• Search Digit-count Valid ISBN Invalid ISBN Valid Barcode Invalid Barcode
Original text Comment

Sei Shõnagon was born approximately a thousand years ago (965 is a likely date) and served as lady-in-waiting at the Court of the Japanese Empress during the last decade of the tenth century. Her father was a provincial official, but is best known as a poet and a scholar. It is possible, though unlikely, that Shõnagon was briefly married to a government official, by whom she may have had a son. Her life after her Court service came to an end is totally obscure. There is a tradition that she died in lonely poverty: but this is probably an invention of moralists who were shocked by her promiscuity and thought she deserved retribution. Our knowledge of Shõnagon's life and character rests almost exclusively on the Pillow Book itself.

Ivan Morris has written widely on modern and ancient Japan, where he has lived for four years, and has translated numerous works from both classical and contemporary literature. He received his doctorate from the School of Oriental and African Studies and afterwards worked in the B.B.C. and the Foreign Office. In 1968 he was awarded the degree of D.Litt. by the University of London. His book, The World of the Shining Prince, is available as a Peregrine Book.

Short biographies stated on the inside cover page of this volume.


Introduction 9

The Pillow Book 21

List of abbreviations 265

Notes 267

1. The calendar 377
2. The government 383
3. Places 387
a. Home provinces and neighbouring provinces 388
b. The surroundings of the capital 389
c. The capital 391
4. Clothes, houses, etc. 393
a. Clothes 393
b. Houses 394
c. Vehicles 397
d. Letters, games, musical instruments 398
5. Chronology 399

Further Reading 411

Table of contents.

Sei Shōnagon is among the greatest writers of prose in the long history of Japanese literature; The Pillow Book is an exceedingly rich source of information concerning the halcyon period in which she lived. Yet about her own life we have almost no definite facts. She was born approximately a thousand years ago (965 is a likely date) and served as lady-in-waiting to Empress Sadako during the last decade of the tenth century. Her father, whether real or adoptive, was Motosuke, a member of the Kiyowara clan, who worked as a provincial official but was best known as a scholar and a poet. It is possible, though I think unlikely, that Shōnagon was briefly married to a government official called Tachibana no Norimitsu, by whom she may have had a son. Her life after her service is totally obscure. There is a tradition that she died in lonely poverty; but this may be the invention of moralists who, shocked by her worldly approach and promiscuous doings, ascribed to her last years a type of retribution that occurs more often in fiction than in reality.

Of Shōnagon's relations with her family nothing is known, and she mentions her father only once; we have no idea where or how she lived when not at Court, nor when or where she died. Even her name is uncertain: in the palace she was called Shōnagon ('Minor Counsellor'), but recent research suggests that her real name may have been Nagiko; Sei refers to the Kiyowara family.

There is an acidulous reference to Sei Shōnagon in the diary of her great contemporary, Murasaki Shikibu, the author of The Tale of Genji:

Sei Shōnagon has the most extraordinary air of self-satisfaction. Yet, if we stop to examine those Chinese writings of hers that she so presumptuously scatters about the place, we find that they are full of imperfections. Someone who makes such an effort to be different from others is bound to fall in people's esteem, and I can only think that her future will be a hard one. She is a gifted woman, to be sure. Yet,

Introduction to the book.

if one gives free rein to one's emotions even under the most inappropriate circumstances, if one has to sample each interesting thing that comes along, people are bound to regard one as frivolous. And how can things turn out well for such a woman?

This is almost our only informatoni about Sei Shōnagon except what is revealed by The Pillow Book itself. A vast collection of personal notes, her book covers the ten-odd years during which she served at Court, and reveals a complicated, intelligent, well-informed woman who was quick, impatient, keenly observant of detail, high-spirited, witty, emulative, sensitive to the charms and beauties of the world and to the pathos of things, yet intolerant and callous about people whom she regarded as her social or intellectual inferiors.

