The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon

The Pillow Book of Sei ShōnagonAuthor: Sei Shōnagon
Translator: Ivan Morris
U.S. publisher: Columbia University Press
ISBN: 9780231073370
Released: December 1991
Original release: 11th century

I’ve recently developed a particular interest in Heian-era Japan and literature. The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon is an important eleventh-century work that provides a glimpse into Heian society, especially that of the court and higher classes. Shōnagon was a lady-in-waiting to Empress Teishi as well as a contemporary and rival of Murasaki Shikibu, the author of The Tale of Genji and a lady-in-waiting who served Empress Shōshi. The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon has been translated into English, both in part and in its entirety, many times, the first translation appearing as early as 1889. Out of all of the English translations, I gravitated towards that of Ivan Morris’ whose works of nonfiction The World of the Shining Prince and The Nobility of Failure I thoroughly enjoyed. Excerpts of The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon were actually included in The World of the Shining Prince and I enjoyed his translation. Morris’ complete two-volume translation of The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon was published in 1967 by Columbia University Press. However, in 1971, an edited and abridged translation began to be released. It is this single-volume edition that is now more readily available and generally more approachable for the average reader, not to mention the version of The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon that I myself read.

The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon is a diary of sorts, a collection of thought and observances, lists and poetry. Most of the individual sections are short, some only a few paragraphs and the longest still being under fifteen pages. The volume isn’t arranged chronologically, some parts can’t even be definitely dated, but seeing as each section stands perfectly well on its own and there is no overarching “plot,” this isn’t particularly problematic. Shōnagon relates events and ceremonies that take place at court and at shrines, but she also details more personal affairs and gossip as well. The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon mostly deals with Heian-ea nobility and their lives, but the lower classes are occasionally mentioned, too, though usually with some disdain. While relatively little is known about Shōnagon outside of her own writings, it is clear she was a well-educated and intelligent women with a strong personality that brought her admirers as well as a those who could be considered her opponents.

While I haven’t read other translation of The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon and so am not able to offer comparisons, I was very pleased with Morris’ translation. I found it easy to understand, pleasant in its style, and overall very enjoyable. Morris’ translation presents an excellent balance between the literal and the literary. It reads well in English and yet retains a sense of poetic elegance. This particular edition of The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon also includes additional material for readers who are interested in the works’ specific historical context or in Heian-era Japan in general. Morris’ notes are copious and entire appendices are devoted to the calendar and time system, the government and its structure, places and their accompanying maps, an illustrated guide to clothing, households, carriages, instruments, and other daily objects, as well as several chronologies. A list of recommended reading is also given. In all, the supplementary material accounts for about a third of the volume’s total length.

I found The PIllow Book of Sei Shōnagon to be a very enjoyable and even charming read. However, it’s not a work to be read all at once or in a hurry. Instead, savoring a few sections here or there will generally provide a more pleasant reading experience. Shōnagon’s personality really comes through in her writings. She’s witty and sharp-minded, but also occasionally mean-spirited and a little self-important. Granted, as The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon serves at least in part as her diary, it’s not too surprising that she allows herself to express herself so freely within its pages. However, eventually she was quite aware that others were and would be reading the work as well. Even though centuries have passed since The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon was first written and compiled, it’s noteworthy how engaging and approachable the work can be for modern readers. Shōnagon was a keen observer of the people and society of her own time, but her humor and insights into human nature can still be appreciated even today.

The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan

The World of the Shining PrinceAuthor: Ivan Morris
Publisher: Kodansha
ISBN: 9781568360294
Released: June 1994
Original release: 1964

Several years ago I read the entirety of The Tale of Genji, a novel written by Murasaki Shikibu in the eleventh century. It was a pretty big undertaking, but absolutely worth it. I love the novel. Ever since finishing The Tale of Genji for the first time, I’ve been meaning to read Ivan Morris’ The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan. The volume takes its title from the hero of The Tale of Genji who is referred to as the shining prince due to his exquisite visage and exceptional character. In many ways, The World of the Shining Prince serves as a companion to The Tale of Genji as Morris explores the historical reality of the aristocracy of Heian-era Japan. The World of the Shining Prince was originally published in 1964. Beginning in 1994, later editions of the work also include an introduction by Barbara Ruch. I recently read and was rather impressed by another of Morris’ works, The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan, and so was looking forward to reading The World of the Shining Prince even more.

In addition to the introductions, preface, appendices, bibliography, and topical index, The World of the Shining Prince examines a number of different aspects of tenth-century Japan, Heian court society, and The Tale of Genji within it ten chapters. Morris begins with a broad overview of the era in the first chapter, “The Heian Period.” Though the Heian Period lasted from 782 to 1167, The World of the Shining Prince largely, but not exclusively, focuses on the 900s. The next chapter, “The Setting” looks at Heian architecture, city planning, and geography. From there Morris delves into more detailed analysis of Heian culture in the chapters “Politics and Society,” “Religions,” and “Superstitions.” Next, attention is specifically turned to the Heian nobility and aristocracy. “The Good People and Their Lives” details day-to-day activities, amusements, and ceremonies while “The Cult of Beauty” looks at the particular aesthetics of the era. The eighth chapter, “The Women of Heian and their Relations with Men” outlines household and family structures as well as the place of romantic liaisons. The World of the Shining Prince concludes with chapters devoted to Murasaki Shikibu and to The Tale of Genji itself.

