Spotlight on Japan
How does an understanding of literature and language help
us to better understand the culture?
The Pillow Book - Sei Shonagon
Teacher may want to expand lesson to include point
of view writing. For example, what comments would her son make? her
Students will be able to:
- compare their
reactions to everyday life with those of Sei Shonagon, a 10th century
Japanese Court woman
- analyze the value
of using a personal diary to understand a culture
Excerpts from The Pillow Book - Sei Shonagon
Sel Shonagon was born in 967, the daughter of a descendant of the
Emperor Temmu. Married briefly, she and her son lived in the Imperial
Palace in the service of Empress Sadako from 993 until Sadako's death
in 1000. The name Shonagon refers to the title of Sel's office. Shonagon
wrote The Pillow Book (Makura no Soshi) about the year 1002, during
the Helan period in Japanese history. The book is part diary and part
essay. One of the unusual features of Japanese literature written during
this period is that such works as The Pillow Book and The Tales
of Genji were written by women. One theory is that Japanese men considered
the writing of prose in their native language to be beneath them, and
so they concentrated their literary efforts on poetry and Chinese prose.
Though Shonagon did
not write down her ideas in The Pillow Book in any kind of connected style,
some scholars have attempted to classify its content as follows:
- names of things,
such as rivers and mountains;
- thoughts on place
life, human affairs and nature;
- diary accounts
and narrative sections concerning Shonagon's experiences at the palace.
In the diary sections, the author sometimes boasts of her knowledge
of Chinese literature and the admiration this evokes from young noblemen.
Shonagon is credited with creating expressions, such as the "dawn of
spring" and "evening of autumn," that were so widely used by later poets
that they became cliches.
writing is highly regarded for its witty style and insights. Yet it is
the author herself who shines through her works, displaying a keen intelligence
and sophisticated style of humor. The noted literary critic Donald Keene,
regards The Pillow Book as the closest approach to high comedy
in Japanese literature. According to Mr. Keene, "It Is a work without
precedent, filled with flashing impressions and delicate touches (even)
if lacking in depth. "
Prior to class, teacher duplicates Student Worksheets with excerpts from
The Pillow Book. Cut along dotted lines between excerpts and fold each
excerpt individually. On the outside, the teacher writes the title of
the selection. Place folded excerpts in a box or basket and allow students
to select one.
- On entering the
room, each student selects a folded paper which contains one excerpt.
Caution them not to open paper until directed to do so.
- Students are
asked to respond to the title on the outside of the folded paper. Student's
should write whatever the title suggests. Allow 8-10 minutes for writing
- When the class
has finished writing, call on volunteers to read the title of their
selection and their responses.
- After a number
of volunteers read their writing, everyone is asked to open the folded
papers and read what Sel Shonagon had written on the same topic. The
same participants who had read their own work, now read the words from
The Pillow Book.
- Ask class:
- Are there
any similarities between your response and the original? Discuss.
- What differences
did you notice?
- What do these
writings reveal about the culture of Japan in the 10th century?
- To what extent
would a contemporary Japanese teenager share some of the same values
as this 10th century writer? A contemporary American teenager?
- When researching
a period in history, historians and social scientists frequently search
for original diaries.
- How does a
person's diary help us to learn about a culture?
- What are
the dangers of relying on such a document as the only source?