Underlying logic: Makura-no-Soshi

Hirofumi Fujiwara
Professor of Japanese Language (Semantics, Heian Period Language)
Faculty of Letters, Chuo University

Haru-wa akebono (Spring (is) dawn)?

Makura-no-Soshi (The Pillow Book) is studied by Japanese students in junior high school and high school. The first stanza of this book reads as follows: “How elegant is the dawn during spring! The sky over the mountain ridge gradually whitens and brightens slightly, and there is elegance in how the purplish clouds are drawn into thin streams.” This stanza states that the true beauty of spring is found during the moment of dawn. Is this really so? Normally, the beauty of spring is thought to exist in flowers, sunlight and warmth. There is no such warmth at the time of dawn. Upon hearing such points, I’m sure that my readers can agree. It is said that Makura-no-Soshi is a work of okashi, a word meaning feeling and beauty, and that the above quotation abbreviates that word. Is that really true? In the first place, it is unusual to abbreviate such key words from the first line of the opening stanza. Normally, abbreviation is only made for common sense, for items which have already been written, or for things already known by the reader. That is the fundamental rule for abbreviation. It is strange to be incapable of understanding the opening without reading to the end. Such thoughts are natural doubts of students who have studied Makura-no-Soshi. If students enter the “summer is evening” stanza without dispelling such doubts, they simply dive into a list of scattered words proclaiming that “the moon is wonderful,” “the fireflies are wonderful,” and “the rain is wonderful.”

However, when simple linguistic techniques are used to decipher this passage, a surprising semantic meaning is revealed.

The syntax of “Haru-wa akebono”

In the past, the phrase “Haru-wa akebono” was taught as an abbreviation of the predicate okashi. However, the phrase is no longer taught as such today. This is because the phrase is a complete sentence with “spring” as the subject and “dawn” as the predicate. The phrase “I am eel” is an example of the same syntax in modern Japanese language. However, this famous linguistic “eel” joke does not mean that the speaker is introducing himself as an eel (although it could convey this meaning). Normally, the speaker is one of many customers ordering at a restaurant. When talking with his server, he identifies himself with “I” and then identifies “eel” as what he would like to eat from the different foods available. This meaning of this sentence is determined through the shared understanding of context by the customer and server.

From that standpoint, the phrase “How elegant is the dawn…” is understood because the writer and the reader share a context of elegance in the seasons. Certainly, we and Sei Shonagon share understanding and feeling towards the changing seasons. However, Makura-no-Soshi was written to be read by educated members of the Heian Period nobility. Therefore, it cannot be assumed that the context regarding the seasons is the same as for modern Japanese people. In the first place, Sei Shonagon was a famous poet. When examining a collection of poems such as Kokin Wakashu (Collected Japanese Poems of Ancient and Modern Times), classification is made according to poems for the spring, summer, autumn and winter. Through Japanese poems, Heian Period nobility competed over their aesthetics and artfulness. Perhaps that is the meaning of “spring” in this case?

When investigating other spring poems, there are none which have dawn as a theme. Normally, spring poems are based on themes such as flowers or light. The opening line of ” Haru-wa akebono ” defies the conception of both cultural scholars and common sense. There is a lack of light, color and warmth in the dawn.

Even within cases where the pattern “●● is ○○” fits the assumptions of the reader, there are cases in which the pattern defies those assumptions. Normally, the pattern is common sense and can be empathized with. However, Sei Shonagon chose to defy such common sense. It is not a case of affirmation by denying the possibility of her unique logic.

The syntax of “gradually whitening”

If the purpose of the opening line is to obtain empathy from the reader, then the following lines are intended to confirm known information. However, if the opening line is unable to acquire such empathy, then the following lines are an explanation intended to persuade the reader. Let’s consider the structure of the phrase “gradually whitening.” Is this line a subject or a predicate? Normally, we would assume that the abbreviation of the predicate okashi would be the subject. However, this violates the rule of abbreviation which we discussed above. Conversely, if this line is a predicate, then the abbreviated subject can only be the previous line. In that case, this line is a predicate which explains the central theme of dawn. Not only does Sei Shonagon define the moment of dawn, even defining the specific instant of dawn, but she also defines the background with the phrase “the sky over the mountain ridge brightens slightly.” These lines undoubtedly increase the sense of mystery felt by the reader. However, information which dispels that sense of doubt is provided through the following phrase of “purplish clouds are drawn into thin streams.”

Indication made by the phrase “purplish clouds are drawn into thin streams”

The secondary substantive composed by the phrase “purplish clouds are drawn into thin streams” is equivalent to a predicate which explains the principal subject of “a momentary scene of dawn.” The scene which is indicated is quite specific, making it possible for the reader to follow the type of scene being indicated. Through this image, Shonagon intends for the reader to gain an understanding of her assertion.

The clouds drawn into thin streams refer to the cirrus clouds which form a thin film high in the sky. When gazing at the horizon, the view of this film from the side creates a line of thin, drawn-out clouds. Since these clouds are high in the sky, they receive the aurora of light earlier than any other clouds and therefore appear “purplish.” From the inside of Shonagon’s residence, this scene probably appeared like a film.


