History of the Memoir: Sei Shonagon and Kenko

by Nynke Passi

Here more about two forerunners of the modern memoir, Sei Shonagon and Yoshida Kenko. At the bottom of each section, find pdf links where you can read more of Kenko and Shonagon’s work.



Here you can find out more about Sei Shonagon: Sei Shonagon, Wikipedia

Sei Shōnagon (清少納言?, lesser councilor of state Sei), (c. 966–1017) was a Japanese author and a court lady who served the Empress Teishi (Sadako) around the year 1000 during the middle Heian period. She is best known as the author of The Pillow Book (枕草子 makura no sōshi?).

Little is known about her life except what can be found in her writing. She was the daughter of Kiyohara no Motosuke, a scholar and well-known waka poet, who worked as a provincial official. Her grandfather Kiyohara no Fukayabu was also a waka poet. The family were middle-ranking courtiers and had financial difficulties, possibly because they were not granted a revenue-producing office.

She married Tachibana no Norimitsu, a government official at 16, and gave birth to a son, Norinaga. In 993, at 27, when she began to serve the Empress Teishi, consort of Emperor Ichijō, she may have been divorced. When her court service ended she may have married Fujiwara no Muneyo, governor of Settsu province, and had a daughter, Koma no Myobu, although some evidence suggests she became a Buddhist nun.

Shōnagon became popular through her work The Pillow Book, a collection of lists, gossip, poetry, observations, complaints written during her years in the court, a miscellaneous genre of writing known as zuihitsu. The Pillow Book was circulated at court, and for several hundred years existed in handwritten manuscripts. First printed in the 17th century, it exists in different versions: the order of entries may have been changed by scribes with comments and passages added, edited, or deleted. In The Pillow Book, Shōnagon writes about Empress Teishi, and her disappointment after her father’s death when Fujiwara no Michinaga made his daughter Shōshi consort to Ichijō, and then empress, making Teishi one of two empresses at court.

Shōnagon writes with apparent lightheartedness about Teishi’s death, from childbirth in 1000. According to the prevalent fashion, to have written more passionately would have been considered unstylish. Her writing is considered witty, depicting Teishi’s elegant court from a detailed, gossipy perspective.

The entries in The Pillow Book on rhetoric include advice and opinions on conversation, preaching, and letter writing. On conversation, Shōnagon advocates pure language and rigorous use of amenities in the sections of advice, but also offers vignettes showing witty repartee and sociable give-and-take among the empress’s ladies and between ladies and gentlemen. Shōnagon also touches upon the topic of preaching. She says that priests should be handsome who are well trained in elocution, with excellent memories, as well as attentive, polite audiences who do not come to services to flirt and show off. Later, she offers detailed information on letter writing, offering prescriptions for paper, calligraphy, accompanying gift and bearer, and appreciation for the value of letters as gifts of love. In particular, Shōnagon paid special attention to “morning-after letters.” In Japanese court society, heterosexual sex between courtiers was illicit but happened very often. A social requirement was that the male sent a poem on beautiful paper with a decorative flower or branch to the lady, and that she reply. Shōnagon goes in depth about this subject matter in her section called, “Things That Make One Nervous.”

Here you can read more in a pdf file on Barrus’ World Literature Blog: PDF The Pillow Book

And here another selection, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, David-Glen Smith: PDF The Pillow Book 2



Here you can find out more about Kenko: Yoshida Kenkō (吉田 兼好, Wikipedia

More about the Essays in Idleness, the Tsurezuregusa: Essays in Idleness, Tsurezuregusa, Wikipedia

Yoshida Kenkō (吉田 兼好?, 1283? – 1350?) was a Japanese author and Buddhist monk. His most famous work is Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Idleness), one of the most studied works of medieval Japanese literature. Kenko wrote during the Muromachi and Kamakura periods.

Tsurezuregusa (徒然草?, Essays in Idleness, alternatively: The Harvest of Leisure) is a collection of Japanese essays written by the monk Yoshida Kenkō between 1330 and 1332. The work is widely considered a gem of medieval Japanese literature and one of the three representative works of the zuihitsu [1] genre, along with Makura no Sōshi and the Hōjōki.

Tsurezuregusa comprises a preface and 243 passages (段, dan), varying in length from a single line to a few pages. Kenkō, being a Buddhist monk, writes about Buddhist truths, and themes such as death and impermanence prevail in the work, although it also contains passages devoted to the beauty of nature as well as some on humorous incidents. The original work was not divided or numbered; the division can be traced to the 17th century.

The work takes its name from its preface passage:

Tsurezurenaru mama ni, hikurashi, suzuri ni mukaite, kokoro ni utsuriyuku yoshinashigoto wo, sokowakatonaku kakitsukureba, ayashū koso monoguruoshikere.

In Keene’s translation:

What a strange, demented feeling it gives me when I realise I have spent whole days before this inkstone, with nothing better to do, jotting down at random whatever nonsensical thoughts that have entered my head.

where つれづれ (tsurezure) means “having nothing to do.”

For comparison, Sansom‘s translation:

To while away the idle hours, seated the livelong day before the inkslab, by jotting down without order or purpose whatever trifling thoughts pass through my mind, truly this is a queer and crazy thing to do!

Here you can read more in pdf format, from Essays in Idleness, UAF, eLearning and Distance Education: Essays in Idleness, Kenko, PDF