the blossoms had fallen arrived one day from the Privy Chamber, with the message: What do you make of this?’
My response was simply, ‘The flowers have already scattered.’

When they learned of my reply, a large group of senior courtiers who were seated in the Black door room set about chanting this poem. His Majesty happened to overhear, and remarked, ‘This is a better response than merely writing a good poem. She’s made a fine answer.’

As the notes explain:

Sei is being invited to respond poetically on the subject of the plum branch. Her response is the Japanese rendering of a quotation from a Chinese poem by Oe no Koretoki (888-963):
The flowers have already scattered from the plums of Dayu Ridge. / Who now inquires after their powdered faces.’

(item 100 with note from Meredith McKinney’s translation, (c) Penguin books 2006).

In a similar way, a sharp dress sense is essential at the court. Both men and women dress with many layers of colourful and expensive cloth that is partially dictated by their station at the court, partially by the season, and partially by the taste of the wearer. Court ladies are expected to hide themselves from all men behind screens or in closed carriages, but they can reveal the sleeves of their dress in all their layered glory to the viewer. Sei is fascinated by clothes, and can describe in minute detail what people are wearing. So much so that people in her environment tease her with it. Nevertheless, she is far from alone in this fascination.

Before she entered the service of the court, Sei married a man who also ended up at the court. He even plays a minor role in the book. However, at the time of the diary her relation with the man has weakened to the point where they are only friends (or brother and sister as they put it themselves), and the book describes how even that bond is broken. Typical for Sei, one big reason for the estrangement is that the man doesn’t appreciate poetry. Still, Sei does have romantic relations. She is not very explicit, but it is clear that she  has male friends, she often has very strong feelings for them, and some of them visit her at night. All of these relations are rather fleeting, however.

Although Sei is a court lady serving the empress, her relation with the empress plays a relatively small role in the book. It is clear that they know each other well, and that the empress likes Sei and admires her skills. Sei from her side has an admiration for the empress and the emperor that in our modern eyes is rather extreme. More generally, there is a strict hierarchy in the court, and Sei knows her place it it. Anyone above her in the hierarchy she uncritically venerates; anyone below her in the hierarchy she generally considers too unimportant to mention. Generally she is not actively unkind or cruel to people below her, but she does expect them to serve her and observe her privileges.

Reading it

The Pillow Book is easily old enough to be in the public domain, and there are indeed free copies available, for example from, but they invariably offer the original Japanese text, which only accessible to experts in historic Japanese. I am not aware of any translations in the public domain. One good annotated translation was produced by Meredith McKinney. It was published in 2006 by Penguin in its Classics series (ISBN 978-0-140-44806-1). This is the edition I used for this review.

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