The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon

The author

Sei Shōnagon, who was born in about 966, was the daughter of Kiyohara Motosuke, one of the compilers of the Gosenshū anthology of waka poetry ("Sei" is the Sinitic reading of the first character used to write "Kiyohara").

After the failure of her first marriage, Sei entered the service of Emperor Ichijō's consort, Teishi (or Sadako), in 993. She was known for her quick wit and sunny disposition, and won a reputation for her familiarity with the Chinese classics, considered an unusual accomplishment for a woman. Her famous rival, Murasaki Shikibu, described her in her diary as a person who liked to show off her knowledge.

After Teishi died, Sei left the palace; virtually nothing is known of the rest of her life. She is usually supposed to have spent her final years in solitude.

The textual background

It is uncertain precisely when and under what circumstances the Pillow Book came to be written, but according to the most widely accepted theory, a first draft was in existence in about 996, a second draft was produced by about 1000, and a final version followed to which additions were made until 1021 at the latest. The Pillow Book as we have it now is composed of more than three hundred sections of varying length. These sections are generally grouped into three categories on the basis of content:

  1. Classified lists of items.
  2. Musings on the beauty of nature, the meaning of life, and so on (somewhat like expanded versions of list items).
  3. Diary-like entries mostly describing actual incidents and activities in the palace.

There are two main textual traditions associated with the Pillow Book. One, the ruisan-bon tradition, attempts to arrange sections of the manuscript in accordance with the above three categories. The other, called the zassan-bon tradition, forgoes any such arrangement. The ruisan-bon tradition is further divided into Sakai-bon and Maeda-bon manuscripts, while the zassan-bon tradition includes Nōin-bon and sankan-bon manuscripts (the first three appellations are based on the names of the manuscript owners, while the last is a descriptive term referring to a three-volume version of the Pillow Book). As a result of this complicated textual background, trying to match up the sections from all the different editions is a frustrating task indeed, and textual variants are numerous.

The title

A number of theories have been proposed for the origin of the distinctive title Pillow Book. All are based on the (possibly apocryphal) "Epilogue," in which Fujiwara no Korechika is said to have given his sister the empress a bundle of empty notebooks (sōshi), and when the empress asked Sei for advice on how to use them, Sei suggested that the notebooks be used as a "pillow" (makura). The following are the interpretations most often proposed for the meaning of "pillow"; the second and third are the ones regarded as most likely to apply (for convenience, "notebook" is used in the singular here).

  1. The reference is to a real pillow for sleeping. The notebook itself may have served as a pillow, or it may have been placed in the drawer of the author's wooden pillow so that it would be close at hand.
  2. Taking "pillow" less literally, it may refer simply to a notebook kept handy (by one's pillow, as it were) for jotting down observations and impressions.
  3. "Pillow" refers to the "pillow words" (makurakotoba) that conventionally modify certain words in waka poetry. Indexes or catalogs of such words were widely circulated in Sei Shōnagon’s day, and her notebook -- with its numerous lists -- may originally have been intended to function in much the same way.
  4. Makura may be an allusion to a poem in the Chinese anthology Hakushi monjū. The poem describes an old man with white hair who had nothing to do all day long, so he slept with a book for a pillow. This image of listless solitude may have struck later readers as appropriate in view of Sei Shōnagon’s life after leaving the palace.

The opening lines of The Pillow Book


In spring, the dawn. The sky gradually brightens behind the dark outline of the mountains, revealing wisps of clouds gently tinted purple.

In summer, the night. It is of course delightful when the moon is out, but no less so on dark nights when countless fireflies mingle in flight, and charming indeed when just one or two flit by, emitting their soft glow. The falling rain, too, is delightful.

In autumn, dusk. As the sun descends toward the ridges of the mountains, the crows wing swiftly back to their nests in groups of three or four or two. 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 beyond words.

In winter, early morning. The delight of falling snow goes without saying, along with the pleasure of the pure white frost. Or during a deep chill with neither snow nor frost, the hurried stirring of fires and rationing of hot coals seems perfectly suited to the season. As the day wears on and the cold gradually loses its sting, the untended coals in the braziers become disagreeably caked with white ash.