Shōnagon wrote during the great mid-Heian period of feminine vernacular literature that produced not only the world's first psychological novel, The Tale of Genji, but vast quantities of poetry and a series of diaries, mostly by Court ladies, which enable us to imagine what life was like for upper-class Japanese women a thousand years ago. In many ways, such as her love of pageantry and colour, her delight in poetry, her mixture of naïvety and sophistication, she resembled the other women writers we know. But The Pillow Book also suggests some notable differences. Shōnagon's scorn for the lower orders, which has moved one indignant Japanese critic to describe her as a 'spiritual cripple', and her adoration of the Imperial family were so pronounced as to seem almost pathological. Her attitude to men, even to those of a somewhat higher class than hers, was competitive to the point of overt hostility. And, partly owing to this combative spirit, her writing is free of the whining, querulous tone that often marks the work of her female contemporaries when they describe their relations with men.

In a section of The Pillow Book that can be dated about 994 Shōnagon writes:

One day Lord Korechika, the Minister of the Centre, brought the Empress a bundle of notebooks. 'What shall we do with them?'

Introduction to the book. (continued)

Her Majesty said to me. 'The Emperor has already made arrangements for copying the "Records of the Historian".'
'Let me make them into a pillow,' I said.
'Very well,' said Her Majesty. 'You may have them.'
I now had a vast quantity of paper at my disposal, and I set about filling the notebooks with odd facts, stories from the past, and all sorts of other things, often including the most trivial material. On the whole I concentrated on things and people that I found charming and splendid; my notes are also full of poems and observations on trees and plants, birds and insects.

It is uncertain whether this passage is authentic; yet no doubt Shōnagon started her book while still serving in the Court whose life she describes with such minute detail. We know that some of the sections were written many years later than the events they record, and the work was not completed until well after Shōnagon's retirement following the Empress's death in 1000.

Though this is the only collection of its type to have survived from the Heian period, it is possible that many others were written. Of the dozen or so works of prose fiction she lists in her book only one has come down to us; Heian miscellanies like The Pillow Book may have had an equally poor rate of survival. The title, Makura no Sōshi ('notes of the pillow'), whether or not Shōnagon actually used it herself, was probably a generic term to describe a type of informal book of notes which men and women composed when they retired to their rooms in the evening and which they kept near their sleeping place, possibly in the drawers of their wooden pillows, so that they might record stray impressions. This form of belles-lettres appears to have been indigenous to Japan. The Pillow Book is the precursor of a typically Japanese genre known as zuihitsu ('occasional writings', 'random notes') which has lasted until the present day and which includes some of the most valued works in the country's literature.

Apart from the 164 lists, which are perhaps its most striking feature, Shōnagon's collection contains nature descriptions, diary entries, character sketches, and anecdotes, and provides

Introduction to the book. (continued)

such a detailed picture of upper-class Heian life that Arthur Waley has described it as 'the most important document of the period that we possess'. Its title, suggesting something rather light and casual, belies the length and variety of the book. The main edition that I have followed has 1,098 closely printed pages; admittedly much of it consists of annotation and commentary, but even the less encumbered tests consist of several hundred pages.

The arrangement of the book in the main versions that we know is desultory and confusing. The datable sections are not in chronological order, and the lists have been placed with little attempt at logical sequence. It is of course possible that the book Shōnagon actually wrote may have been orgfanized in an entirely different way from the existing texts. The earliest extant manuscripts of The Pillow Book were produced some 500 years after she wrote, and there was no printed version until the seventeenth century. During the hundreds of intervening years scholars and scribes freely edited the manuscripts that came into their hands, often moving passages from one part of the book to another, incorporating glosses into the body of the text, omitting words or sentences they believed to be spurious; and they made mistakes in copying. All this has led to considerable differences among the texts, sometimes involving an almost total rearrangement of the sections.

