Tenth-century Japan is characterized by images of elegance, beauty, and sophistication. Ritual and ceremony seem to shape nearly every aspect of life during this time. Throughout The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon there are several examples of how everyday lifestyles are shaped through these mediums. Politics, religion, self-image, and interpersonal relationships played important roles in shaping life in Heian society, and a form of either ritual or ceremony influenced each of these assets.
Government and political forces were a very important part of Heian Japan. The government and its actions affected all aspects of life. Under the emperor, the government was divided into two separate entities, one religious and one secular. Ones rank within the government was closely related to the political position held. Aristocracy and the civil service were combined so that a person was usually given a rank first, then a suitable office to fit that rank. This made it nearly impossible for anyone to enter the rank hierarchy by merit, allowing the Japanese to make their system diverge in fundamental and damaging ways from the Chinese governmental model. Those who held rank were afforded special tax breaks, special rights to have certain clothes, or to send their sons to universities (Morris p284-5). It is only natural to assume that when religion and government are so closely tied that a level of ceremony and ritual would be incorporated into political practices. The detail and precision put into deciding rank and position is just one example of how ceremony plays a role in politics during this period.
Religion played a very significant role in tenth-century society, especially as it was tied to the political affairs of the country. During the time that Shonagon wrote, the traditional religion was Buddhism. Ritual and ceremonial practices dominated all aspects, from the practices to the wardrobe. For instance, when the time came for confirmation into the Buddhist vocation, a ceremony referred to as the Eight Lessons of Confirmation was held. This ceremony, held at the Bodai Temple, lasted four to five days with services in the morning and evening (Morris p55, 286). Throughout the course of a year, several different ceremonies were held each representing some important face of the Buddhist lifestyle. One ceremony, which took place near the end of the Twelfth Month, was the Naming of the Buddhas. This ceremony was aimed at expunging the sins one had committed during the course of the yearpainted screens depicting the horrors of hell were set up in Seiro Palace to remind the participants of the need to penitence (Morris p304). Devoting your life to Buddhist ways and committing yourself to the teachings was obviously very important to the people who practiced Buddhism at this time. The Buddhist church also practiced fasting rituals. When a fast began, it was to be fulfilled completely, not ignored for any period of time. For the fast was neglected, the efficiency was exterminated, and viewed as a quite depressing event (Morris p44, 282). Just as all other members society, bishops were also recognized by the color of their robes, as was the imperial family. Typically, priests wore robes made of red material, and were acknowledged for doing so (Morris p233).
There is a heavy emphasis throughout the book on the clothing one wore, the look of the landscape, and the opinions of how each should look. Personal appearance was highly concentrated on by nearly everyone Shonagon came in contact with. How ones hair was fixed, the color of a robe, and the look on ones face were all mentioned several times. It is apparent that there was a ritual way that everyone was expected to dress and present him or herself during the Heian period. The appearance and impression of an individual is a reoccurring theme throughout the book, this was especially the case among people of high importance The empress often worried about how she looked, or may appear to others. Over a three layered scarlet dress of beaten silk she wore two plum-red robesshe the empress said Do you think the plum-red really goes with the dark scarlet? I know this isnt the season for plum-red, but I cant stand colours like light green (Morris p129). High importance was put on the appropriate way to dress depending on the season, month, and what ones status was. To dress in a color that was above your class level was looked down upon, as was dressing in colors inappropriate for the month. Dresses wore during the Eleventh and Twelfth months, for example, were expected to be of a red plum-blossom color (Morris p40, 278). It was also crucial for members of common society to be dressed in a presentable manner. I cannot stand a woman who wears sleeves of unequal widththe smartest robes, after all, are those with evenly matched sleeves that people have wore since ancient timesfashionably good-looking people really dress in a most inconvenient way (Morris p252). Shonagon comments that it matters not what the width of the sleeves are, as long as they are equal, and she appears disgusted with anyone who violates this simple rule (Morris p252). In addition to personal appearance, the atmosphere was also expected to be aesthetically pleasing. Opinions and thoughts were formed about how the weather, landscape, and view should be. On the fifth day of the Fifth Month I prefer a cloudy skyon the ninth of the Ninth Month there should be a drizzle from early dawn (Morris p33). To be surrounded by beauty appears to have been held on high standard. Everything was judged by its appearance, or the potential of an appearance.
Festivals were a very popular way of celebrating and gathering for the people. One such festival was the Festival of Young Herbs. Beginning on the first day of the First Month, everyone is careful to pay special attention to his or her personal appearance and dress during this occasion (Morris p21). On the seventh day of this festival, the seven herbs were plucked and made into a gruel which was supposed to ward off evil spirits and to protect ones health throughout the year (Morris p267). Another festival was the Festival of the Fifth Month. During this particular festival everyone spends time decorating their rooftops with leaves of iris and branches of sage-brush. Many decorations are used and displayed around, and throughout the palace, and gifts are exchanged. Many of the festivities were aimed at deterring evil spirits, as well as promoting the health of the people by using herbal balls to protect people from illness (Morris p 64, 291). Such festivals provided opportunity to both socialize and participate in a traditional event. In addition to the aforementioned festivals, several others were prominent during the Heian period. Each festival had special practices and rituals that were performed throughout the duration of the event. The events of these festivals shaped not only the individual participants lives, but also the traditions of everyone during this time.
It is obvious that in every facet of life during tenth-century Heian, Japan either ritual or ceremony played a role in shaping the events that characterized the time. Government was influenced by religion, and vice versa, which made it inevitable that each be influenced by some form of ritual or ceremony. How men were appointed to rank, for example, is a prime illustration of how the political forces were subject to ritual practices. To be accepted as a member of the Buddhist religion, it was imperative that a ceremony be completed, in addition to a number of other ceremonial and ritual practices held during the course of ones devotion to the Buddhist following. Without ritual and ceremony, religion would not have existed. During each ceremony there were ritual means of dress and attitude that were also expected. How a person dressed and looked had regulations as well as expectations, and should someone fall short of meeting them it was noted. The role ceremony and ritual played during the Heian period seems obvious. Each aspect of ones life reflects, and effects, each of the other aspects, showing that if ceremony is important in one area, it will be in all areas. As it has been shown, nearly every aspect of life in tenth-century Japan was influenced by ceremony and ritual.