A History of Japanese Literature/Book 3/Chapter 5

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With the Genji Monogatari the Japanese associate the Makura Zōshi or "Pillow Sketches" of Sei Shōnagon as of equal excellence, although different in form and character. The author, like Murasaki no Shikibu, was a lady of high rank, her father, who was a poet of some fame, being descended from the Prince who compiled the Nihongi. Her learning and talents obtained for her the honour of being appointed Lady-in-waiting to the Empress. On the death of the latter in A.D. 1000, she retired from the world, some say to a convent, where she received to the last marks of the esteem of her former master, the Mikado Ichigo. Others, however, describe her condition as one of great poverty and misery.

The title "Pillow Sketches" is explained by some to mean that she kept the manuscript by her pillow and jotted down her thoughts and observations when going to bed and when getting up in the morning. It is more probable, however, that it is an allusion to an anecdote which she herself relates in a postscript:—

"It has become too dark for literary work, and my pen is worn out. I will bring these sketches to a close. They are a record of that which I have seen with my eyes and felt in my heart, not written that others might read them, but put together to solace the loneliness of my home life. When I think how I tried to keep them secret, conscious of vulgar and exaggerated remarks which have escaped me, the tears flow uncontrollably.

"One day when I was in attendance on the Empress, she showed me some paper which had been given her by the Naidaijin. 'What is to be written on this?' said her Majesty. 'The Mikado has had something they call History written on his.' 'It will do nicely for pillows,' I replied. 'Then take it,' said she. So I tried to use up this immense supply by writing down strange matters of all kinds without any connection or sequence."

The Makura Zōshi is the first example of a style of writing which afterwards became popular in Japan under the name of Zuihitsu or "following the pen." There is no sort of arrangement. The author sets down upon the spur of the moment anything which occurs to her. Stories, descriptive enumerations of dismal, incongruous, abominable and dreary things, lists of flowers, mountains, rivers, sketches of social and domestic life, thoughts suggested by the contemplation of nature, and much more form her farrago libelli.

Unlike the author of the Genji, who loses herself in the characters which she describes, the personality of Sei Shōnagon comes out distinctly in everything which she has written. The clever, somewhat cynical, cultured woman of the world is always present to the reader. Her tastes and predilections are made known at considerable length, and she does not mind being her own Boswell, not failing to record in her "Pillow Sketches" any apt quotation or neat retort which she may have made. Subsequent writers do not acquit her, as they do Murasaki no Shikibu, of a personal share in the amorous intrigues which formed so large a part of life among the upper classes of Kiōto at this period. It may be readily gathered from her writings that she was no stranger to

"The politic arts
To take and keep men's hearts;
The letters, embassies, and spies,
The frowns, and smiles, and flatteries,
The quarrels, tears, and perjuries,
Numberless, nameless mysteries,"

of Cowley's poem.

The following extracts will give some idea of the general character of the work. The four seasons form the subject of the opening chapter:—

"In spring," the author says, "I love to watch the dawn grow gradually whiter and whiter, till a faint rosy tinge crowns the mountain's crest, while slender streaks of purple cloud extend themselves above."

"In summer, I love the night, not only when the moon is shining, but the dark too, when the fireflies cross each other's paths in their flight, or when the rain is falling."

"In autumn, it is the beauty of the evening which most deeply moves me, as I watch the crows seeking their roosting-place in twos and threes and fours, while the setting sun sends forth his beams gorgeously as he draws near the mountain's rim. Still more is it delightful to see the lines of wild geese pass, looking exceeding small in the distance. And when the sun has quite gone down, how moving it is to hear the chirruping of insects or the sighing of the wind!"

"In winter, how unspeakably beautiful is the snow! But I also love the dazzling whiteness of the hoar-frost, and the intense cold even at other times. Then it is meet quickly to fetch charcoal and kindle fires. And let not the gentle warmth of noon persuade us to allow the embers of the hearth or of the brazier to become a white heap of ashes!"

