Friday, 4 September 2009

The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon

decoration on a Japanese temple door.
photo Jeremy White

Much of what Sei Shonagon, a lady-in-waiting at the Court of the Emperor of Japan at the end of the tenth century AD wrote in her pillow book can be adapted to remain valid more than a thousand years later. Here are some more examples of her lists.

Things That People Despise

The north side of a house.
Someone with an excessive reputation for goodness.
An old man who has lived to be too old.
A frivolous woman.
A mud wall that has started to crumble.

Things About Which One Is Liable To Be Negligent

The observance of a single fast-day.
Preparations for something that is still well in the future.
A lengthy retreat in a temple.

Rare Things

A son-in-law who is praised by his father-in-law;
A young bride who is loved by her mother-in-law.
A silver tweezer that is good at plucking out the hair

A person who is in no way eccentric or imperfect, who is superior in both mind and body , and who remains flawless all his life.

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.

When people, whether they be men or women, have promised each other eternal friendship, it is rare for them to stay on good terms until the end.

Small Children And Babies

Small children and babies ought to be plump. So ought provincial governors and others who have gone ahead in the world; for, if they are lean and desiccated, one suspects them of being ill-tempered.


  1. hi friko - the pillow book is a source of tremendous wisdom and beauty isn't it!!!! i read it many many moons ago but still stumble across it and i am always glad that i do because it continues to speak freshly each time.

    this one is intriguing: "A person who is in no way eccentric or imperfect, who is superior in both mind and body , and who remains flawless all his life." i would value someone eccentric and flawed!!!! have a lovely day. steven

  2. Friko:

    Like Steven I am all for eccentricity! I love the quirks I find in people. It creates interest and diversity. (I think you and I are both a little quirky, BTW!!) ;-)

    Great post.

  3. How I love reading your posts!

    The pillow book quotes are wonderful catalysts for examining one's own heart and mind.

    Thank you. xo

  4. Hello Friko, thank you for visiting my blog, I have enjoyed reading your post. I suppose people don't change much do they?

  5. Hi Friko. The pillow book Is a true observation of our lives, I think. That top one really fills the bill for me. One of the alcoholic brothers live in the only house north of us on our block. a a few years back he put up a 6 ft. wooden fence right on our shared property line. When we bought our house there was a block shed quite small, but holds a lot of stuff. He hired a man N+Mon. to come over and power wash it and put a sealer on it. That man was just a small man but he had to put a roller on the end of a long handle to get between the block house and Tony's fence. We could have protested when he put it up but that fence is a godsend to us and did not cost us a penny. Sorry about the long entry but I thought you might get a chuckle out of how true that first line was in our case, because that is mild compared to the many incidents.

  6. The tweezers one is something I live by. 'Being Miss' is one thing. 'Being a kind of Mr' is another.

  7. Things About Which One Is Liable To Be Negligent... Preparations for something that is still well in the future.

    That;s me to a T!

  8. The north side of the house, yes no sunshine. That is so true. I like that. I have read several novels around Japanese culture and I love them.

  9. I have read the quotations you wrote from the pillow book and agree with most of them, but not quite as to despise “an old man who has lived to be too old.” I moved to the city I live in now because I visited a friend there and his wife. We were good friends until he passed away at 92 – he was 40 years my senior but such a gentleman, so funny, so kind and so intelligent. I’ll do a post on him sometimes. I wish he could have live to be over 100.

  10. To me, the pillow book is amazing because this woman was so incredibly human a thousand or so years ago and is as relevant today. A great observer of life. xx

  11. Thank you, Friko, I didn't know of the Pillow Book. I'm intrigued and will seek out this Sei Shonagon.

  12. I love all your posts, and especially the Pillow Book.
    But I must defend the north side of a house. My window here at my computer faces north, and I actually like it.