Rain does not fall from cirrus clouds. Instead, they often appear during times of high atmospheric pressure. When cirrus clouds are observed in the sky at the beginning of the day, it means a day of calm spring weather. In other words, the viewer can expect a beautiful scene filled by the coming light. It is truly a guarantee for the beauty of spring. However, such a guarantee does not exist in the scene itself. Instead, if the reader can feel the unseen beauty of spring, the scene poses the reader with the following question: “Where does that beauty exist?”

This question can be rephrased as follows: “Are flowers truly beautiful? Or do they appear beautiful because you think they are beautiful?” Assuming that unseen beauty is perceived as beautiful, Shonagon asserts the beauty exists within the hearts of people. Viewed in this way, this essay is not intended to reflect the feeling of spring. Instead, it is an editorial which examines the form of beauty.

The introduction, development, turn and conclusion of “Haru-wa akebono”

Literary works give readers the freedom to make their own interpretations. However, an editorial does not permit any reading which is not a reception of the writer’s logic. Any other reading throws the context into disaccord. In actuality, the context of Makura-no-Soshi is mismatched when viewed through a normal interpretation. As a result, this writing can be regarded as prose. However, when continuing to read the essay, the reader finds that the writing puts the logic into perfect alignment.

The second stanza reads “summer is evening.” This is because of the coolness of evening during hot summers in Kyoto. Through analogies using the pale-blue light of the moon, the light of fireflies and other seasonal scenes which evoke a sense of coolness, Shonagon proves that beauty originates from human perception. The phrase “there is beauty even in the falling rain” describes how Shonagon finds wonder in the coolness and sound of falling rain, even if it obscures the light of evening. Once again, this proves the assertion which she hinted in the phrase “Haru-wa akebono.”

However, once the reader encounters the phrase “autumn is dusk,” he is forced to admit that there is beauty in any scene. Elegance can be found even in a crow. Even if the dusk cannot be seen, there is beauty in the sound of wind and the chirping of insects. In other words, nature itself is beautiful. This means that beauty is nature. However, this line of thought combines two conflicting propositions; namely, “nature itself is beautiful” and “beauty exists because you perceive beauty.” However, when proceeding to the phrase “winter is early morning,” this conflict is negated through presentation of beauty which exists through the harmony of nature (chilly air) and human beings (sense of tension). Furthermore, the chilliness dissipates in the phrase “it becomes noon and the cold relents” and human beings relax in the phrase “the ash in the wooden brazier appears whiter.” These phrases indicate how beauty vanishes and thereby proves the validity of Shonagon’s assertion through reductio ad absurdum.

Japanese language and a prodigy from the Heian Period

The essay “Haru-wa akebono” uses an outstanding structure of introduction, development turn and conclusion. It debates the abstract concept of beauty while manipulating specific things. In the Heian Period, there were no words in the Japanese language capable of expressing such concepts. (Japanese words for “beauty,” “seasons” and “nature” are all new words of Chinese origin). However, Shonagon constructed the background of context by using other symbolic words. This method is often used in Japanese poetry and was incorporated in the developing style of Japanese prose. Such prose was calculated texts which were imbued with clear logic. The singular logic of the prose is completed through precise understanding of each linguistic expression. Therefore, there is no freedom of interpretation for the reader. Makura-no-Soshi is such a text.

The act of reading involves understanding language from text and then reconstructing information from that language. If the reader doesn’t share the culture which is the basis of the author’s work, then it is difficult to form information. If the reader doesn’t recognize that a court lady from 1000 years ago has written philosophy, then the meaning of the text will not align.

Sei Shonagon analyzes “beauty” and “ugliness”—words which are technically referred to as evaluative adjectives. This analysis is an observation of the workings of the human heart. It is scientific research into perception and reaction. The human sciences are a modern field of study, but there was a woman 1000 years ago who thought about such methods and expressed them logically. However, there was no basis for understanding Shonagon’s assertions in later Japan. For 1000 years, her work has been misunderstood and misread. At the very least, it is true that the intent of Makura-no-Soshi is difficult for us to comprehend. Her work is similar to an ancient famous painting. Instead of using a paintbrush to restore the work, we can only work steadily to restore information by using linguistic techniques such as analyzing the meaning of words and grammar used in sentences. If this analysis goes smoothly, we may be able to resurrect the thoughts of a genius from the Heian Period.

Original Article: First Stage in a Historical Linguistic Interpretation of Makura-no-Soshi: Restructuring of the Underlying Logic(http://ci.nii.ac.jp/naid/110004054660)



Hirofumi Fujiwara
Professor of Japanese Language (Semantics, Heian Period Language), Faculty of Letters, Chuo University

Born in 1962 in Hyogo Prefecture. Graduated from the Tohoku University Faculty of Letters in 1985. Completed studies at the Tohoku University Graduate School in 1989.
Appointed as a Researcher at the National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics in 1989. Appointed as a Full-Time Instructor at Japan Women’s University in 1995 and as an Assistant Professor in 1998.
Assumed his current position in 2006.
His research focuses on using a word semantics analysis method for grammatical theory, syntactic and respect language. Currently, his main research theme is an analytical reading of Makura-no-Soshi (The Pillow Book) from the perspective of Japanese linguistics.
His major written works include Comprehensive Terminology for Government-Designated Books, Vol. 5-9, 12 (CD-ROM; Sanshodo Publishing, 1991 to 1995, 1997, 1997, National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics edition (co-edited)).





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