The eminent classicist, Professor Ikeda Kikan, established four main textual traditions: (i) Den Nōin Hōshi Shojihon (the earliest extant copy is the sixteenth-century Sanjōnishikebon); the Shunsho Shōhon version, on which Kaneko Motoomi's monumental text is based, was produced by Kitamura Kigin in 1674, (ii) Antei Ninen Okugakibon (usually known as the Sankanbon; the earliest extant copy is dated 1475), (iii) Maedabon (this is the oldest extant version of The Pillow Book, the earliest manuscript dating from the mid thirteenth century), (iv) Sakaibon (earliest copy: 1570). Of these traditions (i) and (ii) are usually described as zassanteki ('miscellaneous', 'mixed'), (iii) and (iv) as bunruiteki ('classified', 'grouped'). My own translation is based on (i) and

Introduction to the book. (continued)

(ii); in (iii) and (iv) Shōnagon's sections on nature, people, things, etc. are rearranged under topic headings.

The original text of The Pillow Book had disappeared well before the end of the Heian period, and by the beginning of the Kamakura period (twelfth century) numerous variants were already in circulation. Except in the unlikely event that a Heian manuscript of The Pillow Book is discovered, we shall never be sure which version is closest to the original. My own impression is that the book actually written by Shōnagon was at least as unsystematic and disordered as the Shunsho Shōhon and Sangenbon texts. Much depends on whether Shōnagon was, as she protests, writing only for herself, or whether she had other readers in mind. It is possible that The Pillow Book was begun casually as a sort of private notebook cum diary (the numerous lists of place-names can hardly have been intended for anyone but herself); according to this theory, it was only after 996, when its existence became known at Court, that it developed into a more deliberate and literary work. In this case Shōnagon may herself have rearranged some of the sections in her book in order to make it more coherent and readable.

The structural confusion of The Pillow Book is generally regarded as its main stylistic weakness; yet surely part of its charm lies precisely in its rather bizarre, haphazard arrangement in which a list of 'awkward things', for example, is followed by an account of the Emperor's return from a shrine, after which comes a totally unrelated incident about the Chancellor that occurred a year or two earlier and then a short, lyrical description of the dew on a clear autumn morning.

About the extraordinary beauty and evocative power of Shōnagon's language Japanese readers have always agreed. School-children are still introduced to The Pillow Book as a model of linguistic purity; for, apart from proper names, titles, and quotations, there is hardly a single Chinese word or locution in the entire book. The language, rhythmic, quick-mving, varied, and compressed, is far clearer than that of The Tale of Genji with its long sentences and huge networks of dependent

Introduction to the book. (continued)

clauses; for this reason many Japanese consider Shōnagon's book to be a greater work of literature. In this scintillating volume, The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, which contains translated extracts totalling a quarter of the original work, Arthur Waley says:

As a writer she is incomparably the best poet of her time, a fact which is apparent only in her prose and not at all in the conventional uta [31-syllable poems] for which she is also famous. Passages such as that about the stormy lake or the few lines about crossing a moonlit river show a beauty of phrasing that Murasaki, a much more deliberate writer, certainly never surpassed.

It is true that Shōnagon revels in repeating certain words and phrases. Adjectives like okashi ('charming') and medetashi ('splendid') recur in nearly every sentence, almost invariably accompanied by the ubiquitous and virtually meaningless adverb ito ('very'); and often a single word will reappear in a sentence with a somewhat different meaning. This love of repetition, which most Western readers are bound to find tiresome, cannot simply be explained by the paucity of adjectives and adverbs in classical Japanese. In both Chinese and Japanese literature repetition was a deliberate stylistic device; and even as careful a craftsmen as Murasaki Shikibu uses the same adjective again and again in consecutive sentences. In the writing of Sei Shōnagon the reiteration of a word like okashi or a phrase like ito medetashi often serves as a sort of poetic refrain, giving a particular rhythm or mood to a passage rather than contributing specifically to its sense.

This is one of the insuperable difficulties that confront the translator when he tries to convey the beauty of Shōnagon's prose in a language as remote from Heian Japanese as modern English. Should he reproduce each okashi and each ito by a given English equivalent, however monotonous and banal the result may be for Western readers? Or should he conceal the repetitiveness of Shōnagon's style by searching for synonyms or even by leaving out some of her favourite words when they seem

Introduction to the book. (continued)

to add little to the meaning? In broader terms, should he reproduce her sentences with the greatest possible mechanical accuracy, or try to suggest the poetic quality of her language at the cost of obscuring certain characteristic elements of her style? One possibility would be to produce both a literal and a literary version; but even the most long-suffering publisher could hardly welcome that solution.

