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Updated 02-05-07

Sei Shonagon (965/967-aft.1010)


Sei Shonagon's family was literarily but not politically influential. Except for her period at the Japanese court, we know nothing about her life. She may have been married before she became a court attendant; she may have had a son. Her name, "Shonagon" refers to the position she held at court (Minor Counselor); "Sei" is the name of her family.

In 990 she became an attendant to Empress Sadako /Teshi, the daughter of Fujiwara Michitaka. For five years, Sadako's apartments were the center of the court's cultural activity. However, in 995, Michitaka died, and his position as the power behind the throne was taken by his brother, Michinaga, who had brought his own daughter, Shoshi /Akiko, to the Emperor's attention. From then on, Sadako's position became increasingly insecure, but Shonagon remained with her until Sadako's death in childbirth at the end of 1000.

We have no details of Shonagon's life after 1001: it appears that she began Makura no soshi at court and finished it after Sadako's death, perhaps as late as 1010, and possibly as a gift for Sadako's daughter.

Makura no soshi (Pillow book) is made up of about 320 separate sections: reminiscences; opinions and imaginative sketches; and lists, some with comments, others merely lists of words. The datable sections are not in chronological order, and since the earliest extant manuscript dates from the 1500s, we have no way of knowing if the current order of the sections represents Shonagon's plan.

The work has always been highly regarded by Japanese readers, and scholars see it as a model of linguistic purity because it uses few Chinese words. Some think it is a greater work than Murasaki Shikibu's Genji monogatari, due to its variety and its compressed language. In any case, it is delightful to read, even in translation, and in it we can hear Shonagon's distinctive voice.

On this page you'll find:

Links to helpful sites online.

Excerpts from translations in print.

Information about secondary sources.



1. Excerpts from Makura no soshi (unless noted, all of the sections linked are complete; also, unless noted, the translation is by Ivan Morris):

(a) All the Morris entries given below are from Morris' 1991 abridged version, but here are five lists from his complete 1967 translation (for more from both editions, see below, under "In print").
(b) After some introductory notes, seven sections, translated by Kenneth L. Richard; all but one ("Hateful things") are complete. (Note that the section numbers given here are from the Japanese original; if you wish to compare the two translations, the seven sections are in Morris, 1991, as #s1, 13, 14, 8, 17, 147, 174.)
(c) Under "Primary sources," four links to seven excerpts; of these seven, four are complete sections (#s1, 76, 118, 12).
(d) After an introduction, another version, of Section 1, translated by Mark Jewel, with the passage also given in Japanese script.
(e) Still elsewhere, one part of Section 1, "Summer is best in the evening."
(f) The end of Section 14, on a good lover. And at the same site, all of #s 64 and 134, on surprising and distressing things, and on receiving and sending letters.
(g) Three sections (#s 29, 136, 45): on elegant things; on things that fall from the sky; and on the season to meet a lover.
(h) Arthur Waley's translation of the opening of a section on listening for visitors to the women's court apartments (cf. Morris, 1991, #48). The illustration is an 1800s woodblock print representing Shonagon.
(i) On two pages, Waley's translation of two sections (cf. Morris, #s 53 & 77): on the difficulties involved in trying to avoid courtiers' visits, and on a retreat made at a temple near Kyoto. Waley's notes are included (for information on Waley's book, see under "In print").
(j) Two sections (#s 66 & 84). The first describes an incident in 997: Sadako's father had died two years earlier and her brother had been exiled the year before. The second is on Shonagon's reaction to natural beauty.
(k) Near the bottom of the page, Helen Craig McCullough's version of a 998 incident, when during the night of a heavy snowfall, Sadako's is brought a poem from Senshi, the Kamo priestess (hare sticks were auspicious New Year gifts; cf. Morris, 1991, #56).
(l) A verse translation, by Tsuge Gen'ichi, of #84, "All through the night," from a 1939 musical setting of the passage.
(m) Two passages from Section 107, on Shonagon's use of a private language with a courtier in whom she was interested (and her reaction when another courtier tried to use it).
(n) Sections 118 & 119, on Shonagon's feelings about different kinds of winds and about an incident that illustrated those feelings.
(o) Click on "Lesson III" for two sections (#s 177 & 87), on a proper lover, and on annoying a priest.
(p) Finally, Simon Cozens' translation of fourteen entries into colloquial English (one is titled "Things that really piss me off").