The Exorcist

"What a pity it is to make a priest of a child whom one loves! How painful it must be to have to regard as so many bits of stick the things which are in life the most desirable! Priests have to go to bed after a meal of wretched fasting diet, and are blamed if, when young, they so much as take a sly peep into places where there are attractive girls. The life of an exorcist priest is particularly hard. What dreadful experiences he must have on his pilgrimages to Mitake, Kumano, and all the other sacred monasteries! Even after he has gained a fame for unction and is sent for on all occasions, his very reputation is a bar to his repose. What a labour it must be to drive out the evil spirit from the sick man he is in attendance on! And yet if he dozes a little out of sheer exhaustion, he is promptly reprimanded, and told that he does nothing but sleep. How embarrassed he must feel!"

The exorcist is much sympathised with by the author. In another place she says—

"When the exorcist is summoned to drive out an evil spirit, he puts on a consequential air as he distributes his maces and bells to those who are present. Then he drones out his chant in tones like the note of the cicada. But suppose that the demon is not a whit disturbed, and that the spells are of no avail? The whole household, who had joined in the prayers, begin to wonder. Still he goes on hour after hour till he is utterly weary. At last he sees that it is useless, so he lets them get up and takes back his maces and bells with a confession of failure. How he ruffles back his hair and scratches his head with many a yawn he lays himself down to sleep!"

Visit of the Empress to a Court Noble

"When the Empress visited the Daishin Narimasa, her carriage went in by the East Gate, which is wide with four pillars. Her women, however, preferred to have their carriages go round to the North Gate, where there were no guards. Some who had not done up their hair thought to themselves with some disdain, "Oh, we shall drive up to the door, so we need not be very particular." But the palm-leaf-covered carriages stuck fast in the narrow portal, and there was no possibility of getting in. So the usual path of matting was laid, and we were told to get down, to our no small annoyance and indignation. But there was no help for it. It was provoking to see the courtiers and servants standing together in the guard-room to watch us pass. When we came before her Majesty, and told her what had happened, she only laughed at us, saying, 'Is there nobody looking at you now? How can you be so untidy?' 'Yes,' replied I, 'but everybody here is used to us, and would be greatly surprised if we took special pains about our appearance. To think that a mansion like this should have a gate too small to admit a carriage! I shall have a good laugh at the Daishin when I meet him.' Presently he came in bringing the Empress's ink-stone and writing materials. 'This is too bad of you,' said I. 'How can you live in a house with such a narrow gate?' To which he replied with a smile, that his house was on a scale suited to his station. 'And yet,' said I, 'I have heard of a man who had his gate, though nothing more, made too large for his personal requirements.' 'Well, to be sure,' said the Daishin, with astonishment, 'you refer, of course, to U Teikoku [a Chinese worthy]. Who would have thought that any one but a venerable pundit knew aught of that? I myself have occasionally strayed into the paths of learning, and fully comprehend your allusion.' 'Indeed, then,' returned I, 'your paths are none of the most sensible. There was a nice disturbance, I can tell you, when we found ourselves entrapped into walking along your matted paths.' 'I fear you must have been incommoded,' he replied. 'And it was raining, too. But I must attend the Empress.' Saying which, he made his exit.

"'What was it put Narimasa out so much?' the Empress inquired of me later. 'Oh, nothing,' I said; 'I was only telling him of our misadventure at his gate.'

Domestic Scene in the Mikado's Palace

"On the sliding doors of the northern front of the Mikado's private apartments there are painted fearful pictures of creatures that live in the wild ocean, some with long arms, others with long legs. When the doors of the ante-chamber are open we can always see them. One day towards noon, while we were laughing and talking about them, saying what hideous things they are, and were engaged in setting great flower-pots of green porcelain[1] by the balustrade of the verandah, and filling them with an abundance of the most delightful cherry branches five feet long, so that the blossoms overflowed to the foot of the railing, his Excellency the Dainagon [the Empress's brother] approached. He had on a cherry-coloured tunic, enough worn to have lost its stiffness, and dark purple trousers. His white underclothing, showing at the neck, displayed a gay pattern of a deep crimson hue. As the Mikado was then with the Empress, he seated himself on the narrow platform before the door and made some report to him on official matters.