As usual in translation, one must compromise between the two extremes. When in doubt, I have tended to be 'free'. This is partly because the language of The Pillow Book, in which the most laconic phrasing is often combined with seemingly redundancy, is peculiarly resistant to literalism. Any 'accurate' translation would impose terrible ordeals on all but the most determined. Since Shōnagon's book is noted for the limpid beauty of its language, a translation that adhered to the exact wording of the original, faithfully reproducing each particle, each repetition, each apparent ambiguity, would from a literary point of view be totally inaccurate. A language that afforded as little pleasure to the Japanese as the following passage does to English readers would hardly have preserved The Pillow Book from oblivion for a thousand years:

the manner in which [they] did such things as deliver [honourable] letters and move about and behave was not awkward-seeming and [they] conversed and laughed[.] even wondering indeed when in the world [I] would mix thus was awkward[.]

While I have not aspired to convey the beauty of Shōnagon's prose, I have at least tried not to obscure it entirely by the stark, graceless literalism and the 'rebarbative barricades of square brackets' that Mr Vladimir Nabokov, for one, appears to recommend. When the need to put Shōnagon's sentences into readable English has obliged me to take unusual liberties with her text, I have appended a more or less literal translation in the notes. Students and other readers who require a close translation of the entire book should refer to Les Notes de chevet de Sei Shōnagon (Paris, 1934), in which Docteur André Beaujard has

Introduction to the book. (continued)

conscientiously retained everything that was possible from the original and indicated necessary additions by a liberal, though not always consistent, use of brackets.

In translating the quoted and original poems from The Pillow Book, I have abandoned all attempts to be literal and have tried instead to give their general meaning and to suggest a certain poetic rhythm. I have not preserved the line or word patterns of the poems unless they seemed to lend themselves naturally to those forms in English. There can be no literature in the world less suited to translation than classic Japanese poetry; and it is only because verse is such an integral part of The Pillow Book that I have ventured on an undertaking that it is unlikely ever to succeed. Docteur Beaujard has provided ad verbum, prosaic versions, arranging them all, line by line, in the forms of the original poems.

My complete translation (Oxford University Press and Columbia University Press, 1967) is based primarily on the Shunsho Shōhon version as edited by Kaneko Motoomi in 1927 and on the Nihon Koten Bungaku Taikei edition of the Sankanbon version edited by Ikeda Kikan and Kishigami Shinji in 1953. Publication in a single volume necessitated certain cuts. As a devotee of Sei Shōnagon I found it hard to excise passages of her book; but in the hope that this new edition would make her work available to many more readers I removed the necessary number of pages from my original translation and from the accompanying notes. Most of the cuts are lists, especially lists of place names, words, titles, and the like that are interesting mainly to the specialist. Though Sei Shōnagon would certainly have disapproved of such tampering with her text, which she might well have included in her list of Presumptuous Things, I am confident that I have not jettisoned a single passage of outstanding interest or beauty.

With a few exceptions I have avoided making any additions to the text. Japanese authors, especially those writing in the classical language, omit personal names and pronouns as much as possible; in direct quotations the identity of the speakers is

Introduction to the book. (continued)

usually left to the reader's imagination. All this has to be supplied if the text is to be comprehensible in English. When Shōnagon does identify her characters, she usually refers to them by their titles or offices. This helps to date the sections, but can result in great confusion since people frequently changed their posts; a gentleman who appears in one section as a Chamberlain, for example, may be described a few pages later as an Imperial Adviser and 'Chamberlain' may now refer to an entirely different person. In my translation I normally identify men by their given names (e.g. Korechika) rather than by their titles (e.g. Major Counsellor).

I have headed each of the sections with a title. In the lists these are the first words given by Shōnagon herself (e.g. 'Hateful Things'); in the other sections they are the first words of my translation (e.g. 'Once during a Long Spell of Rainy Weather'). I have also added my own numbers for each section. I have not indicated these various additions by square brackets; if brackets were used consistently, that is, if they enclosed every single word and punctuation mark not in the original, almost each sentence would have a dozen or more pairs and to read the text would be a suffering for all but the most resolute students.

