Sei Shonagon

From New World Encyclopedia
Sei Shonagon. This picture was drawn by Kikuchi Yosai(菊池容斎), 1788-1878, a Japanese painter.

Sei Shōnagon (清少納言), (c. 965 C.E. - c. 1010 C.E.) was a Japanese author and a court lady who is known as the author of The Pillow Book (枕草子 makura no sōshi). She was just fourteen when she entered the service of the Empress Consort Teishi, sometime around the year 1000, where she remained for ten years. The Pillow Book is not a personal diary of the author’s life, but a record of interesting events in court, lists of all kinds, personal thoughts, poetry, and some opinions on her contemporaries. Sei Shōnagon reports the troubles of Empress (Sadako) Teishi after her father died and the Emperor was persuaded to take her young cousin as a second consort.

Japanese scholars regard The Pillow Book as a model of linguistic purity because it uses concise language and few Chinese words. Sei Shōnagon's literary ability and skill as a poet make The Pillow Book a classic work of literature. It is also a valuable historical document, recording many details of Heian court life and references to political events. Her writings also include poetic evocations of scene and atmosphere that capture the characteristic mood or essential beauty of each of the four seasons. More than one thousand years later, The Pillow Book continues to delight readers all over the world.


Sei Shōnagon's actual given name is not known. It was the custom among aristocrats in those days to call a court lady (女房 nyōbō) by a combined appellative taken from her clan name and some court office belonging either to her or a close relative. "Sei" (清) is the Sinitic reading of the first character used to write Kiyohara (清原), while "Shōnagon" was a government post. It is unknown which of her relatives held the post of shōnagon. Sei Shōnagon's birth name has been a topic of debate among scholars, who generally favor Kiyohara Nagiko (清原 諾子) as a likely possibility.

Little is known about her life except what is said in her writings. She was the daughter of Kiyohara no Motosuke, a scholar and one of the compilers of the Gosenshū anthology of waka poetry. Her grandfather Kiyohara no Fukayabu was also a well-known waka poet. They were middle-ranking courtiers and had financial difficulties, since they were never granted a revenue-producing court office.

She married once, by all indications, and had at least one daughter. When she entered the service of the Empress Teishi, consort of Emperor Ichijō, around 990, she was supposedly divorced. She was just fourteen when she went to the court and was fascinated by the young and beautiful twenty year old Empress. She was known for her clever wit and her cheerfulness, and for her familiarity with the Chinese classics, an unusual accomplishment for a woman of that period.

Shōnagon achieved fame through her work, The Pillow Book. The Pillow Book is a collection of lists, gossip, poetry, observations, complaints, and anything else she found of interest during her years in the court, during the middle Heian Period. In The Pillow Book Shōnagon reports the troubles of Empress (Sadako) Teishi after her father, Fujiwara no Michitaka died. Because of the risk of fire, the Imperial family did not, at that time, live in the Grand Palace. Empress Teishi resided in a part of Chugushiki, the Bureau of Serving the Empress. For five years, the Empress Teishi's apartments were the center of cultural activity at the court. After her father’s death, his brother, Michinaga, brought his own daughter, Shoshi (Akiko), to the Emperor's attention. The Emperor broke the tradition of having a single wife, and took Shoshi as his second consort. Sei Shōnagon was devoted to the Empress Teishi, and proud of understanding her feelings. Sei Shōnagon refers to the death of her patroness, who died in childbirth, with refined lightheartedness, and implies it was not difficult. To do otherwise would have been considered unstylish. Her writing depicts the court of the young Empress as full of an elegant and merry atmosphere.

When I first went into waiting at Her Majesty's Court, so many different things embarrassed me that I could not even reckon them up and I was always on the verge of tears. As a result, I tried to avoid appearing before the Empress except at night, and even then I stayed behind a three-foot curtain of state.

On one occasion Her Majesty brought out some pictures and showed them to me, but I was so ill at ease that I could hardly stretch out my hand to take them. She pointed to one picture after another, explaining what each represented….

It was a very cold time of the year and when Her Majesty gave me the paintings I could hardly see her hands, but, from what I made out, they were of a light pink hue that I found extraordinarily attractive. I gazed at the Empress with amazement. Simple as I was and unaccustomed to such wonderful sights, I did not understand how a being like this could possibly exist in our world (The pillow book of Sei Shonagon, translated and edited by Ivan Morris, p. 186).

