Poems, the social media of Heian Japan

Many of us tend to categorize the transplantation of our private lives into the public sphere through social media as a recent phenomenon. Reading Sei Shōnagon‘s 清少納言 Pillow Book 枕草子 dating from the 10th century however, I became aware of a similar trend among the Heian aristocracy of a thousand years ago:

A gentleman (Tadanobu) has written a poem letter to Sei Shōnagon to test her, and finds her reply couplet so ingenious that he immediately shares it with his assembled friends. The following day, the news have reached every corner of the palace:

As soon as I was in her [Majesty’s] presence I realized that she had called me to discuss what I had written to Tadanobu. ‘The Emperor has been here,’ she said, ‘and he told me that all his gentlemen have your reply written on their fans.’ I was amazed and wondered who could have spread the news.

Sei Shōnagon (1971). The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon. trans. Ivan Morris. London: Penguin Books. pp. 92)

The exchange of poem letters were quite as public and almost as quickly distributed within the limited world of the court, as tweets and other online social updates are today. And as this example shows, they even had the capacity to ‘go viral’.

4 thoughts on “Poems, the social media of Heian Japan

    1. Yes, in the short quotation the poem goes viral on the courtiers fans, but the book itself was also immensely popular and was read by many people in the palace and indeed ever since. It is still on every pensum in Japanese literature, and is the referent source for the film ‘The Pillow Book’ though the plot of the film seems radically different from what I can read on imdb.com

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