"The waiting-women, with their cherry-coloured sleeveless jackets hanging down loosely by their sides, some dressed in wistaria [purple], some in kerria [yellow], and all manner of lovely colours, showed out from the screen of the small hatch. Just then dinner was served in the Imperial apartments. We could hear the trampling of the attendants' feet, and the cry 'Less noise' from one of the chamberlains. The serene aspect of the weather was exceedingly agreeable. When the last dishes had been served, a butler came and announced dinner. The Mikado went away by the middle door, attended by his Excellency the Dainagon, who subsequently returned to his former place beside the flowers. The Empress then pushed aside the curtain, and came forward as far as the threshold to greet him. He remarked on the beauty of the surroundings and the good deportment of the servants, and ended by quoting the line of poetry which says—

'The days and months roll on,
But the Mount of Mimoro remains for ever.'

"I was deeply impressed, and wished in my heart that so it might indeed continue for a thousand years.

The Attack of the Dog Okinamaro upon the Cat Miyōbu no Otodo

"The august Cat-in-waiting on the Mikado was a very delightful animal, and a great favourite with his Majesty, who conferred on her the fifth rank of nobility and the title of Miyōbu no Otodo, or Chief Superintendent of the Female Attendants of the Palace. One day she had gone out on to the bridge between two of the buildings of the Palace, when the nurse in charge of her called out, 'How improper! Come in at once.' But the cat paid no attention, and went on basking drowsily in the sun. So in order to frighten her, 'Where is Okinamaro?' cried the nurse. 'Okinamaro! bite Miyōbu no Otodo.' The foolish dog, thinking she was in earnest, flew at the cat, who in her fright and consternation took refuge behind the screen of the breakfast-room where his Majesty then was. The Mikado was greatly shocked and agitated. He took the cat into his august bosom, and summoning the chamberlain Tadataka, gave orders that Okinamaro should have a good thrashing and be banished to Dog Island at once. The attendants gave chase to Okinamaro amid great confusion. They soon caught him, and sent him away as they were ordered.

"Alas, poor dog! He used to swagger about so much at his ease. When on the third day of the third month he was led along with a willow wreath upon his head, and adorned with flowers of peach and cherry, did he ever think that it would come to this? At meal times he used always to be in attendance, and now, when three or four days passed without him, we missed him greatly. One day at noon there was a tremendous noise of a dog's howling. All the other dogs rushed to the spot in excitement to see what made him go on yelping so. Meanwhile a scavenger-woman of the Palace came to us running. 'Oh! how terrible!' exclaimed she. 'Two of the chamberlains are beating a dog till he is nearly dead. They say they are chastising him for having come back after he was banished.' My heart told me that it was Okinamaro who was being beaten by Tadataka and Sanefusa. I was just sending to stop them when the howling ceased. I was then told that he was dead, and that his body had been flung away outside the gate. At sundown, when we were all pitying his fate, a wretched-looking dog, trembling all over, walked in, his body fearfully and amazingly swollen. 'Can this be Okinamaro?' we said. 'No such dog has been seen about here recently.' We called to him by his name, but he took no notice. Some said it was he, others that it was not. The Empress sent for a lady who knew him well. 'Is this Okinamaro?' she said, pointing to him. 'It is like him,' replied she, 'but is too utterly loathsome to be our dog. Besides, when one called to Okinamaro by name, he came joyfully; but this animal won't come. It cannot be Okinamaro. And then Okinamaro was killed and his body thrown away. He can't possibly be alive after the beating he got from the two chamberlains.' When it got dark he was offered something to eat, but he refused it, so we made up our minds that it could not be our friend. The next morning when I went to attend the Empress at her toilet, and had served her wash-hand basin and her mirror, a dog came to the foot of one of the pillars. 'Alas!' cried the Empress, 'what a terrible beating Okinamaro seems to have got last night. I am so sorry that he is dead. I suppose he now looks something like that animal. He must have suffered miserably.' At this moment the dog lying by the pillar trembled and shook, and poured forth a flood of tears, to our intense amazement. This was Okinamaro after all, and his refusal on the previous day to come when he was called was for fear of betraying himself. The Empress was touched and delighted beyond measure. She put down her mirror and called to him, 'Okinamaro!' The dog laid himself flat on the ground and yelped loudly, at which the Empress was greatly amused. Everybody gathered round, and there was much talking and laughing. The Mikado himself, when he heard of it, came in, and smilingly expressed his amazement at the good sense shown by a dog."