There are no details about Shōnagon's life after the Empress died in 1000, though The Pillow Book is thought to have been finished sometime between 1001 and 1010. One story has Sei Shonagon living out her twilight years in poverty, but this is probably a legend spread by those who disapproved of her. Other accounts say that Sei Shonagon left the court and married a provincial governor, becoming a Buddhist nun upon his death. She is also known for her rivalry with her contemporary Murasaki Shikibu, who wrote The Tale of Genji and served the Empress Shoshi, second consort of the Emperor Ichijō. Murasaki Shikibu described her in her diary as a person who liked to show off her knowledge:

Sei Shonagon has the most extraordinary air of self-satisfaction. Yet, if we stop to examine those Chinese writings of hers that she so pretentiously scatters about the place, we find that they are full of imperfections. Someone who makes such an effort to be different from others is bound to fall in people’s esteem, and I can only think that her future will be a hard one. She is a gifted woman, to be sure. Yet, if one gives free rein to one’s emotions even under the most inappropriate circumstances, if one has to sample each interesting thing that comes along, people are bound to regard one as frivolous. And how can things turn out well for such a woman (Jonathon Delacour. Ladies in Rivalry, Sunday 31 March 2002.).

The Pillow Book

The Pillow Book, along with Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji and the Kagerô Diary (954-974 C.E.) by the woman known as “Michitsuna’s Mother,” are among the earliest important works of Japanese literature. During the Heian Period, Japan assimilated Chinese influences and developed a distinctly native literature. Men tended to write using formal Chinese characters, and most of their works were written in an official capacity, either as historical records or poetry for court occasions. The women of the court wrote in hiragana, known as onnade, or “letters of women,” a simplified and stylized cursive version of Chinese phonograms. The women of the Heian court were cultured and well-educated, and they wrote for their own pleasure and the entertainment of the court, producing works of literature that continue to delight and surprise readers more than one thousand years later.


The most widely accepted theory is that the first draft of The Pillow Book (枕草子, Makura no sōshi) was in existence around 996, a second draft was produced around 1000, and that it was completed in 1002, with additions continuing to be made to the final draft until about 1021, at the latest. In its final form, The Pillow Book is composed of about three-hundred-and-twenty sections of varying lengths, grouped into three categories according to content: classified lists of items; diary entries describing Sei Shonagon’s daily life in the palace; and musings and poetry on the beauty of nature, the meaning of life, and other reflections. The sections of the manuscript which can be dated are not in chronological order, and since the earliest extant manuscript dates from the 1500s, there is no way of knowing if the current order of the sections reflects Shonagon's original arrangement. There are numerous textual variants, owing to its extreme age and the way in which it was propagated through hand-written copies. Two main textual traditions are associated with The Pillow Book. The ruisan-bon tradition arranges the manuscript according to the three categories of content, and is further divided into Sakai-bon and Maeda-bon manuscripts, named for the owners of the manuscripts. The zassan-bon tradition forgoes any attempt to arrange the content and is divided into Nōin-bon (named for the manuscript owner) and sankan-bon (a descriptive term referring to a three-volume version of the manuscript) manuscripts.


Numerous explanations have been proposed for the meaning of the title, The Pillow Book. One theory is that the title refers to a notebook kept nearby for jotting down observations and impressions, particularly at the end of the day before going to sleep. Some suggest that the book may actually have been used as a pillow, or kept in the drawer of the author’s wooden pillow. “Pillow” may also be a reference to "pillow words" (makurakotoba), conventional modifications of words used in waka poetry. Indexes of such words were widely circulated in Sei Shōnagon’s day, and the lists in her notebook may originally have been intended for the same purpose. Another suggestion is that the title is an allusion to a poem in the Chinese anthology Hakushi monjū, which describes an old man with white hair who had nothing to do all day long, so he slept with a book for a pillow.

I wrote these notes at home, when I had a good deal of time to myself and thought no one would notice what I was doing. Everything that I have seen and felt is included. Since much of it might appear malicious and even harmful to other people, I was careful to keep my book hidden. But now it has become public, which is the last thing I expected.

One day Lord Korechika, the Minister of the Centre, brought the Empress a bundle of notebooks.

"What shall we do with them?" Her Majesty asked me. "The Emperor has already made arrangements for copying the Records of the Historian" [the Chinese work, Shih chi]

"Let me make them into a pillow," I said.

