The Pillow Book (枕草子)

"The Pillow Book" is a zuihitsu essay (literally, "random jottings"), which is said to have been written by Sei Shonagon, a female writer who lived in the mid-Heian period. The title was also written using Chinese characters such as '枕草紙' (Makurazoshi Notebook), '枕冊子' (Makura Sasshi), '枕双紙' (Makura soshi), and '春曙抄' (Shunsho-sho Commentary), and the oldest manuscript (called "maedabon" in Japanese), a copy of which was made in the Kamakura period, has a gold-lacquered casket with the Chinese characters "清少納言枕草子" (Sei Shonagon, The Pillow Book) written on it. It was also called "Sei Shonagon ki."

Place in literary history

Together with "The Tale of Genji," this book is considered one of the twin masterpieces of Heian literature, and it had a great influence on the Renga (linked verse), Haikai (seventeen-syllable verse), and Kanazoshi (old stories witten in the kana script) that followed. Along with both "Hojo-ki (The Ten-Foot-Square Hut)," written by KAMO no Chomei, and "Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Idleness)" written by Kenko YOSHIDA, it is called one of the three Japanese major lists, histories and satires. Its writing style is extremely individualistic: there is no similar book except "Gizan-zassan (Gizan Collection)," compiled by Shangyin LI (courtesy name Yishan), a poet of the late Tang dynasty.

Origin of the title

According to an afterword to the book, her motive for writing the book and the origin of the title came from the episode in which, when Naidaijin (minister of the center) FUJIWARA no Korechika presented to his younger sister FUJIWARA no Empress Teishi and Emperor Ichijo a bundle of paper, which was still expensive in those days, the Empress inquired, 'Emperor used the paper to copy "Shiki (Records of the Grand Historian),' what do you think we could write on this?" to which Sei Shonagon answered, 'it (the book) would be good to use as a pillow.'
She was granted the paper (such episode being based on Sankanbon (version of manuscript), and both incomplete and complete versions of Noinbon (version of manuscript) have similar episodes describing the response that "it (the book) would be good to use as a pillow)," but the Sakaibon and Maedabon (versions of the manuscript) don't contain this episode). It is widely thought that the title 'The Pillow Book' is also based on the episode. "A study of the Pillow Book" written by Kazuhiko HAYASHI mentions his own view and some other past scholars' names such as Keichu, Shinobu ORIKUCHI, and Kikan IKEDA.
The following are typical views about the meaning of "pillow":

― Bedding: a pun that suggests a pillow on the mattress (with Shiki reworded as Shikibuton (mattress)). ― Dictionary for the writer: There are many chapters in which Utamakura (a place famed in poetry), rules, and terms are listed. ― Memorandum: She kept the paper by her pillow for private jottings.
― Treasured book
― Irrelevant to anything
However, scholars have yet to reach a consensus. Also, in the book of "Eiga monogatari (A Tale of Flowering Fortunes)," the term 'makura no soshi' as a common noun was used to describe the beautiful kasane (layering) colors.

Process of writing

According to the afterword, the first draft was written around 996, and Sachujo (guard of the Imperial Palace) MINAMOTO no Tsunefusa took the draft from the author's residence and brought it before the eyes of the world. After that, she wrote continuously, and some records say the book was written around 1012. Some lines of "The Pillow Book," as quoted from the old commentary "Shimei-sho Commentary of 'The Tale of Genji,'" don't exist in the surviving manuscript, which suggests that the writing process was complicated. There are great differences between the existing manuscripts.


It consists of three volumes and takes the form of a collection of various writings. It is a manuscript containing an okugaki (postscript) written in 1228 by a person called Bogyuguo, who seems to have been FUJIWARA no Sadaie. It is 'clear writing' and is easy to understand, being considered the most similar to the original form. It was divided into two groups by Kikan IKEDA.

Korui (first class) - The opening 70 chapters, which start with the line, 'The best time in spring is dawn,' are omitted, and instead the manuscript begins with the line, 'Comfortable thing.'
230 chapters

Book collection of Yomei paperback, book collection of Toshoryo, Shoryo Department, Imperial Household Agency, and book collection of the Tatamatsunomiya faamily
Otsurui (second class) - 300 chapters

Old book collection of Hamao YATOMI, book collection of Kariya City Library, old book collection of the Date family, old book collection of the KAJUJI Family, old book collection of Akika NAKAMURA, book collection of Koshido Bunko

Noinbon (type of manuscript)

The priest Noin was related by marriage to Sei Shonagon (one of his sisters was a wife of TACHIBANA no Norinaga, a son of Sei Shonagon), and seemed to have something to do with handing down the manuscript. The date of the work has been traced back to the end of the Kamakura period. After arguing which book is more authentic, it is now widely accepted that the original book of Noinbon is inferior to Sankanbon.

