The book The Pillow of Sei Shonagon can be regarded as a comprehensive description of the life at Japanese court at the period of Heian society. Sei Shonagon provides her insightful accounts of the life at the court. The writing is very personal and it makes the book even more valuable as it does not only reveal certain customs and traditions, but unveils the way people thought. Remarkably, the book also helps understand peculiarities of the Heian society and gender roles in it.
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In the first place, it is necessary to note that the Heian period is characterized by certain empowerment of women as they could take some roles in a social life of the state. Thus, women could obtain education which was really good and comprehensive. Earlier, education was considered to be a male task.
In Heian Japan, women had a specific role as they were leading personalities in literature. They wrote a variety of literary works which were admired by women as well as men. Women could also copy books, and this was also rather a privilege (Shonagon 1991, 148). Apart from working on literary masterpieces, women at the court did not have a privileged position.
Clearly, people of that period cherished education and mental as well as physical abilities. Sei Shonagon stresses that people who excel in studies, literature or art of war are exceptional. Therefore, such virtues as excellence in art of war, literature and politics were seen as primary.
It is also necessary to note that men were still regarded as superior creatures. Men were regarded as rulers and those who lead, while women were seen as subordinate creatures and had to play certain roles. These were roles of wives, mothers, mistresses and, of course, writers.
Thus, being a court lady, Sei Shonagon, was quite close to her Majesty Empress. Sei Shonagon enjoyed all privileges of an aristocrat of that period. Of course, she had to follow the conventions which existed at the court at that period. It is necessary to note that there were a lot of rules and traditions which had to be respected.
It is necessary to note that the court at that time was characterized by peculiarities of any medieval court. There were various intrigues, love affairs, coalitions, etc. Notably, the author pays a lot of attention to love affairs and eroticism in her book. Thus, she depicts a number of dates and night meetings. She also describes complicated traditions and customs associated with love affairs. Men and women had to write love letters, which had to have certain structure or rather form. These writings had to be deliberate and thoughtful.
The author also describes how hypocritical the life at the court was as people often pretended to be better than they were in reality. Admittedly, it was a norm to have an exemplary family where the husband and the wife love each other. However, in reality the situation was different and many couples hid their feelings.
Sei Shonagon notes that there are hardly couples who “always treat each other with scrupulous care and respect” (Shonagon 1991, 146). Therefore, the Heian court life was not different from the life at any other court (or even at any other society where people tend to create certain images top fit the society).
It is also necessary to point out that even though family values were regarded as prior to anything, adultery was also a norm. Sei Shonagon mentions a man “with two mistresses who is obliged to see them being bitter and jealous towards each other” (Shonagon 1991, 171). The author also writes about waiting for a lover in the middle of the night. This may not refer to adultery, but it is not an exemplary marital relationship. Therefore, extramarital affairs were seen as something illicit but possible.
Another characteristic feature of the court was the aristocracy’s attitude towards representatives of other societal layers. This can be easily explained as one of the major virtues of an individual was education and only aristocrats could afford being educated. Wisdom and courtesy were seen as certain priorities. Admittedly, peasants did not have time or money to obtain education. Aristocrats did not take this into account and saw peasants as inferior creatures.
To sum up, it is possible to note that Sei Shonagon reveals major peculiarities of the life at the court. The writer describes a variety of traditions and conventions which existed at the court. Clearly, the Heian court can be regarded as a conventional court of the Middle Ages as those who lived there were hypocrites.
However, the court was also somewhat exceptional as women had quite a special place. Women were able to obtain education. Women were even regarded as major figures in literature at that period. However, it is also true that this was a partial empowerment as women were still seen as inferior in many other respects. Major roles assigned to women (apart from roles of writers) were roles of wives, mistresses and mothers.
Shonagon, Sei, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. Translated by Ivan Morris, New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.