2. Versions of a poem by Sei Shonagon which was included in an important 1200s anthology, Hyakunin Isshu:

(a) "The rooster's crowing," by Clay MacCauley (but "modernized"); The original is also given, in script and romanized form.
(b) "Though you can tell me," by Kenneth Rexroth; Shonagon is the third woman poet listed in a collection.
(c) "Too long to-night you've lingered here," by William N. Porter, with the romanized original and a 1700s woodcut.

3. Essays, etc.:

(a) "The Lists of a Lady-in-Waiting: A Portrait of the Author of the Pillow Book" (2000), by David Greer, which quotes extensively from Makura no soshi, in Greer's own translation.
(b) "Things and people, charming and splendid," (2003), by Jonathon Delacour, with passages from Morris. And for Murasaki Shikibu's view of Shonagon (from Morris), see the start of another essay by Delacour, "Ladies in Rivalry" (2002).
(c) A 2003 essay by Michael Gardiner, "Evenings Blurrings," which discusses the interplay of the sense descriptions found in the work; translated passages are from Morris.
(d) Another essay (2001), by Christopher Cokinos, which includes brief quotations from Morris' translation.
(e) A much more specific essay is "The Japanese Attitude Toward Sound as Depicted in Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book" (1990), by Motegi Kiyoko, which after reviewing earlier research, analyzes the work to see how Shanagon and her contemporaries listened to sounds (natural, artificial, and musical). English translations of quoted passages "rely heavily on the translation by Ivan Morris."
(f) A 2001 dissertation abstract by Naomi Fukumori, "The Politics of Amusement: Reading Sei Shonagon's Makura no soshi in Historical Perspective," which sees in the work a political dimension that its historical reception has clouded (for information on a 2001 article by Fukumori, see below, under "Secondary sources").

4. A 1600s scroll by a woman artist, Kiyohara Yukinobu (1643-1682), illustrating a well-known section of Makura no soshi; click on the image to enlarge it. (The passage is Morris' #157 "One day, when the snow lay thick on the ground"; you can see it below, under "In print.")

5. For historical background, a detailed essay by Gregory Smits, "The Heian Period Aristocrats," with links to other relevant infomation; several passages from Makura no soshi are given. Much of the essay is based on Morris' 1964 study, The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan (for information on that book, see under "Secondary sources").


In print

[This is the standard complete translation of Makura no soshi, in two volumes, by Ivan Morris. Morris' abridged version (1991, see below) will be enough for most general readers, but the lists that the later version excludes are often fun to look at:]

The pillow book of Sei Shonagon (Records of civilization: sources and studies, no.77 / UNESCO collection of representative works: Japanese series). Translated and edited by Ivan Morris. New York, Columbia University Press, 1967. (2 v. illus., geneal. tables, maps, plans)
LC#: PL788.6.M3 E56 1967b
Bibliography: v. 2, p. 268-269.
[Also published by Oxford University Press, 1967]

"One would imagine that he could do without a stick."

[A reminder of the continuing importance of Chinese writing in Japan:]

Words That Look Commonplace but That Become Impressive When Written in Chinese Characters:

A dew-plant
A prickly water-lily
A walnut
A Doctor of Literature
A Provisional Senior Steward in the Office of the Emperor's Household
Red myrtle
Knotweed is a particularly striking example, since it is written with the characters for "tiger's stick." From the look on a tiger's face one would imagine that he could do without a stick.        [p.159]


[This is Morris' abridged version of Makura no soshi. "Most of the cuts are lists" (p.16); these lists make up over one-third of the whole. This version keeps the helpful notes and appendices of the original; especially valuable is the chronological list of datable sections.(See online the contents of Morris' appendices.):]

The pillow book of Sei Shonagon / translated and edited by Ivan Morris (Translations from the Asian classics / Columbia Asian studies series). New York: Columbia University Press, c1991. (419 p.: ill., maps)
LC#: PL788.6.M3 E56 1991;   ISBN: 0231073364,  0231073372
Includes bibliographical references (p. 411).