In translating titles, government offices, and the like I have normally followed the nomenclature in R. K. Reischauer's Early Japanese History, but I have occasionally altered his terms when they seemed cumbersome or misleading. Except when it was essential for clarifying puns, I have usually not translated proper names. This is not a result of 'Translator's Despair' but because I wished to avoid the type of false exoticism that can result from identifying the Emperor's residence, for example, as 'the Pure and Fresh Palace'. Names should not be made to sound more colourful in translation than they do to the reader of the original Japanese. For the same reason months are identified by their numbers (e.g. Fifth Month), which are clearer, though admittedly less poetic, than literalisms like 'Rice-sprouting Month'. I have, however, given direct translations of the hours ('Hour of the Monkey', 'Hour of the Sheep', etc.) since there is

Introduction to the book. (continued)

no simple Western equivalent for the zodiacal system of timekeeping. My translations of trees, flowers, birds, and the like are often approximations; I have preferred to use words that correspond more or less to the Japanese original and that have a similar degree of familiarity (e.g. 'cypress' for hinoki and 'maple' for kae no ki) rather than technically exact equivalents (Chamaecy-paris obtusa and Acer pictum), which would be meaningless to most non-specialists.

Some fifty sections of The Pillow Book, representing about two fifths of its total length, can be dated by methods that are on the whole reliable. It would have been a simple matter to rearrange these sections in chronological order, possibly putting them all together in the first part of the book, which would then become a sort of diary. I have, however, preferred to retain the confused time-sequence of the traditional texts, not because this was necessarily the order in which Shōnagon arranged her book, but because any systematic reorganization would be arbitrary and possibly misleading. If one thing is clear about the writing of The Pillow Book, it is that Shōnagon was not keeping a daily, or even a monthly, record of events. To suggest that this was her intention would falsify the spirit of her work. Readers who wish to peruse the datable sections in chronological sequence can do so by consulting Appendix 5 (Chronology).

The notes are numbered consecutively from 1 to 584 and have been placed separately, in order to avoid encumbering the text. Shōnagon and her courtly contemporaries, who expected their world and its customs to continue as long as civilized society lasted, would no doubt have been shocked to find that such a large quantity of annotation and scholarly accessories was necessary to explain an informal, seemingly simple collection of lists, descriptions, and anecdotes; but without supplementary material of this kind muck of The Pillow Book is obscure, even incomprehensible, not only to Westerners, but to modern Japanese readers as well.

Any book from a civilization as remote in time, space, and almost every other respect as Heian Japan would normally re-

Introduction to the book. (continued)

quire far more extensive annotation and introductory material than are provided here. Most of the lacunae are filled by my study of Court life in ancient Japan entitled The World of the Shining Prince (Penguin Books, 1969), which contains general background information about Sei Shōnagon's society. The five appendices to the present edition give details about certain subjects that are particularly useful for understanding her book: (1) The Calendar; (2) The Government; (3) Places; (4) Clothes, Houses, etc.; (5) Chronology.

In addition to the scholars already mentioned, I should like to thank my friends in England, America, Japan, and Norway for all their help and encouragement during the five years spent with The Pillow Book. I am also most grateful to Professor Hans Bielenstein and to Fang Chao-ying for checking the Chinese quotations and references, to Dr Hakeba Yoshito for his advice on Sanskrit terms, and to Mrs Shirley Bridgwater and Mrs Karen Brazell for proof-reading a most complicated manuscript. Finally I am indebted to Professor Edwin Cranston for the many valuable suggestions and corrections contained in his review article on my Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon published by the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol. xxix, 1969.

Introduction to the book. (conclusion)

Appendix 1: THE CALENDAR

The traditional Japanese calendar was a great deal more complicated than anything we have known in the West. Also, because of the yin-yang and related ideas, it was far more important in people’s everyday lives than even the medieval European calendar with its plethora of Saints’ Days, movable feasts, and other observances.

