Sei Shonagon (清少納言)

Sei Shonagon (966? - 1025?) was a female writer and poet in the Heian period. There is a conjecture that her real name was KIYOHARA no Nagiko, but that remains uncertain.


She was born when her father KIYOHARA no Motosuke (908 - 990), a noted waka poet and one of the 'Nashitsubo no Gonin (editors of the Gosenshu),' was in his later years. Tradition has it that her mother was 'Higaki no Ona,' whose poem was in "Gosenwakashu (Later Collection of Japanese Poetry)," but this is utter nonsense. Her great-grandfather (or grandfather) was KIYOHARA no Fukayabu, a leading poet in Kokinwakashu (Collection of Ancient and Modern Poetry). She had brothers called Utanokami Tamenari, Dazai no Shokan (Dazaifu's post) Munenobu, and Kazanin Denjohoshi (palace priest of Kazanin) Kaishu, and she also had a sister who was to be a wife of FUJIWARA no Masato (the brother of FUJIWARA no Michitsuna's mother). It is said that 'Sei Shonagon' denotes her as a lady of the court and that 'Sei' refers to her family name of KIYOHARA, while 'Shonagon' is the name of her relative's bureaucratic post. Her real name is unknown, but 'Nagiko' seems to have been her name ("Makura no Soshisho"), although it is not certain. She was one of the medieval 36 Immortal Poets, and her 42 poems were collected in "Collection of Sei Shonagon" (the number of collected poems depends on the ihon (alternative version) (for example, the rufubon (type of manuscript) contains 31 poems). 14 of her poems, such as "Goshui Wakashu" (Later Collection of Gleanings), were included in the collection of poems by Imperial command. She read the Chinese classics, too.

In 974, when her father was appointed Governor of Suo Province, she accompanied him and spent four years in the 'countryside' (the description of a sea trip in "The Pillow Book" is so realistic that it can't be a figment of her imagination, so she seems to have traveled to the west by sea). Her yearning for Kyoto during this time might have encouraged her adoration for the Imperial Court later.

In 981, she married TACHIBANA no Norimitsu (965 - 1028), the Governor of Mutsu Province, and a year later she bore him a child, TACHIBANA no Norinaga (982 - 1034); however, she couldn't get along with her rough husband, and before long she divorced him. However, they didn't seem to be separated completely, and tradition has it that they maintained contact with each other until 998; the people of the Imperial Court characterized their relationship as being one of "brother and sister." Later, she married FUJIWARA no Muneyo, the Governor of Settsu Province, and bore him a daughter, Kouma no Myobu (wife), Jotomonin ("Japanese Various Family Trees").

Around the winter of 993, during the reign of Emperor Ichijo, she began to serve FUJIWARA no Teishi/Sadako as a court lady. Because she was very learned and talented, she received her majesty Teishi's favor and succeeded wonderfully in exchanging poems and witty words with nobles and court peoples, winning fame in imperial society. Some materials indicate her friendships with FUJIWARA no Sanekata (? - 998), FUJIWARA no Tadanobu (967 - 1035), FUJIWARA no Yukinari/Koze (972 - 1027), MINAMOTO no Nobukata (? - 998) and MINAMOTO no Tsunefusa (969 - 1023). Particularly, there remain many of the poems that were exchanged with Sanekata, so there is an assumption that they were in love with each other.

It is her major work "The Pillow Book" that has made the name Sei Shonagon famous into the present day. In "The Pillow Book," she wrote about everything of interest to her during her life in the Imperial Court of the Heian period, and it includes 'Monowazukushi' (listing items like Utamakura (a place famed in poetry)), excellent poems, observations on daily life, comments on people, and reminiscences, so it also seems to be a record, etc.

The rivalry between Sei Shonagon and her contemporary writer Murasaki Shikibu, who wrote "The Tale of Genji," has been widely discussed in later generations. However, it was long after Sei Shonagon left the Imperial Court that Murasaki Shikibu began to serve Empress Shoshi, so they couldn't have known each other (but Dr. Bunei TSUNODA advocated a different opinion in his thesis 'Sei Shonagon: Her Later Years,' and he pointed to the possibility that she might have continued her service at the Imperial Court after Teishi passed away, with reference to the word 'Shonagon Myobu' of Ichinomiya Atsuyasu Imperial Prince in "Gonki" (FUJIWARA no Yukinari's Diary).

