Sei Shonagon was a lady in the Japanese imperial court around the year 1000. Her book, “The Pillow Book”, captures her observations about life in the court, and her opinions on a great many aspects therein. Many of her entries are crafted as prose lists, and include her thoughts on a wide variety of subject matters. To give a taste for what some of her shorter entries were like, I have included several I found particularly amusing.
 Cats – Cats should be completely black except for the belly, which should be very white.
 Alarming looking things – Thorny acorn husks. A hairy yam that’s been baked. The prickly water lily. Water chestnuts. He sight of a man with a lot of hair, drying it after washing.
 Gathered Trousers – Dark Violet. Spring-shoot green. In summer, lavender. On very hot days, trousers in the lapis lazuli blue of summer insects give a sense of coolness.
Sei Shonagon was obviously someone who experienced a life of incredible luxury. Her thoughts are by no means indicative of the general experience of a Japanese person at that time. However, the incredible attention to detail has provided scholars extensive details about court life at the time, and paints for contemporary readers a vivid image of her lifestyle and surroundings.
This poem is an acrostic of the title “The Pillow Book”. Each letter was given a numerical value (A = 1, Z = 26) which would correspond to the page of the book. From the beginning of the page, I would look and see the first mention of a word with the same first letter, and would then copy starting from the word I had chosen until the end of the sentence. In instances when the letters were repeated (Such as L, or O) I looked for the next instance in which it was mentioned on the same page to prevent redundancy.
The Pillow Book
To the palace and taking part in festival processions.
How could he resist the forbidden urge to peep into a room – especially if there’s a woman in there?
Everyone bursts into delighted peals of laughter – though you can certainly see why the poor victim herself feels upset.
Proceed to fold a piece of white paper, and said to us, “Now I want each of you to write here the first ancient poem that springs to mind.”
Inkstone and some other objects through to me.
Laughed with relief, and sent for Ukon and told her the story.
Light rain begins to fall around daybreak on the ninth day of the ninth month, and there should be plenty of dew on the chrysanthemums, so that the cotton wadding that covers them is thoroughly wet, and it brings out the flowers’ scent that imbues it.
On display below the blinds that hung from the little half-panel shutters.
Which there should even be grand-children crawling about, yet the two parents are indulging n a “daytime nap”.
But also at the dark of the moon, it’s beautiful when fireflies are dancing everywhere in a mazy flight
Of the attendant’s feet as they arrived to deliver His Majesty’s meal.
On his way along the corridor, then returned to seat himself by the vase of blossoms once more.
Korechika languidly intoned the lines from the old poem “The months and years may pass/but let this remain unchanging/as Mount Mimuro….”
Overall, I find that this poem of The Pillow Book provides an interesting synthesis of the book as a whole. While it does not provide all of the context that would be necessary to understand Shonogan’s life, much of the beauty of her language still comes across. Furthermore, obvious cultural symbols and indicators are still preserved, through reference to His Majesty, and the inclusion of classical poetry. I personally still prefer the original text, but feel that I may have a greater appreciation for its form and content because of this exercise.