Tachibana no Norimitsu
Fujiwara no Muneyo
Koma no Myobu (daughter)
Kiyohara no Motosuke
Kiyohara no Motosuke (father)
Kiyohara no Fukayabu
Kiyohara no Fukayabu (grandfather)
Shōnagon (清少納言, lesser councilor of state Sei), (c.
966–1017/1025) was a Japanese author, poet and a court lady who
served the Empress Teishi (Sadako) around the year 1000 during the
middle Heian period. She is the author of
The Pillow Book
The Pillow Book (枕草子,
makura no sōshi).
2 Early life
5 Later years
9 External links
Sei Shōnagon's actual given name is not known. It was the custom
among aristocrats in those days to call a court lady by a nickname
taken from a court office belonging to her father or husband. Sei
(清) derives from her father's family name "Kiyohara" (the native
Japanese reading of the first character is kiyo, while the
Sino-Japanese reading is sei), while
Shōnagon (少納言, "lesser
councilor of state") refers to a government post. Her relationship
to this post is unknown, though—neither her father nor either of her
two husbands held such a post. Bun'ei Tsunoda has suggested that it
may have belonged to a third husband, perhaps Fujiwara no
Her actual name has been a topic of debate among scholars, who
consider Kiyohara no Nagiko (清原 諾子) a possibility.[citation
Little is known about her life except what can be found in her
writing. She was the daughter of Kiyohara no Motosuke, a scholar and
well-known waka poet, who worked as a provincial official. Her
Kiyohara no Fukayabu
Kiyohara no Fukayabu was also a waka poet. The family were
middle-ranking courtiers and had financial difficulties, possibly
because they were not granted a revenue-producing office.
She married Tachibana no Norimitsu, a government official at 16, and
gave birth to a son, Norinaga. In 993, at 27, when she began to serve
the Empress Teishi, consort of Emperor Ichijō, she may have been
divorced. When her court service ended she may have married Fujiwara
no Muneyo, governor of Settsu province, and had a daughter, Koma no
Myobu, although some evidence suggests she became a Buddhist nun.
Hiroaki Sato questions whether Lady Sei and Norimitsu were actually
married or just close friends, "the ladies and gentlemen of the court
teased them by calling him her big brother and her his little
Shōnagon is also known for her rivalry with her contemporary, writer
and court lady Murasaki Shikibu, author of
The Tale of Genji
The Tale of Genji who
served the Empress Shoshi, second consort of the Emperor Ichijō.
Murasaki Shikibu wrote about
Shōnagon - somewhat scathingly, though
conceding Shōnagon's literary gifts - in her diary, The Murasaki
Shōnagon became popular through her work The Pillow Book, a
collection of lists, gossip, poetry, observations, complaints written
during her years in the court, a miscellaneous genre of writing known
The Pillow Book
The Pillow Book was circulated at court, and for several
hundred years existed in handwritten manuscripts. First printed in the
17th century, it exists in different versions: the order of entries
may have been changed by scribes with comments and passages added,
edited, or deleted. Four main variants of the text are known to modern
scholars. The two considered to be the most complete and accurate are
the Sankanbon and Nōinbon texts. Later editors introduced section
numbers and divisions; the Sankanbon text is divided into 297
sections, with an additional 29 "supplemental" sections which may
represent later additions by the author or copyists.
In The Pillow Book,
Shōnagon writes about Empress Teishi, and her
disappointment after her father's death when Fujiwara no Michinaga
made his daughter Shōshi consort to Ichijō, and then empress, making
Teishi one of two empresses at court. Because of the risk of fire, the
Imperial family did not live in the Heian Palace. Empress Teishi
resided in a part of Chūgushiki, the Bureau of Serving the (Middle)
Empress, and moved to other residences as circumstances changed.
Shōnagon writes with apparent lightheartedness about events at court,
de-emphasizing or omitting harsh realities such as Teishi's death from
childbirth in 1000. According to the prevalent fashion, to have
written more passionately would have been considered unstylish. Her
writing is considered witty, depicting Teishi's elegant court from a
detailed, gossipy perspective.
Shōnagon was regarded by contemporary courtiers as having an
excellent memory. Her writing includes many reminiscences of previous
events at court, often including precise details such as the clothes
people wore, despite being written down several years after the events
took place. She was also known to be especially adept at recalling
and quoting a classic poem to suit the occasion, even by the standards
of a court in which knowledge of the poetry canon was considered an
The entries in
The Pillow Book
The Pillow Book on rhetoric include advice and opinions
on conversation, preaching, and letter writing.
pure language and rigorous use of formalities in the sections of
advice on conversation, but also offers vignettes showing witty
repartee and sociable give-and-take among the empress's ladies and
between ladies and gentlemen.
Shōnagon also touches upon the topic of
preaching; priests who preach should be handsome and well trained in
elocution, with excellent memories, and their audiences should be
attentive and polite individuals who do not come to services to flirt
and show off. Later, she offers detailed information on letter
writing, offering prescriptions for paper, calligraphy, accompanying
gift and bearer, and appreciation for the value of letters as gifts of
love. In particular,
Shōnagon paid special attention to
"morning-after letters". In Japanese court society, heterosexual sex
between courtiers was illicit but happened very often. A social
requirement was that the male send a poem on beautiful paper with a
decorative flower or branch to the lady, and that she reply. Shōnagon
goes in depth about this subject matter in her section called, "Things
That Make One Nervous."
One of her waka is included in the famous anthology Ogura Hyakunin
Isshu as No.62.
There are no details about Shōnagon's life after the year 1017, and
very few records of her after the death of the Empress Teishi/Empress
Sadako in 1000. According to one tradition, she lived out her twilight
years in poverty as a Buddhist nun. Another tradition has her marrying
Fujiwara no Muneyo, the governor of Settsu province, after her court
service ended, and having a daughter, Koma no Myobu. The Pillow Book
is thought to have been finished sometime between 1001 and 1010, while
Shōnagon was in retirement.
Shōnagon in a later 13th century drawing
Shōnagon in a later 17th century drawing
Sei Shōnagon, drawing by
Kikuchi Yosai (1788–1878)
^ a b c Keene 1999 : 412.
^ Keene 1999 : 412, citing (427, note 3) Tsunoda 1975 :
^ a b c Donawerth 2002 : 22–23.
^ Sato 1995 : 55–58.
^ a b c Sei
Shōnagon (2006). The Pillow Book. Translated by Meredith
McKinney. London, England: Penguin Books, Ltd.
Keene, Donald (1999) . A History of Japanese Literature, Vol. 1:
Seeds in the Heart – Japanese Literature from Earliest Times to the
Late Sixteenth Century (paperback ed.). New York, NY: Columbia
University Press. ISBN 978-0-231-11441-7.
Donawerth, Jane (2002). Rhetorical Theory by Women Before 1900.
Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.
Sato, Hiroaki (1995). Legends of the Samurai. Overlook Duckworth.
Tsunoda Bun'ei 1975. "Sei
Shōnagon no Shōgai" in Makura Sōshi
Kōza, Vol. 1. Tokyo: Yūseidō.
Quotations related to Sei
Shōnagon at Wikiquote
Media related to Sei
Shōnagon at Wikimedia Commons
Britannica Sei Shonagon
The Lists of a Lady-in-Waiting. A Portrait of the Author of The Pillow
ISNI: 0000 0003 5436 1824
BNF: cb11924346c (data)