"I did not understand how a being like this could possibly exist in our world."

[Shonagon describes the start of her ten years at court, when Empress Sadako was 14 years old and Shonagon in her early 20s. The tone of some of the reminiscent passages suggests that they were written after Sadako's death:]

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.       [p.186]

"People who live together...."

[Part of a list of "rare things":]

A son-in-law who is praised by his adoptive father; a young bride who is loved by her mother-in-law....

People who live together and still manage to behave with reserve towards each other. However much these people may try to hide their weaknesses, they usually fail....       [p.83]

"...all the others have to make way!"

[Part of a list of "pleasing things":]

Finding a large number of tales that one has not read before. Or acquiring the second volume of a tale whose first volume one has enjoyed. But often it is a disappointment....

I greatly enjoy taking in someone who is pleased with himself and who has a self-satisfied look, especially if he is a man. It is amusing to observe him as he alertly waits for my next repartee; but it is also interesting if he tries to put me off my guard by adopting an air of calm indifference as if there was not a thought in his head.

I realize that it is very sinful of me, but I cannot help being pleased when someone I dislike has a bad experience....

Entering the Empress's room and finding the ladies-in-waiting are crowded round her in a tight group. I go next to a pillar which is some distance from where she is sitting. What a delight it is when Her Majesty summons me to her side so that all the others have to make way!        [pp.217-218]

"Women at Court... walk about, looking openly at people they chance to meet."

When I make myself imagine what it is like to be one of those women who live at home, faithfully serving their husbands --- women who have not a single exciting prospect in life yet who believe they are perfectly happy --- I am filled with scorn. Often they are of quite good birth, yet have no opportunity to find out what the world is like....

I cannot bear men who believe that women serving in the Palace are bound to be frivolous and wicked. Yet I suppose their prejudice is understandable. After all, women at Court do not spend their time hiding modestly behind fans and screens, but walk about, looking openly at people they chance to meet....       [p.39]

"...but at my present stage of life, I should be less flippant."

A preacher ought to be good-looking. For, if we are properly to understand his worthy sentiments, we must keep our eyes on him when he speaks; should we look away, we may forget to listen. Accordingly an ugly preacher may well be the source of sin---

But I really must stop writing this kind of thing. If I were still young enough, I might risk the consequence of putting down such impieties, but at my present stage of life, I should be less flippant.       [p.53]

"You and you alone can see what feelings hide within my heart."

[Describing an incident in 1000; Sei's empress, Sadako, had been replaced in the emperor's affections by Michinaga's daughter Shoshi (who would later be served by Murasaki Shikibu). Sadako would die seven months after this scene:]

When the Empress was staying in the Third Ward, a palanquin arrived full of irises for the Festival of the Fifth Day and Her Majesty was presented with herbal balls from the Palace....

Then other very pretty herbal balls arrived from other palaces. Someone also brought a green-wheat cake; I presented it to Her Majesty on the elegant lid of an inkstone on which I had first spread a sheet of thin green paper carrying the words, "This has come from across the fence."

[The last phrase is from a well-known poem: "Stretching his neck across the fence, /The little colt can scarcely reach the wheat. /So I myself cannot attain /The object of my love."]

The Empress tore off a piece of the paper and wrote the following splendid poem:

Even on this festive day,
When all are seeking butterflies and flowers,
You and you alone can see
What feelings hide within my heart.       [p.204]

"She was born to serve an Empress like ours."

[When Sadako quotes a well-known Chinese poem that describes the poet pushing aside a blind to look at the snow, it is Shonagon who not only recognizes the poem but acts out its meaning. (Critics have seen this passage as self-praise on Shonagon's part, but surely it is also a description of the perfect fit between her and her beloved Sadako.):]

One day, when the snow lay thick on the ground and it was so cold that the lattices had all been closed, I and the other ladies were sitting with Her majesty, chatting and poking the embers in the brazier.

