Book: The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon

Somehow this coronavirus lockdown has not motivated me in the least to read budo related literature. Is is very difficult to continue training in a small apartment and reading about training is like adding salt to the wound. Instead, I have finally crammed through a classic which I have had sitting on my tabletop for a while now: The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon.


Book: The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon
Author: Sei Shōnagon
Translator: Ivan Morris
Print year: 1971 (1967) (original written around year 1002)
Publisher: Penguin Group

Extra info: Sei Shōnagon is not a real name, but a kind of nickname used in court.

Extra info #2: Mia Kankimäki has written a book about her quest to understand Sei Shōnagon (Asioita jotka saavat sydämen lyömään nopeammin, 2013) and I recommend it to all Finnish readers. It is a pleasant reading experience.

Nekomata’s thoughts on the book

This book is definitily not related to budo, as the era of the samurai was was only about to begin at the time the book was written (Heian era 794-1185) and the author lived in a fancy court bubble. Surprisingly, I still found some reletable things from the collection of texts (the Pillow Book is not a coherent story, but a mixture of diary-like entries and totally random ramblings about likes and dislikes).

”Pleasing things: Finding a large number of tales one has not read before. Or acquiring the second volume of a tale whose first volume one has enjoyed. But often it is a disappointment.”

First of all, being forced to stay inside and not to see other people due to the coronavirus pandemic is a little like being a Heian court lady, not allowed to go as one pleases, hiding behind walls, fans and curtains of state (or face masks and hand sanitizer…).

Secondly, to make lists about annoying things (sore neck, empty cookie jar, tax payments) and to complain about everything that is wrong in the world and its people (the idiots who break quarantine rules and cough at your groceries just for fun) is just what I would like to do at times (the complaining, not the coughing). And at other times it is also good to make lists about good things and to give credit where credit is due (all brave people who continue to work at high contamination risk environments).

Perhaps the most relatable story in the book is the one where Shōnagon remembers her first time serving at court as a a young, shy girl who does not know how to behave or act. Many of us must have similar experiences from our first times to a dojo or a seminar in a different town or country. During these times the help and advice from older and more experienced people is invaluable.

Heian era appreciated beauty abovel all. There was no difference between men and women: both were supposed to dress elegantly, recite poetry, become emotionally moved by moonlit sceneries and shed tears. As I am writing this I am also watching sudden snowflakes falling on spring flowers outside in the fickle sunshine. I believe that in Japan sakura petals are now falling much in the same fashion and that people appreciate such scenes just as much now as in the past. After all, life is still short.


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