The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon

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Sei Shonagon (c. 966-1017/1025) was a court lady to Empress Consort Teishi during the 990s and early 1000s in the Heian period in Japan.  Lady Shonagon was a literary rival of Lady Murasaki, whose novel, The Tale of Genji, fictionalized the elite world of the nobility they both inhabited.  The.Pillow.Book

Sei Shonagon’s gossipy and witty Pillow Book features reflections and musings on royal and religious ceremonies, nature, conversations, character sketches, anecdotes, and many other subjects.  She particularly liked to make lists of things–164 of them in a 1,098 page diary. The Pillow Book was completed around 1002.   Penguin Classics 003

The Pillow Book is so called because the author tells about the Empress receiving a “bundle of notebooks” that she didn’t know what to do with, and Sei Shonagon asked if she might then make a pillow of them.

Lady Shonagon was a good writer and sharp observer. Because she chronicled the imperial court, her writing is valuable both as a literary work and historical window. She was a shrewd observer of sex, snobbery and political power.


The writing was meant as a private diary, but it ended up in the public domain.  Sei Shonagon describes her own regret about this: “Whatever people may think of my book, I still regret that it ever came to light.”


One thought on “The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon

  1. I’m glad to see someone talking about Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book. A good many women (and men, too, using women’s aliases) kept pillow books and “leaked” them for public consumption. (Men used women’s aliases because men were expected to write in Chinese, the language of the literati.)

    I often wonder what Sei Shonagon would have thought about the modern day audience for her book. Almost every teenager in Japan is familiar with the book (it’s part of their school reading), and thus while we in the western world are charmed with what we consider an unusual text, for the Japanese reader, it’s a creaky classic (I would compare it to something like Poor Richard’s Almanac or Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, except I don’t think most Americans read the nonfiction writing of our American forebears except in college).

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