"Tell me, Shonagon," said the Empress, "how is the snow on Hsiang-lu peak?"

I told the maid to raise one of the lattices and then rolled up the blind all the way. Her Majesty smiled. I was not alone in recognizing the Chinese poem she had quoted; in fact all the ladies knew the lines had even rewritten them in Japanese. Yet no one but me had managed to think of it instantly.

"Yes, indeed," people said when they heard the story. "She was born to serve an Empress like ours."         [pp.241-42]

"But I suppose this dream of mine is rather absurd."

[On the ideal life after court service had been completed:]

I should like to live in a large, attractive house. My family would of course be staying with me; and in one of the wings I should have a friend, an elegant lady-in-waiting from the Palace, with whom I could converse.

Whenever we wished, we should meet to discuss recent poems and other things of interest. When my friend received a letter, we should read it together and write our answer. If someone came to pay my friend a visit, I should receive him in one of our beautifully decorated rooms, and if he was prevented from leaving by a rain-storm or something of the sort, I should warmly invite him to stay. Whenever my friend went to the Palace, I should help her with her preparations and see that she had what was needed during her stay at Court. For everything about well-born people delights me.

But I suppose this dream of mine is rather absurd.       [p.245-246]

"Now one can tell what she is really like."

[Describing the origin of her book (Shonagon would surely have been amused that "pillow book" came in later years to refer to an erotic book left by a bride's pillow to tell her what to expect):]

It is getting so dark that I can scarcely go on writing; and my brush is all worn out. Yet I should like to add a few things before I end.

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 [c.994] 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."       [p.263-264]


[Caution: Arthur Waley's 1928 translation is a extremely abridged version: it contains only about 1/4 of the whole:]

The pillow-book of Sei Shonagon. Translated by Arthur Waley. London, G. Allen and Unwin [1957] (162 p.)
LC#: PL788.6.M3 E58 195
[Also published: Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1929]


Secondary sources

[For a c.1200 Japanese woman's view of Sei Shonagon, see Michelle Marra's translation of Shunzei kyo no musume's Mumyozoshi, p. 424. The periodical is available at many university libraries, so you can get the pages you want through interlibrary loan:]

Marra, Michele, tr. Mumyozoshi. Monumenta Nipponica, 39: 2-4 (1984),115-145, 281-305, 409-434.
LC#: DS821.A1 M6;   ISSN: 0027-0741

[Despite its title, Mark Morris' article deals with more than the lists; it is a good study of Shonagon's contribution to Japanese prose style:]

Morris, Mark. Sei Shonagon's poetic catalogues. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 40:1 (Spring 1980), 5-54.
LC#: DS501 .H3;   ISSN: 0073-0548

[Naomi Fukimori's article discusses the ways in which Shonagon and Murasaki each dealt with their contemporaries' suspicion of women who wrote in Chinese by demonstrating that their skill could be made acceptable to those in power:]

Fukimori, Naomi. Chinese learning as performative power in Makura no soshi and Murasaki Shikibu nikki. Proceedings of the Association for Japanese Literary Studies: PAJLS. 2 (Summer 2001), 101-119.
LC#: PL700 .P762;  ISSN:1531-5533

[Donald Keene's literary history includes a chapter, "The Pillow Book"; he also gives an excellent overview of the literature of the period, and his bibliographies are thorough. (See the book's table of contents online.):]

Keene, Donald. Seeds in the heart: Japanese literature from earliest times to the late sixteenth century. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1993. (xiv, 1265 p.).
LC#: PL726.115 .K44 1993;   ISBN: 0805019995
Includes bibliographical references and index.

[Ivan Morris' 1964 book is probably still the best single introduction to Japanese court society in the 900s and 1000s:]

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. (xxvii, 336 p.: ill.)
LC#: DS824 .M6 1994;   ISBN: 1568360290.
Includes bibliographical references (p. [321]-324) and index.
[Also published: Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England; New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Penguin Books, 1969, c1964 (1985 printing).  ISBN: 0140550836]


Updated 02-05-07

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