Sei Shonagon (c. 965–?)

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Sei Shōnagon (c. 965–?)

Japanese author of the literary masterpiece Makura no sōshi (The Pillow Book). Name variations: Sei Shonagaon. Pronunciation: SAY SHOW-nah-gohn. Born possibly in Kiyohara around 965, possibly in Kyoto, Japan; circumstances of her death are not known; great-granddaughter of Kiyohara Fukayabu (paternal great-grandfather, a poet of distinction); daughter of Kiyohara Motosuke (father, a noted scholar and poet of some repute); perhaps married Tachibana no Norimitsu (a minor court official); perhaps married Fujiwara no Muneyo (a minor court official); sometimes mentioned that she was married to, or had a relationship with, Fujiwara no Sanekata (a minor court official); children: (with Tachibana no Norimitsu) possibly a son, Norinaga; (with Fujiwara no Muneyo) possibly a daughter, Koma no Myōbu .

Became lady-in-waiting at court of Empress Sadako (early 990s); likely served until the empress' death (1001); wrote Makura no sōshi during that time.

One of the most renowned prose writers in the history of Japanese literature, Sei Shōnagon was the author of Makura no sōshi (The Pillow Book), a masterpiece of world literature. A compilation of her own tastes, insights, and prejudices, the book derives its immense charm from the author's own irascible and irrepressible personality. From Shōnagon's detailed observations, we learn much about the daily lives of members of Japan's upper class in the 10th and 11th centuries.

Ironically, for a literary figure of her stature, little is known about Sei Shōnagon, apart from what can be gleaned from Makura no sōshi. Neither her birth date nor the date of her death is certain, and almost all biographical information about her is speculation. In fact, her true name is not known; Sei Shōnagon is the only name attributed to the author of Makura no sōshi. At some point, she was probably married to a man holding the position of shōnagon (minor counselor) in the imperial palace, since court ladies were generally called by the titles of their husband or nearest male relative.

Sei Shōnagon was born around 965 into the Kiyohara clan, which was low in official rank but illustrious in literary circles. Kiyohara Fukayabu, thought to have been her paternal great-grandfather, was a poet laureate of the Japanese imperial court. Kiyohara Motosuke, the man considered to be her father, whether natural or adopted, worked for the government as a provincial governor, but was better known as a scholar and a poet.

As was common for a woman of the Japanese upper class in her era, Shōnagon has been romantically linked to several men. It is possible that she was briefly married to a government official, Tachibana no Norimitsu; there is a tradition that at the age of 17, she had their son, Norinaga. The tradition holds that Shōnagon considered her husband dull—too unrefined to share her aesthetic sensibilities. Her name has also been linked (as wife or lover) to Fujiwara Nobuyoshi, Fujiwara no Muneyo (with whom she was said to have had a daughter, Koma no Myōbu ), and Fujiwara no Sanekata. These last two men were both minor court officials and provincial governors.

When I make myself imagine what it is like to be one of those women who live at home, faithfully serving their husbands … I am filled with scorn.

—Sei Shōnagon

Shōnagon's domestic arrangements, however, were apparently of little concern to her; her life centered on her career at the Japanese imperial court. According to official records, Shōnagon arrived at court in 994, when she began serving as lady-in-waiting to Empress Sadako (r. 976–1001). Despite having been a mature, experienced woman, likely nearing age 30, Shōnagon was apparently self-conscious, and thought herself unattractive and awkward in comparison with other court ladies. Initially, she tried to stay behind the curtains, observing the courtiers and their wives. But Shōnagon took pride in serving the brilliant empress and gratefully received her favors. Having impressed Sadako, who eventually succeeded in coaxing her out from behind the curtains, Shōnagon wrote Makura no sōshi on paper (a rare and valuable commodity) given to her by the empress.

During her service at court, Shōnagon developed a reputation for wit and erudition. From her own accounts, she comes across as a clever conversationalist with a pleasant voice. Scholars have concluded that Shōnagon's renowned erudition was probably no greater than that of most people in her circle. Most striking to her contemporaries, however, was her uncanny capacity to quote an appropriate line of poetry or reference to history on the spur of the moment in conversation. While these qualities were valued in men, it was less clear that they were thought appropriate for women. Shōnagon's rival in court, Murasaki Shikibu , author of Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji), castigated Shōnagon and predicted her doom. "Sei Shōnagon has the most extraordinary air of self-satisfaction. Someone who makes such an effort to be different from others is bound to fall in peoples' esteem…. She is a gifted woman…. Yet, if one gives free rein to one's emotions even under the most inappropriate circumstances, if one has to sample each interesting thing that comes along, people are bound to regard one as frivolous." Indeed, Murasaki would appear to have been not far from the mark, for tradition has it that after leaving court (most likely following the death of the empress), Shōnagon retired to a suburb of the capital, became a Buddhist nun, and died in poverty. It is also possible, however, that this legend was the invention of Buddhist moralists who were critical of what they perceived to be Shōnagon's promiscuity and her concern with worldly things.

