Writers of the Heian Era: Diary, Sei Shônagon 4
Sei Shônagon, a lady-in-waiting to Empress Teishi (or Sadako), left a journal of anecdotes, impressions, and commentary called The Pillowbook (covering the years 986-1000 CE) that has become a valuable source for the court society and cultural life of the Heian Period. Sei was not shy about expressing her opinions and exercising her wit on all manner of subjects, including the conduct of a love affair. It was the custom at this time for the lover (or husband, as the case may be) to arrive at evening and leave early the following morning while it is still dark in order to avoid detection. In the passage below, the fact that a woman is in effect legislating what is acceptable and not acceptable behavior during a love affair is almost as interesting as the opinion itself. Conducting a love affair would seem to be a kind of ritual or performance attended by implicit etiquette; one’s behavior before and after is at least equally important as the night spent together.
This source is a part of the Writers of the Heian Era teaching module.
[Hateful things] A lover who is leaving at dawn announces that he has to find his fan and his paper. “I know I put them somewhere last night,” he says. Since it is pitch dark, he gropes about the room, bumping into the furniture and muttering, “Strange! Where on earth can they be?” Finally he discovers the objects. He thrusts the paper into the breast of his robe with a great rustling sound; then he snaps open his fan and busily fans away with it. Only now is he ready to take his leave. What charmless behaviour! “Hateful” is an understatement.
Equally disagreeable is the man who, when leaving in the middle of the night, takes care to fasten the cord of his headdress. This is quite unnecessary; he could perfectly well put it gently on his head without tying the cord. And why must he spend time adjusting his cloak or hunting costume? Does he really think someone may see him at this time of night and criticize him for not being impeccably dressed?
A good lover will behave as elegantly at dawn as at any other time. He drags himself out of bed with a look of dismay on his face. The lady urges him on: “Come, my friend, it’s getting light. You don’t want anyone to find you here.” He gives a deep sigh, as if to say that the night has not been nearly long enough and that it is agony to leave. Once up, he does not instantly pull on his trousers. Instead he comes close to the lady and whispers whatever was left unsaid during the night. Even when he is dressed, he still lingers, vaguely pretending to be fastening his sash.
Indeed, one’s attachment to a man depends largely on the elegance of his leave-taking. When he jumps out of bed, scurries about the room, tightly fastens his trouser-sash, rolls up the sleeves of his Court cloak, over-robe, or hunting costume, stuffs his belongings into the breast of his robe and then briskly secures the outer sash—one really begins to hate him.
Morris, Ivan, trans., The Pillowbook of Sei Shônagon. London: Penguin Books, 1971.