Murasaki Shikibu denounced Sei Shonagon in "Murasaki Shikibu Diary" ("Murasaki Diary") as if she absolutely denied Sei Shonagon's personality and achievement, but Sei Shonagon never wrote about Murasaki Shikibu in "The Pillow Book," which suggests that the view mentioned above is correct.

However, some suppositions exist that, feeling threatened by her, she wrote the following anecdote in "The Pillow Book": FUJIWARA no Nobutaka, Murasaki Shikibu's late husband, went to Mitake dressing gaudily; or Sei Shonagon talked down about her cousin, FUJIWARA no Nobutsune.

In 1000, soon after Empress Teishi passed away in childbirth, Sei Shonagon abandoned her service at the Imperial Court. The details of her subsequent life are unknown, but according to fragmentary materials (such as collections of poetry) she seems to have married FUJIWARA no Muneyo and gone to his place of assignment at Settsu Province, and there is a record in the book of "Ihon Sei Shonagon Shu" that Nobutsune, Kurodo (staff of Kurodo Dokoro), visited Settsu as a messenger of the Dairi (Imperial Palace). It is said that in her later years she lived around Higashiyama Tsukinowa, where her deceased father Motosuke's mountain villa was located, and that she kept in touch with old friends in the Imperial Court such as FUJIWARA no Kinto and the court ladies who had served the Empress FUJIWARA no Shoshi, such as Izumi Shikibu and Akazome-emon. She put her heart into writing "The Pillow Book" around 996, and the final manuscript seems to have been completed between 1001 and 1010.

The year of her death is unknown, and there are some graves of her in various areas.

The legend of Seijo

In addition to the severe criticism made by Murasaki Shikibu, the influence of medieval thought that the talented woman became unhappy was such that many anecdotes of Sei Shonagon's reduced circumstances were written in "Mumyozoshi" (Story Without a Name), "Kojidan" (Collection of Folk Literature), "Kokon Chomonju" (Collection of Folk Literature), etc., during the Kamakura period. "Kojidan" contains a gloomy story that she had turned into a monk called 'ogre-like priest,' and when her older brother KIYOHARA no Munenobu was defeated by MINAMOTO no Yorichika she was about to get involved in the incident, so she showed her pubic region in order to prove she was a woman.

Also, throughout Japan there are stories of Sei Jo Densetsu (despairing Sei Shonagon). "Matsushima Diary," a travelogue that seems to have been completed in the middle of the Kamakura period, was once believed to have been written by Sei Shonagon, but it was concluded to be a forged book by Norinaga MOTOORI and others of the Edo period.

Graves that are believed to hold Sei Shonagon
Sakata, Satoura-machi, Naruto City, Tokushima Prefecture - She washed ashore in the figure of Bikuni (Buddhist priestess), and then gouged out her pubic region so as not to be assaulted, and then disappeared, so people erected a stone monument called Amazuka for the repose of her soul.

Daimon of Kotohira-jinja Shrine, Kotohira, Kagawa Prefecture - There is Kiyozuka (omen in the dream monument of Sei Shonagon) on which Sei Shonagon inscribed the place of her death.

Shinkyogoku, Sakurano-cho, Nakagyo-Ward, Kyoto City - She was said to have become a monk at the Seigan-ji Temple and died a happy death.

A monument inscribed with a poem
Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto City - A monument inscribed with Sei Shonagon's famous poem collected in Hyakunin Isshu: 'Even if you are going to cheat by emulating a crow fowl late at night, you wouldn't be allowed to pass Ose's checkpoint (you wouldn't be allowed to see me).'
It was erected next to a Buddhist sanctum in Sennyu-ji Temple, which has a karmic bond with the Imperial Family, near Toribeno-ryo of Empress Teishi. Once there was a mountain villa of KIYOHARA no Motosuke here, and Sei Shonagon in her later years seems to have lived in seclusion, so in 1974 Bunei TSUNODA, who was then a director of the Heian Museum of Ancient History, suggested that a monument be erected.

[Original Japanese]