Royal Influence on Sei Shonagon’s Pillow BookWhen we were back in the Palace, her majesty asked for an account of our adventures. The girls who had been left behind were at first inclined to be rather sulky; but when we described how the Captain had run after us down the Great Highway of the First Ward, they could not help laughing. Presently the Empress asked about our poems, and we were obliged to explain that we had not made any. ‘That is very unfortunate,’ she said. ‘Some of the gentlemen at Court are bound to hear of your excursion, and they will certainly expect something to have come of it.’ (Shonagon, p.
44) In the quoted lines taken from The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, Sei Shonagon recounts how the Empress asked for a report of the adventures of Shonagon and the rest of her companions through a poem. The passage sends the impression of how female individuals working in the Palace in 10th century Japan had to behave especially before the scrutiny of the Palace officials and the rulers of the land. But if it is really the case that The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon reflects the experiences in the life of a court lady, is it possible that her experiences were well within the ‘royal’ boundaries, so to speak? Is it possible that the formal relationship between Sei and the Empress have largely influenced the perspective of the pillow book? Though there may be little evidence to suggest that the Empress herself ordered Sei to write her personal accounts as the Empress sees fit, one cannot simply discount the idea that a large part of the daily experiences of Sei had to depend on the decisions of the royal members of the family. Moreover, her position as court lady is evidence enough that she is working for the Palace, following the orders of the Empress and paying due respect to the monarchy in every possible way. Being a part of the monarchic institution further suggests that Sei had to follow certain protocols or etiquettes in dealing directly to the Empress herself. As Sei recounts in her pillow book, Sei and her companions were obliged to explain after failing to show any poem when the Empress asked (Shonagon, p. 44).
The passage goes to show how Sei is compelled to make explanations to her Empress since she is merely a subject of the ruling monarch. Similarly, the fact that the Empress asked for the poems of Sei and her companions during their adventures suggests that poetry was very well a part of the royal customs. As Phillip T. Harries notes, the imperial anthology of poems was an integral part of early Japan rising to popularity during the Heian Dynasty in the 10th century and that the imperial anthology of poems “was compiled at the direct request of an emperor or retired emperor and received official imperial approval upon completion” (Harries, p. 299). Since poetry was considered an integral part of the royal affairs, Sei has very little as a subject of the Empress but to follow her order of writing poetry about her adventures. If that is the case, it appears that Sei is not only willing to write poetry about her adventures as she is also forced in some way by the monarchy to fulfill their commands. Moreover, the Empress even implicitly puts pressure on Sei with regard to her task of making a poetic account of her adventures with her companions.
Take for instance the line when the Empress says “some of the gentlemen at Court are bound to hear of your excursion, and they will certainly expect something to have come of it” (Shonagon, p. 44). From the quoted line, one can see how the Empress is trying to add force on the weight of the task given to Sei. Sei’s failure of doing as the Empress tells her to do will not only make Sei fail the Empress but also some of the Gentlemen at the Palace Court. Thus, it is highly likely for Sei as a royal subject to do the best that she can in order to fulfill her responsibility to the Empress and the rest of the members of the Palace Court. She has no other option but to write poems about their adventures, whether she likes it or otherwise.
Indeed, regardless of whether or not Sei Shonagon has the desire and inclination to write poetry, she is still bound to follow the royal dictate. However, I suspect Sei Shonagon wrote poetry and the entire pillow book not only because she was told by the Empress and the monarchy to write accounts of her experiences but also because she is inclined to do so. The fact that she was able to put details into her life experiences as a court leady into a pillow book is reason enough to say that she had the desire to write narratives and poems, and that desire only adds up to the royal mandate, thereby completing the wholeness of her written work. Going back to the earlier question, is it possible that Sei’s experiences were well within the ‘royal’ boundaries, so to speak? The answer, I think, is that her experiences and written accounts were within the ‘royal’ boundaries. And while her formal relationship with the Empress suggests that it has largely influenced the larger perspective of the pillow book, her inclination to write poetry and narratives of her experiences go to show that the pillow book is a manifestation of her perspective about her surroundings and the perspective of the monarchy. In the quoted passage, Shonagon also says “when we described how the Captain had run after us down the Great Highway of the First Ward, they could not help laughing (Shonagon, p. 44).” Based on the circumstance, it is difficult to imagine that the rest of the companions of Shonagon were laughing in the presence of the Empress, an esteemed royalty in Japan, while Shonagon was recalling and describing their experience.
Unless Shonagon and her companions were closely associated with the Empress, or that they were having a casual conversation with a close friend, it would not be difficult to imagine the scenario in the quoted passage. Although the relationship between Sei and the Empress is formal as far as the monarchy is concerned, I think it is also possible that the situation at that point in time reflected a different side to that formal relationship. I think that having the formal relationship between Sei and the Empress does not mean that there are no mirthful moments in the Palace whenever Sei is before her royal superior. The effect of that ‘other’ side of the relationship between Sei and the Empress on the pillow book is that the perspective of Sei becomes all the more influenced by the Empress. The seemingly ‘close’ relationship between Sei and the Empress makes one think of how much the Empress has influenced the life experiences of Sei. It reaffirms the idea that the pillow book does not only reveal the perspective of the court lady but also a portion of the perspective of the monarchy.
The quoted passage emphasizes several key points regarding the entirety of the pillow book. One is that the perspective of Sei’s narrative is influenced not only by the personal experiences of the author but also by the extent of the power of the ruling monarchy. Another key point is the idea that the pillow book is a clear manifestation of the high regard for poetry and written accounts in early Japan that the monarchy required the subjects to make use of them in recording their life experiences. Reading The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon gives us a closer look at the royal customs of in early Japan, especially those of the female subjects of the monarchy working in the Palace Court.
Work CitedHarries, Phillip T. “Personal Poetry Collections. Their Origin and Development through the Heian Period.
” Monumenta Nipponica 35.3 (Autumn, 1980): 299-317.Shonagon, Sei. The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. Trans.
Arthur Waley: Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2005.