In order to explain as clearly as possible the calendar that dominated Heian activities, ranging from the appointment of high government officials to trivia like cutting one's toe-nails, it is best to start with the Chinese Zodiac, which was the basis of dates, time, and directions. This diagram drawn by Mrs Nanae Momiyama, gives the following information from outside to inside: (i) the compass directions, (ii) the hours of day and night (midnight at the top, noon at the bottom),

Appendix 1: The Calendar.

(iii) drawings of the twelve 'branches', each corresponding to one watch or two Western hours.

In order to designate a date the Japanese normally used a combination of two series, which produced a cycle of sixty days or sixty years, sixty of course being the first number divisible by both ten and twelve. The first series consisted of the twelve signs of the Zodiac as shown in the diagram. These signs, known as 'branches', were as follows: (i) rat, (ii) ox, (iii) tiger, (iv) hare, (v) dragon, (vi) snake, (vii) horse, (viii) sheep, (ix) monkey, (x) bird, (xi) dog, (xii) boar. They referred to (a) time (e.g. Hour of the Snake — 10 a.m. to midnight), (b) direction (e.g. Dragon-Snake — south-east), (c) day of the month (e.g. First Day of the Snake), (d) year (e.g. Year of the Snake — sixth year of any sexagenary cycle). At present the only frequent use of the Zodiac is to designate years: 1969 is the Year of the Bird, 1970 the Year of the Dog, and so on.

The second series consisted of ten 'celestial stems' which were produced by dividing each of the five elements into two parts, the 'elder brother' and 'younger brother'. The 'branches' and 'celestial stems' were combined to produce the basic cycle of sixty.

If, for example, a month started on the fifteenth day of the sexagenary cycle the third day of that month would be designated as: (i) the (first) Day of the Dragon, (ii) the (first) Day of the Elder Brother of Metal, (iii) a combination of (i) and (ii). In any given month there was a maximum of three days named after each of the twelve 'branches' and three days named after each of the ten 'celestial stems'. These days could be identified by the prefixes 'upper', 'middle', and 'lower' for the first, second, and third respectively.

Years could also be designated in terms of year-periods, which were regularly decided by the Japanese Government from the beginning of the eighth century. This was an involved system of dating, because year-periods could begin in the middle of a calendar year and were often changed several times in the course of a single imperial reign; a further complication for the Westerner is that the latter part of the Japanese lunar calendar falls in the first part of the following year according to our solar calendar. Later Japanese historians made the year-periods retroactive to the first day of the first lunar month of the year in which it was adopted, but this in fact only served to complicate matters further.

Appendix 1: The Calendar. (continued)

The names of the months in Pre-Heian Japan were far more evocative than our own dull Januarys and Februarys. This is their literal translation:

1. Sprouting Month
2. Clothes-lining Month
3. Ever-growing Month
4. U no hana Month (the u no hana was a pretty white shrub)
5. Rice-sprouting Month
6. Watery Month
7. Poem-composing Month
8. Leaf Month (i.e. the month when the leaves turn)
9. Long Month (i.e. the month with long nights)
10. Gods-absent Month
11. Frost Month
12. End of the year.

Charming though many of these names are, I have avoided them in my translation for fear that they might produce a false exoticism of the 'Honourable Lady Plum Blossom' variety. Instead I have designated them by the numbers (First Month, Second Month, etc.) that are used in all the early texts of The Pillow Book. It should be understood that, though Tenth Month, for instance, was normally written with the characters for 'ten' and 'month', it was pronounced Kaminazuki, which means 'Gods-absent Month', and that it could also be written with the phonetic symbols representing ka, mi, na, zu, and ki. Months were either twenty-nine or thirty days long, with an intercalary month added about once every three years.

