Literature: The Pillow Book

When I come into the room to serve Her Majesty and see the other women have already crowded around her, I sit next to a column apart from them. Her Majesty sees me and calls. I love it when the others make way for me when I go to sit next to her.
Sei Shonagon

The Pillow Book is one of the masterpieces of Japanese literature. Written during the Heian period by Sei Shonagon, lady-in-waiting of Empress Teishi, it is an impressionistic compendium of hundreds of things classified by categories ("Rare things", "Things that make the heart beat faster", "Things that bring up fond memories of the past", etc.) as well as everyday scenes at the Japanese imperial court at the turn of the 11th century.

Peter Greenaway used the book as a basis for a movie, also titled The Pillow Book, which focuses on Kiyowara Nagiko, a modern-day fan and emulator of Sei Shonagon. Vivian Wu plays Nagiko and Ewan McGregor her Western boyfriend.


Contains examples of:

Original work:

  • Alpha Bitch: Sei is this trope for the Empress's court, as the page quote clearly indicates.
  • Deadly Decadent Court: Despite being an account of everyday life in such a setting, Sei tends to skim over the political tensions and pretty much ignores the fact that the Empress and her faction are under attack from a competing branch of the Fujiwara family.
  • Everybody Has Lots of Sex: Sei describes in detail the proper decorum for a lover's visit and writes of gentlemen roaming the passages of the ladies' quarters, which is fine by her. She just doesn't think they should be doing it when on duty.
  • Fangirl: Sei dotes on the Imperial family, especially her beloved Empress Teishi.
  • Graceful Ladies Like Purple: And Heian gentlemen too. Violet, purple and mauve costumes are described over and over again.
  • Hotter and Sexier: Modern translations of the book are often advertised as incredibly steamy, as if sex is the only thing Sei ever talks about.
  • Japanese Politeness: Etiquette at the Heian court was so refined, it would make 18th-century Versailles look sloppy. If you wanted to ask a woman out, you'd better do it in the form of several exquisitely written poems.
  • Not Staying for Breakfast: Sei writes disparagingly of lovers who don't have the good sense to sneak out before daybreak.
  • Really Gets Around: Most members of the court had affairs, and Sei makes no bones about her eye for the gentlemen.
  • Shrines and Temples: The ladies of the court regularly go on pilgrimages to famous Buddhist temples.
  • Tsundere: Apparently normal romantic behavior at the Heian Court.
  • Unlimited Wardrobe: Sei makes a point of mentioning her keen sense of fashion, by describing both her own dress (which never seems to be twice the same) and that of other courtiers. Wear yesterday's fashion and she'll put you straight on the list of "Things that should not be looked at".
    • She loosens up by the end of the book. She loosens up insofar as she says at one point "clogs with trousers may be in fashion right now, but they're still ugly."
  • Upper-Class Twit: Plenty of those at the Imperial court.

Movie version: