Ancient History & Civilisation

3. The Essay

The Lady Sei Shonagon—Kamo no-Chomei

Arai was an essayist as well as an historian, and made brilliant contributions to what is perhaps the most delightful department of Japanese literature. Here, as in fiction, a woman stands at the top; for Lady Sei Shonagon’s “Pillow Sketches” (Makura Zoshi) is usually accorded the highest as well as the earliest place in this field. Brought up in the same court and generation as Lady Murasaki, she chose to describe the refined and scandalous life about her in casual sketches whose excellence in the original can only be guessed at by us from the charm that survives in translation. Born a Fujiwara, she rose to be a lady in waiting to the Empress. On the latter’s death Lady Sei retired, some say to a convent, others say to poverty. Her book shows no touch of either. She takes the easy morals of her time according to the easy judgment of her time, and does not think too highly of spoil-sport ecclesiastics.

A preacher ought to be a good-looking man. It is then easier to keep your eyes fixed on his face, without which it is impossible to benefit by his discourse. Otherwise the eyes wander and you forget to listen. Ugly preachers have therefore a grave responsibility. . . . If preachers were of a more suitable age I should have pleasure in giving a more favorable judgment. As matters actually stand, their sins are too fearful to think of.38

She adds little lists of her likes and dislikes:

Cheerful things:

Coming home from an excursion with the carriages full to overflowing;

To have lots of footmen who make the oxen and the carriages speed along;

A river-boat going down stream;

Teeth nicely blackened. . . .

Dreary things:

A nursery where a child has died;

A brazier with the fire gone out;

A coachman who is hated by his ox;

The birth of a succession of female children in the house of a scholar.

Detestable things:

People who, when you are telling a story, break in with “Oh, I know,” and give quite a different version from your own. . . .

While on friendly terms with a man, to hear him sound the praises of a woman whom he has known. . . .

A visitor who tells a long story when you are in a hurry. . . .

The snoring of a man whom you are trying to conceal, and who has gone to sleep in a place where he has no business. . . .


The Lady’s only rival for the highest place in the Japanese essay is Kamo no-Chomei. Being refused the succession to his father as the superior guardian of the Shinto shrine of Kamo at Kyoto, Chomei became a Buddhist monk, and at fifty retired to a contemplative life in a mountain hermitage. There he wrote his farewell to the busy world under the title of Hojoki (1212)—i.e., “The Record of Ten Feet Square.” After describing the difficulties and annoyances of city life, and the great famine of 1181,* he tells how he built himself a hut ten feet square and seven feet high, and settled down contentedly to undisturbed philosophy and a quiet comradeship with natural things. An American, reading him, hears the voice of Thoreau in thirteenth-century Japan. Apparently every generation has had its Walden Pond.

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