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.
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.
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.”