The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, a collection of short essays, observations and remembrances from ten centuries ago, is a marvelous document for people who like history, literature and Japanese culture. As a primary source document, The Pillow Book is a gold mine. Although the writer belonged to an extremely rarefied stratum of 10th-century Japanese society, it is nonetheless remarkable to gain such direct access to the very thoughts of someone – anyone—who lived a thousand years ago. How did courtiers do everyday things? What did they like and dislike? What did they respect, and what did they scorn? What did they value? What was their worldview? You can see it all in this woman’s writings.
As literature, The Pillow Book is a treasure. We love literature when it artfully expresses something that we all feel. Sei Shōnagon was certainly a master of that particular Japanese art of capturing the essence of a moment. This brief excerpt, from the section called “Things That Make the Heart Beat Faster,” has always been one of my favorites: “It is night and one is expecting a visitor. Suddenly one is startled by the sound of rain-drops, which the wind blows against the shutters.” I know what the onset of rain on a quiet night sounds like. I know what it feels like to hunker down in loneliness and anticipation, and how the sound of rain can multiply those feelings ten-fold. Sei Shōnagon’s words still strike a chord, and they do it in a beautifully Japanese way. There isn’t much action or any dramatic story; it is just a keen observer’s feel for the human reality, internal and external, of a time and a place and a circumstance.
(Pillow Book excerpt from the Ivan Morris translation. Woodblocks by Kawase Hasui, 1883-1957)