Diaries: Bringing the Past into the Present

Illustration of Sei Shonagon, author of The Pillow Book

            As Japanese author Sei Shōnagon once remarked in her renowned Pillow Book, “I put things down as they came to me” (Ozeki 1). In My Year of Meats, Ruth Ozeki utilizes Sei Shōnagon’s historic Pillow Book diaries to create a compelling narrative, unraveling a story about the dynamics of cultural realities. Focusing mainly on two contrasting protagonists, Jane and Akiko, My Year of Meats explores and uncovers cultural similarities and differences between Japanese and American culture. Ozeki’s use of The Pillow Book diaries, full of spontaneous jottings, unites the two narratives into one cohesive unit by inspiring the choices and actions of both respective protagonists while simultaneously revealing contrasts between historic realities and perspectives with those of a more modern era.

            The novel begins with Jane Takagi-Little, a Japanese-American documentarian directly inspired by Sei Shōnagon’s raw and uncensored perspective on life. At the start of the novel, Jane is hired by a Japanese company as the creative producer of a new television show, “My American Wife,” aimed at portraying the daily activities of stereotypical all-American housewives. Because the show broadcasts an illusory portrayal of happy American households to a Japanese audience, Jane detests the artificiality of the program. While the show focuses on upholding appearances, Jane imagines Shōnagon, “the master thief…watching [her] slipping in and out of darkened rooms and steal from people’s lives” (Ozeki 32). Like Sei Shōnagon, who defies social norms as “the sort of person who approves of what others abhor and detests the things they like” (Ozeki 1), Jane is an advocate of documenting life as is. As a documentarian, Jane prefers to reveal the undersides of situations and events, raw and unedited.

On the other side of the globe, Akiko, the wife of “My American Wife’s” producer, is a Japanese housewife who essentially serves as a foil to Jane’s anti-mainstream, artistic nature. Although she was once a manga artist, she became a housewife after marriage, dominated by her demanding husband. Unlike Jane, Akiko is rather meek, never “at all sure of anything, even of her likes and dislikes” (Ozeki 39). But like Jane, Akiko finds inspiration in Shōnagon’s Pillow Book. Akiko believes that “Shōnagon was so sure of herself and her prescriptions” (Ozeki 38) that she found comfort in reading her multitude of spontaneous, insightful lists. Although Akiko often attempts and fails to create her own lists, Shōnagon’s certainty ultimately serves to empower Akiko, giving her a sense of independence and authority.

Completed in 1002, the observations and thoughts displayed in Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book serves to inspire the lives of both Jane and Akiko, nearly ten centuries after the diary was completed. As a diary portraying the thoughts of a Heian court lady as they flowed from her mind to the pages of the notebook stored under her pillow, Shōnagon’s certain and realistic thoughts empower and unite the two main protagonists and their narratives. Through the use of observational diaries, Ruth Ozeki brings together two highly contrasting personas to create one cohesive narrative that ultimately reflects the cultural and inspirational connection between the past and the present.

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