“Unbinding the Pillow Book: The Many Lives of a Japanese Classic” by Gergana Ivanova


If anyone thought Sei Shōnagon (ca 964-after 1027) was little more than a gossipy, snooty, disingenuously prim and sometimes acerbic observer of life at the effete Heian court of ancient Japan, here is a book to prove that notion completely wrong. Not only can her classic Pillow Book be read on several levels, but it has enjoyed a life of its own as different generations of readers interpret it and reimagine it.

Whoever thought, for example, that a book appearing in 1714 and entitled The Twin Mounds of Conjugality would feature her in a shunga (erotic woodblock) print having sex with her lover Yukinari whilst her own brother Kiyomi lurks outside in the bushes, peering at the couple through a raised blind and masturbating? Admittedly, though, this one’s a parody, but its existence indicates a wide familiarity with Sei’s book. And then there’s the modern manga version (2011), which features her arguing furiously with a male court retainer about what she thinks women should do with their lives. Her book has also inspired several films and TV shows, including a 1996 movie entitled The Pillow Book from the British director Peter Greenaway, who, Ivanova tells us, turned Sei (Ivanova correctly uses this part of her name almost exclusively, as Shōnagon means “lesser state councillor”) into “a licentious court lady who recorded her countless trysts in her diary”, and which features her modern counterpart, Nagiko, whose name, ironically, denotes a peaceful or friendly child.

So who is or was Sei Shōnagon? Was she the sharp-tongued Heian courtier, a “friendly” woman writing about trivial events such as viewing cherry-blossoms, or a sexually active woman exchanging poems with lovers, potential or actual?


Unbinding The Pillow Book: The Many Lives of a Japanese Classic, Gergana Ivanova (Columbia University Press, paperback edition, April 2021)
Unbinding The Pillow Book: The Many Lives of a Japanese Classic, Gergana Ivanova (Columbia University Press, paperback edition, April 2021)

To find the answer to the question, Ivanova begins with the historical figure of Sei Shōnagon, which is a puzzle in its own right, because we don’t even know exactly what her real name was. Details of her life are fairly sketchy; we know she served Empress Fujiwara no Teishi (976-1000), wife to Emperor Ichijō, who reigned from 986 to 1011. It was, as Sei herself tells us, Teishi who literally “commissioned” Sei’s book by giving her the paper on which she wrote the Pillow Book, which was essentially a celebration of the literary and cultural splendour of the empress’s court. After Ichijō married another woman with different political connections in 996, Japan had two empresses, and life for Teishi seems to have become difficult, as they did not get along. Sei’s career seems to have suffered as well, although she kept writing the Pillow Book, which was finally finished after the empress’s death. Much of the rest of Sei’s life is narrated in various anecdotal sources, and we have no way of knowing how accurate these may be. Her identity and personality remain tantalisingly elusive to the end.

Following this, from the 17th century to present times the Pillow Book was interpreted, re-imagined and reshaped, a modern writer even describing it as “a woman’s blog about everyday life in the Heian imperial court.” Anything to attract today’s readers, I suppose. It appears in school curricula as a must-read classic, and every Japanese schoolchild, it seems, knows the first few words, which are “In spring, the dawn” (Haru wa akebono). As for scholarly interpretations, Ivanova points out that the way the Pillow Book is currently viewed in academic circles “emerged between the seventeenth century and the early twentieth”, with attempts to synthesize the various extant versions in order to “standardise” its text beginning in the Edo Period (1603-87) with three annotated editions of Sei’s book. This means that the Sei Shōnagon who emerges from these versions has been, to a great extent, reconstructed by editors. In the 18th century, scholars began to compare her unfavorably with Murasaki no Shikibu, the author of the justly-famous classic The Tale of Genji, but over time this good girl / bad girl view was tempered by the elevation of Sei into an ideal exemplar for women to follow in their lives, after she had gone through a highly-sexualised phase first.

Sei as a person became, in effect, inextricably connected with her book, and of course, as interpretations differed, so did her personality. Those who wrote about the Pillow Book  or refashioned it assumed it was her personality, hence she became, as Ivanova tells us, “shaped by dominant ideologies rather than references to historical documents and in-depth studies,” which reflected “shifting gender and cultural norms over time.” Every age from the 17th century onwards had its own Sei Shōnagon, and she’s still present today, we are told, right down to “amulets carried in wallets or attached to handbags” and “cell-phone cases and handkerchiefs portraying Sei.” You don’t see a lot of miniature Virginia Woolfs or Emily Brontës hanging from young girls’ handbags in the west.


Ivanova takes us on a fascinating journey through the various incarnations of Sei Shōnagon and her book; as she does, a reader comes to see the book in so many different ways. It is, in the end, a work that is hard to pin down and, as Ivanova describes it, almost annoyingly fluid in its nature, as is its creator. From around 995, for example, a version was already circulating in the Heian court, because Tsunefusa, a general and courtier, had got hold of Sei’s notebook and was passing it around among his friends, which presumably led to revisions and rewritings by Sei herself, suggesting a lack of rigid structure in the text.

Subsequent copies seem to have been around later on the Heian period, making the text and the author’s intentions even more unstable. Ivanova tells us that by the Kamakura period (1185-133) “people were aware of the existence of different versions of the Pillow Book.” We can never really know now what actually constitutes an “authentic” text, and as the years passed the Pillow Book took on various literary forms, combining prose, poetry, diary-like entries and even essays. There are also lists of things and just random jottings; if we need any kind of equivalent in western writing it might be Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone, a massive volume of notes and reflections covering all sorts of subjects. Fortunately for readers, the Pillow Book is a lot shorter!

Of particular interest, of course, is the way the book can connect the remote past with the living present, and the complexities of its interpretation make for engaging and enlightening reading, most remarkably when one remembers that this book was composed at the dawn of the 11th century. In 1000, the year that Empress Teishi died, England was in a state of political turmoil under the incompetent reign of Æthelred II the Unready, who spent most of his spare time fighting or paying off Danish raiders when he wasn’t squabbling with his noblemen and bishops or oppressing his subjects with taxes. We have no specifically English equivalent to connect us with that remote past in quite the same way that contemporary Japanese can connect themselves to Sei, although there were Latin religious works and, of course, Icelandic sagas, but these reflect somewhat different cultural perspectives. A case might be made for Beowulf, which has gained a new lease on life in and outside academia thanks in part to Seamus Heaney’s splendid verse translation and in the popular imagination with comic books and a blockbuster movie of dubious merit. Beowulf may be written in English, but its characters are not English; the Pillow Book is wholly Japanese.

The uniqueness of the Pillow Book is its function as a living link, and perhaps if we are looking for an equivalent in English literature which has had a similar appeal, we need to fast-forward to about 1387, when Geoffrey Chaucer probably began work on his Canterbury Tales. In the end, it’s the very evasiveness of a definition or category that keeps the Pillow Book endlessly evolving and always present in Japanese literary imagination. Something we can’t put in a box always fascinates us, and that’s also the strength of Ivanova’s book. She revels in the elusiveness that Sei offers us—we have to consider The Pillow Book in its various manifestations from soft-core pornography to high-school textbook, from women’s conduct manual to manga if we want to know why this old classic still engages readers of the 21st century.

Through careful research and thoroughly engaged writing, Ivanova has created a wonderful companion for anyone who enjoys Sei’s book. There’s one caveat, though: read the Pillow Book first if you can, as there are several good translations available, but keep in mind that you are reading a book that won’t, whatever we do, go placidly back into its literary box again, thanks to Ivanova.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.