The reader will be glad to hear that Okinamaro's sentence of banishment was reversed; he was well treated, and in a short time was his old self again.

But the author was not always so tender-hearted towards dogs. Among "Detestable Things" she enumerates—

A dog who barks in recognition of your lover when he comes to pay you a clandestine visit—that dog should be killed.

A few more of her enumerations may be added.

Dreary Things.

A nursery where the child has died.

A brazier with the fire gone out.

A coachman who is hated by his ox.

The birth of a female child in the house of a learned scholar.

A letter from one's country home with no news in it.

Detestable Things.

Of these the author has a long list, of which the following are a few:—

A visitor who tells a long story when you are in a hurry. If he is a person you are intimate with, you can pack him off, saying that you will hear it another time. But those whom you cannot treat in this way are very detestable.

An exorcist who, when sent for in a case of sudden illness, recites his charms as if he were half asleep.

Babies that cry or dogs that bark when you want to listen.

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.

A carriage which creaks so loud that you cannot hear your friend speak. Also the friend who lent you such a carriage.

People who interrupt your stories to show off their own cleverness. All interrupters, young or old, are very detestable.

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

Either at home or in the palace to be roused up to receive an unwelcome visitor, in order to avoid whom you have been pretending to be asleep.

While on friendly terms with a man, to hear him sound the praises of a woman whom he has known. This is detestable even when some time has elapsed, much more so if he is still acquainted with her.

People who mumble a prayer when they sneeze.

N.B.—Loud sneezing is detestable, except in the case of the gentlemen of the house.

Fleas are very detestable, especially when they get under your clothing and jump about.

As a contrast to "Detestable Things" a few "Things which give one a Thrill" may be added:—

To see sparrows feeding their young.

To pass by where infants are playing.

To find that your Chinese (metal) mirror is beginning to get dim.

To be asked the way by a handsome man who stops his carriage for the purpose.

Among "Things which Excite Regrets for the Past," Sei Shonagon enumerates:—

Withered hollyhocks. (Reminding one of the festivals they have been used for.)

On a wet day to turn over the letters of a person once loved by us.

Last year's fans. (No doubt with sentimental Tanka written on them.)

Bright moonlight nights.

Here are a few "Cheerful Things":—

Coming home from an excursion with the carriages full to overflowing, to have lots of footmen who make the oxen go and the carriages speed along.

A river boat going down stream.

Teeth nicely blackened.

To hear a well-voiced professor of magic recite his purification service on a river bank.

A drink of water when awake during the night.

When in a dull mood, to have a visitor neither so intimate as to be uninteresting, nor too great a stranger to be unreserved, who will tell us what is going on in the world—things pleasant or odious or strange, now touching on this, now on that, private matters or public—in just sufficient detail not to be tedious. This is very agreeable.

Here follow the "points" of carriage-oxen, horses, coachmen (who should be big men, of a ruddy countenance, and a consequential demeanour), footmen, pages, cats, and preachers. The last subject is treated at some length.

"A preacher," she says, "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 the discourse. Otherwise the eyes wander and you forget to listen. Ugly preachers have therefore a grave responsibility. But no more of this!" She adds, however, "If preachers were of a more suitable age I should have pleasure in giving a more favourable judgment. As matters actually stand, their sins are too fearful to think of."

If any apology is needed for the length of these extracts, it may be pleaded that they represent that which is best and at the same time most quotable in Japanese literature. They are taken almost exclusively from the first two of the twelve volumes (646 pp.) of which this entertaining miscellany consists. It is hard to realise that it was written in Japan nine hundred years ago. If we compare it with anything that Europe had to show at this period, it must be admitted that it is indeed a remarkable work. What a revelation it would be if we had the court life of Alfred's or Canute's reign depicted to us in a similar way.

Both the Genji Monogatari and the Makura Zōshi are only imperfectly intelligible even to educated Japanese, and they are little read at the present day. This is to be regretted, as modern writers would derive much benefit from making these old masterpieces their study and example.

  1. Probably of the kind now known to connoisseurs as Seiji.