Thursday, January 7, 2010

Pillow Book by Sei Shonagan

The Pillow Book
of Sei Shonagan

Translated and edited by: Ivan Morris

Completed: 1002
First translated: 1889
This edition: 1967
Paperback: 423 pages

Sei Shonagon was a contemporary and erstwhile rival of Lady Murasaki, whose novel fictionalizes the court life Shonagon describes. The Pillow Book is a collection of anecdotes, memories of court and religious ceremonies, character sketches, lists of things the author enjoyed or loathed, places that interested her, diary entries, descriptions of nature, pilgrimages, conversations, poetry exchanges--indeed, almost everything that made up daily life for the upper classes in japan during the Heian period. Her style is so eloquent, her observations so skillfully chosen, and her wit so sharp that even the smallest detail she records can attract and hold the attention of any modern reader.

Unlike previous review posts, I will be reading this book and posting my thoughts in this post as I go along.

I skimmed the intro and will start reading a few of Sei's entries.

The Pillow Book is a book of observations and musings recorded by Sei Sh┼Źnagon during her time as court lady to Empress Teishi during the 990s and early 1000s in Heian Japan. The book was completed in the year 1002.

Sei Shonagon, the first blogger? by Friko's Musings

Friko's Musings, a fellow blogger and reader of The Pillow Book, makes an excellent observation. She puts out the idea that Sei could be a founding mother of blogging.

Excerpt from Friko's Musings:

Sei Shonagon was a lady-in-waiting at the court of the emperor of Japan at the end of the tenth century. One day the empress showed her a bundle of notebooks, asking her what could be done with them.

"Let me make them into a pillow", Sei Shonagon replied.

In her own words:

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.

On the whole I concentrated on things and people that I found charming and splendid; my notes are also full of poems and observations on trees and plants, birds and insects. I was sure, that when people saw my book they would say, "It's even worse than I expected. Now one can really tell what she is like."

After all, it is written entirely for my own amusement and I put things down exactly as they came to me. How could my casual jottings possibly bear comparison with the many impressive books that exist in our time?


I find that each entry in the Pillow Book is random and topics to think of or enjoy whether they be a paragraph or a couple pages long. Sometimes Sei will give insight to something that has happened during the course of living among the royals. And, other times Sei will simply state what days of the month she likes and why. Reading the Pillow Book in small dosages is good for me.


Shades of a classist and snobby Sei are portrayed with entries about things she does not like and things that depress her. Not too favorable to me. I wonder if racism will also be evident in her writings.


In Spring it is the Dawn has started a read-along discussion today on Pillow Book which I will most definitely chiming in on. Here are my answers to the first set of questions she has posted.

What is your first impression of Sei Sh┼Źnagon?

Upon first reading Sei's entries I love her attention to detail.

Are you reading the Notes that go along with each section? If so, are you finding them interesting/informative?

I haven't been reading the notes. Just the entries.

Are you looking forward to reading on?

I am looking forward to what topics will pop up in Sei's writings.

Even just reading the short excerpts included below, what do you think of the different translations, in terms of style, and readability?

In the excerpts posted, I find that the Morris translations flow a bit better.


A bit slow going lately with reading Pillow Book last week. I only read 3 entries. Descriptions of Sei's favorite trees and birds are the latest craze. For me, I'd say my favorite tree is the Dogwood and bird would be the Flamingo.


Whoa, did I really skip the month of March?

Still reading this book in dribs and drabs. I'm sorry to say it turns me off with the remarks on the different classes.

I found The Pillow Book by Peter Greenaway on sale at Dog-eared Bookstore and snatched it right up - because I loved the movie.

This book includes Greenaway's original screenplay (before the final movie edit), color stills from the film, and Greenaway's illuminating notes on the story.

This book literally sits bedside. I started reading a bit of this book again. But really just a bit. Like two entries. I was inspired to try again after reading Mesmered's review on it and her various related posts. She even started pillow-booking on her blog. Must admit. Her entries have been more entertaining than Sei's.

I look longingly at my Greenaway screenplay. But, I've promised not to read it until after completing Sei's.

Sei has written good stuff. I know. Why can't I get into it? And why am I struggling with this read?


  1. Hrrm, interesting idea, to post thoughts as you go along! I've read the book: "This Is All" and this book is mentioned quite a few times. Happy reading! I'm excited to see what your thoughts are. :)

  2. Pillow books fascinate me. Curious to hear your thoughts.

  3. I wonder how you will find the book! :)

  4. whoa cool! I was a big fan of the Tale of Genji, so I'd be very interested to read this, too. I'll look forward to hearing your thoughts as you go along.

  5. Sei Shonagon chose her words perfectly. Her lists created very vivid images. I love her work!

  6. This sounds really interesting, I had never heard of it. And I love your idea of posting your thoughts while reading the book. :)

  7. Eeks, you've started! Shall I??? Is it readable enough? I'm afraid if I start The Pillowbook now, I won't be able to finish volume 3 of I Am a Cat in time... :\ Please advise?!

  8. It's now the end of May, I've read the Pillowbook in a week and have blogged on it, creating my own regular Pillowbook entries. I loved it.
    Taken in context, and given the strictures of the Imperial world in which she lived 1000 years ago, it is illuminating and witty, with a certain degree of self-indulgence.
    Despite her attitudes to lower societal levels, I think I may have liked her generally.

  9. Thanks Velvet, for thinking my entries are more interesting than Sei Shonagon's. I'll persist with mine, simply because its a quick note on that week.

    But in 1000 years, I can't imagine anyone getting a grip on 21st century Australian life through me!

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