Throughout Japanese history, powerful women have been at the centre of the culture, constantly defying the odds and carving out a name to be remembered. From Tomoe Gozen to Masami Odate, Japanese women have picked up swords and thrown themselves into fights on their personal journeys to define who they are.
Not every woman has needed to pick up a weapon. In the case of Sei Shōnagon, she created a legacy by picking up the pen. A writer, philosopher and courtly woman of intrigue, Shōnagon’s story is a fascinating tale of how to appreciate the small things in life.
Who was Sei Shōnagon?
Best known for writing The Pillow Book, a sweeping collection of lists, poetry and observations of Japanese court life, Shōnagon lived during the Heian period around the year 1000.
It’s worth noting the author of The Pillow Book’s actual name was not Sei Shōnagon. Her real name is unknown and it was traditional for Japanese aristocrats of the Heian period to call a court lady by a nickname taken from a court office belonging to her husband or father. Sei comes from her father’s family name Kiyohara, while Shōnagon derives from a government post.
Her father or two husbands never held this post and it’s been speculated that a third husband, Fujiwara no Nobuyoshi, may have had the title. What can be said with confidence is that Shōnagon was the daughter of scholar and waka poet Kiyohara no Motosuke and that her family were mid-ranking courtiers.
In 993, at the age of 27, she served under the Empress Teishi in the Imperial Court of Kyoto and it was there that she developed her famous work.
The philosophy of The Pillow Book
Shōnagon wrote The Pillow Book during her time at court, capturing countless details about her surroundings, her mood and the people she interacted with day-to-day. She writes in the Japanese style of zuihitsu, also known as ‘following the brush.’
This style consists of fragmented ideas, with the Japanese kanji meaning ‘at will’ and ‘pen.’ Shōnagon constantly moved in different directions, her thoughts flowing without a forced structure. It was like making a single brushstroke and seeing where it led, a style that many Western writers picked up centuries later, such as Michel de Montaigne in his Essays.
Shōnagon hasn’t been viewed as a traditional philosopher, something Eric Weiner aims to correct in The Socrates Express:
“If the task of the philosopher is as one scholar says, “to demonstrate that things can be otherwise,” Shōnagon is clearly a philosopher. She shows us the world, her world and says, in so many words: Look at this. Isn’t it marvelous? So tiny yet so beautiful? If the task of philosophy is as Nietzsche said, “to enhance our taste for life,” then Shonagon is a philosopher. After reading her for a few hours, colours appear more vivid, food tastes better.
Implicit in Shōnagon’s philosophy is this: Who we are is largely shaped by what we choose to surround ourselves with. And it is a choice. Philosophy reveals the hidden choices we make. Realising something is a choice is the first step towards making better choices.”
Shōnagon undoubtedly had an amazing sense of detail in her work. She recalled many little things throughout her day, like the lovely feeling of sacred Michinoku paper, the irritation of someone butting in when you’re talking, the unfamiliar smell of ox leather crupper, the enjoyment of snuggling under a kimono, the inconvenience of a guest arriving when there’s something important to do.
She’s an opinionated writer and she developed her own philosophy of pleasure. Shōnagon made a distinction between the simply pleasurable and okashii, truly pleasurable and delightful. Delight carries an element of surprise, whereas pleasure can leave a bitter aftertaste since it’s fleeting. So, you never saw delight coming so you don’t miss it when it’s gone.
It’s good advice, a perspective that’s fascinated people around the world for centuries. For it’s in The Pillow Book we truly get to know who Shōnagon was as a person and the details of her later life are hard to put together.
There’s one story about her living out her last years as a Buddhist nun. Another story tells of her marrying Fujiwara no Nobuyoshi after her life at court ended. Whatever the truth, Shōnagon was a woman who could love the small details of the world and that is timeless wisdom for any generation.