Two hundred and thirty chapters (excluding the first 70 chapters)

300 chapters


Ruisan form (a classified collection in book form)
Manuscript copied in the Muromachi period
The postscript says KIYOHARA no Shigekata/Edakata copied the book, whose owner was Doha, a secluded monk who lived in Sakai, and therefore the manuscript is called Sakaibon.
Two volumes
The book is missing chapters on diary and reminiscence.

Gokogoninbon (type of manuscript): 190 chapters
The postscript says Emperor Go-Kogon made a copy of the book.
Shinkanbon (a manuscript in the Emperor's own hand)

Ninety-five chapters

The above two types of manuscripts were integrated into a book. Sakaibon in general refers to this.


Volume 1 consists of 107 chapters. Volume 2 consists of 89 chapters. Volume 3 consists of 102 chapters. Volume 4 consists of 32 chapters. Volume 5 might have been lost. It takes Ruisan form. There exists only one manuscript that has been handed down in the Maeda family of Kaga Province (the book collection of MAEDA-Ikutokukai). It is preserved in a box of gold-lacquered craft, and on its surface are the characters "清少納言枕草子 (Sei Shonagon, The Pillow Book)" in gold incrustation. It is an important cultural property. It was copied during the early Kamakura period and is considered to be the oldest of all the manuscripts of "The Pillow Book."

Among them, the Sakaibon group Gokogoninbon was separately collected in two volumes of "Gunshoruiju (Japanese history book)," and three kinds of Sakaibon were collected in "Shinko Gunshoruiju (library)." Additionally, Noinbon was used as a master copy in making the old plate of type in the early Edo period; therefore, it remained a dominant manuscript along with "The Pillow Book Bochu (marginal notes)" and "Shunsho-sho Commentary of The Pillow Book" (annotated by Kigin KITAMURA) until modern times. However, in 1946, when Jutaro TANAKA (1917-1987) reevaluated the second class of Sankanbon, it came to be considered more important and was published more, being used as a textbook and read at school after the war.

Other existent manuscripts are seven chapters of "The Pillow Book Ekotoba (story in pictures)" made in the late Kamakura period, consisting of emaki (a picture scroll) with hakubyoga (ink line painting), and Sankanbon manuscript seems to have been used for the notes.


The second-class Sankanbon contains more than 300 independent chapters in total. It consists of various types of writing: 'chapters of Ruiju' of 'Monowazukushi (enumerating the things in the same category),' as represented by the lists of things like 'Insects,' 'Flowering trees,' 'Dispiriting things,' 'Endearingly lovely things,' and 'Chapters of Zuiso (essay),' which is an observation of daily life and nature in the seasons, and 'chapters of reminiscence (chapters of a diary)' in which the author wrote about the life around Empress Teishi, whom she served in the Imperial Court. However, some chapters are too obscure to be classified (for example the first chapter, entitled, 'The best time in spring is dawn,' is generally classified into the chapters of Zuiso, but some people disagree).

It was written in the plain vernacular using Hiragana (the Japanese cursive syllabary), and most of the chapters were written in a witty style, but sometimes sentimental lamentation appears reflecting the fall of the Michitaka FUJIWARA's family and unhappiness gone through by her majesty Empress Teishi. The author's sophisticated taste was in harmony with a keen observation on things, generating the intellectual aesthetic world of 'wokashi (amusing or delightful)' in contrast with the emotional 'mono no aware (pathos)' of "The Tale of Genji."


Positive evaluation
In The Pillow Book, the author cherished humanity as well as nature; therefore, she accepted and formed them in each phase as various beauties (Sakuwo MEKATA).

Even in each chapter, various types of rich writing such as lists, essays or reminiscences are freely interwoven, like a flying horse soaring into the sky with a strand of associations called up one after another. (Boku HAGITANI)

Although it followed the conventional 'spring - flower -morning' type of link that was often seen in Kokinshu in those days, its use of the 'season-time' type of expression (such as 'the best time in spring is dawn'), which omitted the middle poetic element, was innovative, challenging as it did the rigid esthetic values held by readers who were familiar with poetic traditions. (Munetoshi FUJIMOTO)

She expressed her love and respect for Empress Teishi. The author wrote it to console Empress Teishi, who felt depressed over the fall of the Michitaka family. Therefore, it is natural that she didn't mention the fall of the Michitaka family (as above). There are some chapters that seem like mere self-praise, but in them the author claimed that the Empress and the people around her received the Emperor's favor and led a life filled with aesthetic sentiment and exquisite taste, living in a world that was cut off from the politics of the time and disappointment. (Osamu UENO).

Negative evaluation
It is a representation of her shallowness trying to forget her original social rank and assimilate herself to the upper class. (Ken AKIYAMA)

(It is based on the fact that she didn't use polite expressions when she wrote, not only about her family but also about those who belonged to the upper classes.)
It is only 'a record of civilization in the inner palace,' and wasn't written by 'a private individual' (Joji ISHIDA).

[Original Japanese]