The Influential Pillow Book

Written during the Heian Japanese era, Sei Shonagan’s “Pillow Book” is a diary that reveals the inner machinations of Shonagan’s mind. In Ruth Ozeki’s book, My Year of Meats, Shonagan’s “Pillow Book,” induces ideas of intimacy with the reader and mirrors the language and diction of the “diary form”. This emphasis on the “diary form” of the Pillow Book helps Jane, Akiko, and Suzie develop their identities throughout the story.

            Jane, a racially “half” TV documentarian, is often caught between the Caucasian and Japanese halves of her life. She translates in Japanese when filming My American Wife but must speak and write in English for the American film crew. As she describes her days and surroundings she uses the pronoun “I” thus revealing she is speaking in first person. This automatically evokes the feeling of the “diary form” that Shonagon used. Jane writes, “I imagine Shonagon, the master thief, hiding her nook of history, watching me slip in and out of darkened rooms and steal from people’s lives” (Ozeki 33). The diction Jane uses connotes that she is sharing the inner thoughts of her mind—as if she is writing in a personal diary. Jane writes that she, too, like Shonagon is a “master thief.” This reveals that Jane thinks the life of a documentarian is similar to that of a thief because she is“[stealing] from people’s lives”. Thus, Jane’s connection with Shonagon’s Pillow Book and her mimicry of diary form help Jane create her own identity and self image.

            Similar to Jane, Akiko battles with identity concerns. Akiko is trying hard to please her husband by attempting to conceive a child; however it is physically impossible. The diary form of Shonagon’s pillow book influences how the reader sees her as well as how she sees herself. For Akiko, the sureness with which Shonagon writes is astounding, “Akiko could not imagine what such certainty would feel like. She never felt at all sure of anything, even of her likes and dislikes” (39). The diary form of Shonagon goes to dictate Akiko’s thought processes and, in turn, causes her to question herself. Akiko compares herself to Shonagon thus revealing her own insecurity with herself.

            Lastly, Shonagon’s diary form also influences Suzie’s understanding of herself as a character and helps reveal her identity to the reader. Even though she is spoken of in third person, the diction used to describe Suzie is reminiscent of diary form because the reader knows most of Suzie’s thoughts: “She should have known then. She should have just put her foot down, put a stop to the whole thing” (26). This very intimate thought reveals Suzie was trying to be something she isn’t—A “perfect American-wife.” The repetition of “She should have…” reveals that she is berating herself for even agreeing to film. Therefore, the diary form enables one to see that Suzie is upset with herself for trying to be something she isn’t.

            The diary form from the Heian era directly influences all three of the women. Sei Shonagon’s intimate relationship with her pillow book mirrors how each woman’s story is told, thus allowing the reader to understand the dynamic characterization of Jane, Akiko, and Suzie. 

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