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Shonagon’s “The Pillow Book” as Historical Document

Positive Analysis

One of the main strengths of the book is the fact that it provides an invaluable insight into Heian Japan and how regular women lived at that time. It is a well-composed historical document in regards to reflecting the lifestyles and interests of both royal family members and the people who served them. Unlike many such records, which usually discuss the intricacies of a particular group of individuals, Shōnagon’s writings illuminate the life of a woman who does not come from a royal family. Therefore, the most useful aspect is manifested in the overall range of subjects as well as the simplicity of the pieces.

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The information of the book can be categorized into three main elements, which evidently emerge as narratives, the author’s thoughts and opinions, and separate headings. One might argue that stories are the most resourceful sources of information because they are mere records of the events that took place during Shōnagon’s lifetime. Another report, which is provided by the book, revolves around the author’s own thoughts and opinions. They reflect her understanding and philosophy as well as her general attitude towards her position.

Therefore, the source aids and helps the general comprehension of the given time period by revealing more in-depth intricacies of key elements of traditions, customs, and culture. The value comes in the form of details and specific cases, which are highly useful for improving contemporary knowledge. In addition, the pieces provide a novel perspective of the hidden lives of royal families in Heian Japan. The author’s own personality and character are deeply reflected in her writings as well, which gives an insight into how ordinary women were like at the time.

Negative Analysis

However, it is evident that Shōnagon’s writings possess a wide range of weaknesses and inherent problems as a historical document. One of the key issues is the fact that the majority of the book depicts critically important historical data through the lens of the author’s own views. In other words, the cases are particular and deeply biased due to the reliance on a sole narrator. The book fails to give information a full picture of and motives behind the actions of the royal family members as well as the regular people she encountered.

The document intended to discuss the observations and experiences alongside the thoughts of Shōnagon, which makes the writing highly focused on the single of the author. In other words, one might argue that her circumstances were unique, and thus, they did not reflect the general condition and public of Heian Japan. It is possible that she lived in some form of a bubble, which was detached from the realities of the surrounding world.

Therefore, deriving and determining the key and essential traditions, customs, and cultural elements among the royal families and regular folk can be unreliable. The reasoning is similar to the previous assumptions of the fact that Shōnagon did not live in a representative environment. The source does not aid or help to enhance the current understanding of the period because it might pose specific and unique cases as norms of Heian Japan.

For example, it is stated: “an elderly person warms the palms of his hands over a brazier and stretches out the wrinkles. No young man would dream of behaving in such a fashion; old people can really be quite shameless” (Shōnagon, 1991, p. 44). It is possible that many elders behave in this way, or this particular individual acts as such. Thus, one might further argue that the given writing makes the general comprehension of the period more difficult and confusing.

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Shōnagon, S. (1991). The pillow book. Columbia University Press.

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