  13. Once again you find and share treasure with us!
    Thank you with Aloha, Friko

    Comfort Spiral

  14. Totally fascinating, but not too sure about their relevance for today. Good post, though.

  15. A remarkable post, Friko, and one that will stay with me over the long weekend. Thank you.

  16. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    I love this post.

  17. steven - I dip in occasionally too, not just for blogging.

    Bonnie - thanks Bonnie, yes, quirky and eccentric is good.

    Frances - thank you for saying that.

    Lucy - that is a funny story.

    Fran Hill - golly, don't I know it.

    acornmoon - thanks for coming over.

    Argent - not always a good idea, that. thanks for commenting and following me. I'm coming over to you very soon (again).

    QMM - thanks for commenting, yes, the mysterious east is gripping.

    Vagabonde - that is no longer always true today, but I do know very old people who aren't really alive any more.

    Margaret - not only an observer, but also a (kind of) blogger

    Alaine - thank you for visiting - I shall return the favour soonest.

    20th C woman - you are too kind - well, she didn't always get it right, did she. Besides, we have heating and light.

    Cloudia - thank you and Aloha.

    Dave King - maybe not relevant but to some extent, certainly valid.

    Lydia - thank you, Lydia. Nice to have you visiting.

    Darlene - Too true, thank you.

  18. I had never read Sei Shonagon's books, so I was delighted to read her thoughts in your post. My only knowledge of her was from a beautiful film by Peter Greenaway. How much wisdom she had, and you are right, most of her opinions are applicable to our time. My favorite is despising "someone with excessive reputation for goodness". How true.

  19. 'Someone with an excessive reputation for goodness.'

    I could not agree more. The cynic in me always wonders...

    Many thanks for such a beautiful post.

  20. Hi friko

    I bought the Pillow Book on reading your last posting on it...but have yet to open it...I did buy a few books when I was stuck with the I am active again I am not getting through them...but will be tempted to now after this post...

    Happy days

  21. Just discovered your blog this morning. A real Sunday treat!

  22. Thank you for building my confidence up I just didn't feel worthy of anything yesterday but with much encouragement I feel like I am just as good as the next person. Many people say age is just a number but no one knows until they get there that your body know you have been around a god long time, just can kick up so many pains that you think you have hit the 100th mark.,

  23. Such gentle humour, but deep truth in simple, thought provoking words.

  24. Those lists made me smile. Her writing sounds surprisingly modern and so funny. I love that quotation from Hamlet in your sidebar too. So nice to connect with you through ACIL.

  25. As you commented on one of my comments 'human nature doesn't change'.
    I find excessively good people to be very irritating, but I have to admit that now and again I really enjoy being with frivolous women friends as I tend toward the too-serious and like a good laugh.

  26. Celeste Maia - I didn't know there is a Greenaway film about her?

    A Cuban In London - A very good quote, there are too many such people around.

    Delwyn - I am glad you are on your feet again but do leave yourself time for a bit of reading occasionally.

    Martin H - So kind of you to say so; do come again.

    Lucy - You are very welcome.

    Celtic Heart - yes indeed.

    Sarah Laurence - I am glad you have visited - thank you for your nice comment.

    Pondside - Same here, excessively 'good' people are nauseating, besides they are only good for selfish reasons; that sounds like a contradiction but I know what I mean, hope you do too;and yes, me too, give me a bit of frivolity any day.

  27. Despising someone with an excessive reputation for goodness - that's in my own pillow book!

  28. Well that "pillow book" certainly caused some comment!! I wonder if we wrote one today would it cause such a response in a thousand years time?

  29. Prospero - a Pillow Book of one's own, I'd never thought of that. Would it be very much like a blog?

    Twiglet - You are right, I wonder..., probably not, there are too many blogs around and everybody tells everybody else everything anyway.

  30. The striking design on the cover of this pillowbook truly caught my eye. But what really hit home were the simple words of wisdom based on typical life occurences and situations that all of us can identify with, regardless of nationality, culture, or even time. How I hope I can get a copy of this book. It would be a real treasure find if I do find one.


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