Makura no sōshi—part diary, part essay, part miscellany—is, however, a lasting tribute to Shōnagon. The title was probably a generic term used to describe a type of informal book of notes which both men and women composed as they retired to their rooms in the evening and which they kept near their sleeping place. This typically Japanese literary genre was the precursor of zuihitsu (occasional writings, random notes) which has lasted to modern times. The combination of observation and reflection served as a model for later works which have included some of the most valued writings in Japanese literature. For the irrepressible Shōnagon, who appeared to record spontaneously and effortlessly her impressions of the world while jotting down whatever thoughts passed through her mind, it was an ideal form.

Randomly organized, Makura no sōshi contains more than 300 essays—some short, some long. There are eyewitness sketches of her contemporaries, imagined scenes, casual musings on social customs and etiquette, reflections on esthetics, as well as lists of her own likes and dislikes. Shōnagon's essays reflect powers of keen observation and delicate sensibility. The images she evokes are incisive, as she describes a shivering lady who imprudently quarreled herself out of a warm bed on a cold night or an insensitive lover who dons his trousers and buckles his belt in too business-like fashion. Shōnagon was a master of social satire, as illustrated in this observation: "A preacher ought to be good looking. For if we are properly to understand his worthy sentiments, we must keep our eyes on him while he speaks; should we look away, we might forget to listen. Accordingly, an ugly preacher may well be the source of sin." Shōnagon's poetic prose has extraordinary beauty and evocative power. Her images of icicles gleaming in the moonlight, the innocent charm of a child eating strawberries, or a desolate, windswept autumn garden remain in the mind. Japanese schoolchildren are still introduced to Shōnagon's writing as a model of linguistic purity.

Shōnagon's life at court was both physically and socially circumscribed; court ladies spent virtually all of their time indoors, most often behind screens and curtains which hid them from view. Shōnagon's compelling descriptions of nature were drawn, more likely, from imagination than direct experience. As was the case with her peers, Shōnagon was intolerant and callous toward people of the lower classes. She claimed to be revolted by the uncouth habits of carpenters and itinerant nuns, and she appears to have been without empathy when she laughed at an illiterate man whose house had burned down. Shōnagon's conversations, as was the case with the other women and men of the court, centered around critical judgments. She could be merciless as she ridiculed those who failed to achieve her demanding, refined standards, but she also cast her critical eye inward and laughed at herself. She was candid about her shortcomings, particularly with respect to her appearance and temperament, and her self-indictments make her lambasting of others somehow more acceptable.

Shōnagon's social criticism is most piercing, and amusing, in her discussion of romance. Under the heading "Things Apparently Distant Yet Really Near," Shōnagon listed "the relations between men and women." Love affairs at court were conducted according to elegant, prescribed ritual, with a strong aesthetic sense of how the woman and man should comport themselves. Some of the most entertaining passages of Makura no sōshi depict lovers' trysts and partings. With little privacy and enormous amounts of leisure, amorous adventure was the chief topic of court gossip. Whether drawing on her own experience or that of others in her list of "Shameful Things," Shōnagon observed: "A man's heart is a shameful thing. When he is with a woman whom he finds tiresome and distasteful he does not show that he dislikes her, but makes her believe she can count on him." Admirably, Shōnagon's writing about men is free from the whining, querulous tone that often characterized other women's writings of her time. Rather, Shōnagon shows herself to be a comic artist. In her list of "Hateful Things," she included: "A man with whom one is having an affair keeps singing the praises of some woman he used to know. Even if it is a thing of the past, this can be very annoying. How much more so if he is still seeing the woman!" Her comic rendering of affairs of the heart is in marked contrast to the consistently tragic portrayal of romance found in the Japanese literature of the time.

Following the death of Empress Sadako, Shōnagon left court service. In a brilliant piece of satire on society's expectations, perhaps anticipating her eventual solitary retirement, she wrote: "When a woman lives alone, her house should be extremely dilapidated, the mud wall should be falling to pieces, and if there is a pond, it should be overgrown with water-plants. It is not essential that the garden be covered with sage-brush, but weeds should be growing through the sand in patches, for this gives the place a poignantly desolate look." Sei Shōnagon was by no means a typical Japanese woman of the 10th century. At court, she had a measure of autonomy not permitted other Japanese women. It appears that Shōnagon no longer wrote after leaving court. Perhaps she lacked paper, perhaps she lost the social contact which stimulated her writing, or perhaps she lost the autonomy which had made her book possible.


Morris, Ivan. The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan. NY: Penguin, 1964.

suggested reading:

The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon. Translated and edited by Ivan Morris. Vols. 1 and 2. NY: Columbia University Press, 1967.

Linda L. Johnson , Professor of History, Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota

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Sei Shonagon (c. 965–?)

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