Days, as we have seen, were designated in terms of the sexagenary cycle. They could also be defined by their order in the month, e.g. Third Day of the Rice-sprouting (Fifth) Month. When reading pre-modern literature we should remember that there was a discrepancy, varying from seventeen to forty-five days, between the Japanese (lunar) calendar and the Western (Julian) calendar, the Japanese calendar being on average about one month in advance of the Western. For example, the twentieth day of the Twelfth Month in 989 (the date when Fujiwara no Kaneie became Prime Minister) correspond to 19 January 990 in the West; and the thirteenth day of the Sixth Month in 1011 (the date of Emperor Ichijo's death) correspond to 25 July. Accordingly the most important day of the year, New Year's

Appendix 1: The Calendar. (continued)

Day, came at some time between 21 January and 19 February in our calendar.

The dates of the four seasons were rigidly respected. To wear clothes of an unseasonal colour was an appalling solecism in Sei Shōnagon's society; a white under-robe in the Eighth Month figures among 'depressing things'. Spring started on New Year's Day; all the associations of New Year's Day were therefore vernal, rather than wintry as in the West. Summer, autumn, and winter started on the first day of the Fourth, Seventh, and Tenth Months respectively.

The Heian calendar was crammed with annual observances of all kinds. The five main festivals were New Year's Day (first day of the First Month), the Peach Festival (third day of the Third Month), the Iris Festival (fifth day of the Fifth Month), the Weaver Festival (seventh day of the Seventh Month), and the Chrysanthemum Festival (ninth day of the Ninth Month).

Appendix 1: The Calendar. (continued)

Finally, the Heian day was divided into twelve watches, each two hours in length and divided into four quarters. Time was specified by the Zodiacal signs. The watch of the Horse, for instance, started at noon and continued until two o'clock in the afternoon; the fourth quarter of the Horse therefore corresponded to the thirty minutes between half past one and two o'clock in the afternoon.

I shall conclude with a single complete example. The fourth quarter of the watch of the Tiger on the fifteenth day of the Sprouting (First) Month in the Fourth Year of the Chōtoku year-period, in which the Elder Brother of the Earth coincided with the sign of the Dog, corresponded to about 6 a.m. on 15 February A.D. 998. And it was at this moment in history that a maid announced to Sei Shōnagon (p. 107) that her precious snow-mountain had disappeared.

Appendix 1: The Calendar. (conclusion)


In the seventh century the leaders of Japan instituted a Great Reform which, at least on paper, affected every aspect of national life. Their main aim was to weaken the ancient clan-family system that had dominated Japanese society since the beginning of history and to substitute a modern Chinese style of government. As in the corresponding great change some twelve centuries later when Japan renovated herself on Western models, the reform movement of the seventh century was spread over several decades; the final codes incorporating the changes were not promulgated until the eighth century. Though few of the specific changes were to be permanent, and though the structure collapsed almost entirely with the advent of feudalism, the new modes of provincial and central administration were still the theoretical basis of government in Sei Shōnagon's time, and some of the innovations have lasted in form until modern times.

A primary motive of the reformers was centralization. In the provinces all local officials were subordinated to a Governor who was appointed every six years by the central government. The central government itself was reorganized in pyramidal form with the emperor at the apex. Theoretically all authority in the land derived ultimately from him; but, as it turned out, few emperors in Japanese history had any real secular power, and by Shōnagon's period the divine sovereign was in fact an impotent young puppet manipulated by the Fujiwara family.

Under the emperor came the two divisions of government, one religious and the other secular. The secular branch was headed by the Great Council of State, whose hierarchy included a Prime Minister and the Great Ministers of the Left, Right, and Centre. Since the first and last of these posts were usually unfilled, the highest officials were the Ministers of the Left and Right, who from the middle of the ninth century were usually leading members of the Fujiwara family.

By Shōnagon's time, however, the real ruler of the country was neither the emperor nor any of these Great Ministers but the Chancellor, who was always the head of 'northern' branch of the Fujiwaras. This post was extra-legal in the sense that it was not part of the system

Appendix 2: The Government.

officially adopted in the seventh century. Though the Chinese hierarchy was never repudiated, no one in Shōnagon's period would have dreamt of challenging the hegemony of the Fujiwara Chancellor. A similar dichotomy between theory and reality applied to many of the lower strata of the hierarchy. Almost all the multifarious government departments and officials established as part of the Great Reform were preserved; but more and more frequently their actual functions were usurped by private or extra-legal organs of the government. As a result, many of the impressive titles mentioned in the The Pillow Book and The Tale of Genji were almost entirely formal, and the corresponding posts had become mere sinecures; real work and power had moved elsewhere, often to the Administrative Councils of the vast and prepotent Fujiwara family. This distinction should be kept in mind when examining the following account of the hierarchy under the Great Council of State.