Although written more than five decades ago, The World of the Shining Prince has held up remarkably well. Admittedly, it is nearly impossible to write a completely objective cultural study—Morris’ analysis is informed and influenced by his own cultural subjectivity. In the half-century since The World of the Shining Prince was written, Western thought and scholarly approaches to cultural analysis have also changed. (For example, as Ruch mentions in her introduction, views on gender politics and the relationship between religion and superstition has shifted over the years.) The World of the Shining Prince is a product of its time, but that doesn’t at all diminish its value as a resource on Heian-era Japan, and more specifically on Japanese court life in the tenth century. Additionally, the volume is written with a general audience in mind. It is quite approachable, even for the average reader, and is engagingly written. Granted, the subject mater of The World of the Shining Prince is fascinating to being with.

Although Morris does provide some important general context within which he situates The World of the Shining Prince, the volume’s scope is relatively narrow, concentrating on a very specific part of Heian society. However, this specificity also allows him to explore that subject from several different perspectives. Information about the Heian Period is somewhat limited, especially in regards to the lower classes, which is another reason that The World of the Shining Prince is so focused on the era’s nobility. The Tale of Genji is a major source for Morris’ study of the Heian-era Japan, as are other works of contemporary literature—The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon especially features prominently—as well as diaries and court records from the time period. The World of the Shining Prince is an extremely informative and absorbing work. It’s more than just a companion to The Tale of Genji and reaches beyond its literary connections. The volume should appeal to anyone interested in learning more about classical  Japanese history.

The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan

The Nobility of FailureAuthor: Ivan Morris
Publisher: Kurodahan Press
ISBN: 9784902075502
Released: September 2013
Original release: 1975

In some ways, Ivan Morris’ The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan could be considered a companion of sorts to his earlier work The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan. While The World of the Shining Prince explores the beauty of court culture in Japan, The Nobility of Failure addresses the country’s more tragic history. Originally published in 1975, The Nobility of Failure has been out of print for years. Happily, Kurodahan Press was able to rerelease the volume in 2013 with a newly added preface by Juliet Winters Carpenter. Happier still, I was selected to receive a review copy of the new edition of The Nobility of Failure through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. The Nobility of Failure is an important work that examines the cultural and historical background of some of the tragic heroes who continue to influence the modern Japanese psyche. I am very glad that I, and others, once again have the opportunity to read it.

While not unheard of in Western tradition, Japan has a particular, and some might call peculiar, predilection for the tragic or failed hero. They are admired for their sincerity and loyalty even when their causes were meet with failure and their goals could be considered traitorous. Above all else, those heroes adhered to their ideals, especially in the face of their own destruction. In The Nobility of Failure, Morris traces Japan’s tradition of the tragic hero back to the fourth century and the archetype of Prince Yamato Takeru. The following chapters explore the lives and influences of Japan’s legendary and historic failed heroes found throughout the centuries: Yorozu, Arima no Miko, Sugawara no Michizane, Minamoto no Yoshitsune, Kusunoki Masashige, Amakusa Shirō, Ōshio Heihachirō, and Saigō Takamori. The volume culminates in an examination of the World War II kamikaze fighters—an unprecedented development in modern warfare which for most countries would have been unimaginable.

One thing that I didn’t realize about The Nobility of Failure before reading the book was how much of an influence Yukio Mishima had on its creation. Morris and Mishima were friends and the book was at least in part written in order to put Mishima’s act of ritual suicide in 1970 into historical context. The volume is even dedicated to his memory. Since I happen to have a particular fascination with Mishima, I found this connection to be especially interesting. Many of the heroes who are the focus of The Nobility of Failure (tragic heroines are only mentioned in passing) were men that Mishima personally admired, but they are also generally recognized as important to Japan as a whole and are even considered to be inspirational figures to some. Japan’s tragic heroes carry immense psychological and cultural significance; their role in Japanese history was crucial to the development of Japan’s national character, perspective, and worldview.

The Nobility of Failure is an extremely illuminating volume. It’s readily clear that Morris put a tremendous amount of thought and research into the volume. In fact, the endnotes, bibliography, and index make up approximately a third of the books’ length. Morris draws upon both primary and secondary materials, including literature, poetry, and theatrical interpretations of the heroes’ stories found in kabuki and Noh. Using a combination of sources, excerpts, and retellings, Morris reveals both the mythic and legendary basis of Japan’s tragic heroes as well as their historical reality and how they have influenced Japan’s culture and psyche. This is particularly evident in the chapter about the kamikaze fighters in which Morris ties in everything that had previously been examined. Even though The Nobility of Failure was written nearly forty years ago, it is still a valuable and fascinating work. Morris’ compassionate analysis deserves to remain in print.

Thank you to Kurodahan Press for providing a copy of The Nobility of Failure for review.