"Very well," said Her Majesty. "You may have them."

I now had a vast quantity of paper at my disposal, and I set about filling the notebooks with odd facts, stories from the past, and all sorts of other things, often including the most trivial material….

I was sure that when people saw my book they would say, "It's even worse that I expected. Now one can tell what she is really like" (The pillow book of Sei Shonagon, translated and edited by Ivan Morris, p.263-264).

The Pillow Book

Sei Shonagon wrote The Pillow Book in the genre known as zuihitsu, a random collection of vignettes and impressions, anecdotes of people and events, descriptions of seasonal rituals and festivals, critical commentaries, and simple poetry. The Pillow Book is not a personal diary of the author’s life, but a record of interesting events in court, lists of all kinds, personal thoughts, poetry and some opinions on her contemporaries. As Ivan Morris notes, there are 164 lists in the book's "1098 closely printed pages."

Sei Shōnagon's literary ability and skill as a poet make The Pillow Book a classic work of literature. It is also a valuable historical document, recording many details of Heian court life and references to political events. Her writings also include poetic evocations of scene and atmosphere that capture the characteristic mood or essential beauty of each of the four seasons. Part of the book was revealed to the Court by accident while Shōnagon was writing it.

Japanese scholars regard The Pillow Book as a model of linguistic purity because it uses few Chinese words, and some consider it a greater work than Murasaki Shikibu's Genji monogatari, because of its variety and its concise language. The book has been translated into English by Ivan Morris. In spring, it is the dawn. The sky at the edge of the mountains slowly starts to brighten with the approach of day, and the thinly trailing clouds nearby are tinted purple.

In summer, it is the night. It is of course delightful when the moon is out, but no less so on dark nights when countless fireflies can be seen mingling in flight. One even feels charmed when just one or two pass by, giving off a gentle glow. Rainy nights, too, are delightful.

In autumn, it is the evening. As the setting sun draws closer to the mountains, the crows hastily fly back to their nests in threes and fours and twos. Even more delightful is the sight of a line of geese flying far overhead. Then, after the sun has set, the crying of insects and the sound of the wind have a charm that goes without saying.

In winter, it is the early morning. Of course it is delightful when snow is falling, but even when there is a pure-white frost—or in the freezing cold without either snow or frost—the way the fire is hurriedly stirred up and coals carried to all the rooms seems most suited to the season. As the day wears on and the cold gradually loses its bite, the braziers go untended and the coals become disagreeably coated with white ash (Sei Shonagon, opening lines of The Pillow Book).

I remember a clear morning in the Ninth Month when it had been raining all night. Despite the bright sun, the dew was still dripping from the chrysanthemums in the garden. On the bamboo fences and crisscross hedges I saw tatters of spider webs; and where the threads were broken the raindrops hung on them like strings of white pearls. I was greatly moved and delighted.

As it became sunnier, the dew gradually vanished from the clover and the other plants where it had lain so heavily; the branches began to stir, then suddenly sprang up of their own accord. Later I described to people how beautiful it all was. What most impressed me was that they were not at all impressed (#84, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, translated and edited by Ivan Morris).

Elegant Things: A white coat worn over a violet waistcoat. Duck Eggs. Shaved Ice mixed with liana syrup and put in a new silver bowl. A rosary of rock crystal. Snow on wistaria or plum blossoms. A pretty child eating strawberries (Ibid.).

Things That fall from the Sky: Snow. Hail. I do not like sleet, but when it's mixed with pure white snow it is very pretty. Snow looks wonderful when it has fallen on a roof of cypress bark. When Snow begins to melt a little, or when only a small amount has fallen, it enters into all the cracks between the bricks, so that the roof is black in some places, pure white in others-most attractive. I like drizzle and hail when they come down on a shingle roof. I also like frost on a shingle roof or in a garden (Ibid.).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Keene, Donald. Seeds in the Heart: Japanese Literature from Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1993. ISBN 0805019995
  • Morris, Ivan I. The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan; with a new Introduction by Barbara Ruch (Kodansha globe). New York: Kodansha International, 1994. ISBN 1568360290
  • Morris, Mark. Sei Shonagon's Poetic Catalogues. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 40:1 (Spring 1980), 5-54.
  • Sei Shōnagon and Ivan I. Morris. The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. ISBN 0231073364


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