Next in rank to the Great Ministers were the Major, Middle, and Minor Counsellors and the eight Imperial Advisers, who were all members of the Great Council. The Major Counsellors, of whom there were usually three, retained a good deal of real administrative influence long after other parts of the structure had lapsed into desuetude.

Under the Great Council came the Controllers. They were responsible for the two Controlling Boards, which like almost every part of the hierarchy were divided into Left and Right in imitation of the formal arrangements of officials in the Chinese Court. The Controlling Board of the Left was in charge of four Ministries, including the Ministry of Central Affairs and the Ministry of Ceremonial; The Board of the Right controlled the Ministries of the Imperial Household and of the Treasury among others. The Ministry of Central Affairs, whose responsibilities included Palace ceremonial, the promulgation of edicts, the supervision of officials, the study of astronomy and divination, and the compilation of official histories, was by far the most important; the least respected was, quite rightly, the Ministry of War.

Each of the eight Ministries was headed by a Minister and composed of a varying number of Offices and Bureaux. The following are mentioned in The Pillow Book:

1. Ministry of Central Affairs: Bureau of Divination, Bureau of Imperial Attendants, Bureau of the Wardrobe, Imperial Storehouse, Office of the Empress's Household.

Appendix 2: The Government. (continued)

2. Ministry of Ceremonial: Bureau of Education.
3. Ministry of the Imperial Household: Bureau of Carpentry, Bureau of Medicine, Office of the Grounds, Table Office.
4. Ministry of the Treasury: Housekeeping Office.

To keep things in proper perspective we should remember that most of this elaborate governmental machinery, of which the above is only a minute fraction, was concerned with the affairs of a select aristocracy who comprised about ten thousand people out of a population of some four million.

Of vital importance for this aristocracy was the complex rank system, which was an integral part of the Great Reform. In Shōnagon's time the system included four grades for Imperial Princes and thirty ranks for other mortals. Each rank was divided into Senior and Junior, and below the Third Rank each was further sub-divided into Upper and Lower grades. Every courtier and official had some sort of rank, ranging from the Senior First Rank for the Prime Minister to the Lesser Initial Rank, Lower Grade, for a Clerk in the Division of Carpentry and Metal Work. As we know from section 8 of The Pillow Book, even a cat could receive Court rank: indeed Emperor Ichijō's pet cat belonged to at least as high a rank as the Governor of the largest province of Japan. The joys of rank were also extended to troublesome ghosts and even to inanimate objects like ships.

Rank was closely correlated with governmental office. By combining the aristocracy with the civil service in such a way that a person was usually first given rank and then a suitable office to fit that rank, and by making it impossible for anyone to enter the rank hierarchy by merit, the Japanese made their system diverge in fundamental and very damaging ways from the Chinese model. Not only were holders of rank automatically appointed to government posts, but many of them received large allotments of tax-free rice land as well as other privileges like exemption from military service and the rights to have certain types of clothes and carriages, to send their sons to the University, and ultimately to rest under burial mounds of specified degrees of magnificence.

For people of Shōnagon's circle almost every aspect of material life was dictated by position in the rank system. It is small wonder that many of them became obsessed with matters of appointment and promotion and that members of the provincial governor class should

Appendix 2: The Government. (continued)

sometimes have chafed at their lowly status in the rank system. It was provincial notables and the despised military who were largely instrumental in undermining the entire structure during the century that followed Sei Shōnagon's death.

Appendix 2: The Government. (conclusion)

See all notes on The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon

← Back to book page

Added to Shelf Added to Wish List

Inline Translation Mode

Left click to navigate, right click to translate.

inline translation guide

or close

Inline translation is not ready for this page yet.

Inline translation mode.

Share this page with your friends.