Turning Japanese

In Book on January 11, 2011 at 7:09 pm

I’ve gone all the way back to 2001 for this Mid-Week Archives Special. Because I can.

I’m having a Japanese moment. Not as in Comme, or Issey, or Yohji (the world’s sexiest man, but that’s another story), but Japanese as in The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon.

I know the whole Pillow Book groove was really some time ago (when the Peter Greenaway film came out in 1996), but I just happen to have read several books in a row with a Japanese theme, and that Shonagon style is very infectious. You start thinking in her voice. Or trying to.

Let me give you some examples of things she wrote in the Imperial Court a thousand years ago:

‘Things That Give a Pathetic Impression: the voice of someone who blows his nose while he is speaking. The expression of a woman plucking her eyebrows.
Unsuitable Things: a woman with ugly hair wearing a robe of white damask.
Elegant Things: a white coat worn over a violet waistcoat. A rosary of rock crystal.
Squalid Things: the back of a piece of embroidery. The inside of a cat’s ear.’

Isn’t that all heaven? Sei Shonagon’s style statements are as self-confident, outrageous and spot on as Diana Vreeland’s, and everything she wrote – in the 10th century AD – is still fantastically relevant in the twenty-first century.

And as this is the ‘Year of Japan’ it got me thinking, what would she be writing now? Perhaps it might be something like this:

Things That Are Oddly Disturbing: a man who wears a suit and has his hair tied back in a ponytail. A mobile phone attached to a belt. Rings that are worn on the forefinger. Hair that is longer than a certain length. All-white outfits. The look and sound of false nails on a computer keyboard.

Things That Always Delight: a folded cotton T-shirt that has not yet been worn. The smell of a shirt that has been worn for one day by a man you love. The small horizontal crease that appears above the upper lip of some people when they smile broadly. A child aged about two-and-a-half with very pink cheeks, who is wearing a hat.

Things That Are Highly Irritating: when one is trying on a garment and a salesperson comes into the changing room. The garment is half on and half off. One’s face is red. The salesperson smiles. Or when the shoe one has been searching for is found, but not in the right size. A very expensive cream which brings out red splotches on the cheeks.

Things That Are Always Unappealing: the thought of wearing pantyhose underneath trousers. Pantyhose worn with open shoes. An outfit that is too obviously new. A leather suit. Jumpers worn tucked into jeans, which are belted.

Things That Are Strangely Attractive: men whose legs are slightly bandy. Women whose teeth are not quite perfect. A scar in a young man’s eyebrow. A short-sleeved T-shirt worn over a long-sleeved T shirt. Strong male bodies that have gone slightly to seed.

Sometimes the most unattractive person has a beautiful smile which makes you forget their less fortunate qualities. This induces a warm feeling.

  1. “a mobile phone attached to a belt”. I winced when I read it, so true. I can’t believe this post was written in 2001? It’s still incredibly relevant.

    Thanks for the giggle.


  2. Fabulous post. And remarkably written way back in 2001! Your Things that always delight’ list is masterful and so very Japanese.

  3. .The thought of wear pantyhose under trousers makes me feel quite ill. How do women do this? I love your statements – thank you – and can picture every one of them

  4. It’s the pantyhose with open-toe shoes that gets me every time! From 10th centruy AD to 2001 to 2011. Everything changes – but nothing changes. Thansk for the mid-week pick me up!

  5. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Maggie Alderson. Maggie Alderson said: Mid-week archives special: Turning Japanese […]

  6. You have inspired me to buy Shonagon’s pillowbook!

  7. Oh Maggie! I can remember reading this way back when and then promptly reading it aloud to anyone who would listen! I dashed out to buy the book too.

    Thank you for a lovely trip down memory lane

    • Did you like the book? x

      • Loved it. I liked to just dip into at random moments for a moment of peace and beauty.

        Do you mind if I print your new articles so my mum can read them? She rather misses you on a Saturday

      • PLEASE do! that’s what I’m asking everyone to do – it’s in my little intro. I feel awful that i can’t reach my lovely older readers who aren’t netted up, so please please print them for

  8. Maggie I so relate to the Sales Person coming in while you’re half way through trying something on! Even worse when they tell you that what you’ve just tried on looks really great when it so does not. And I am married to one of those strong bodied men who has gone slightly to seed – how lucky am I?

  9. This is a gem, Maggie! Love it, love the continuation of your column! x

  10. Brilliant Maggie, your last two posts have been hilarious. I think blogging…may even be a slight improvement for you…this is a good thing. Or maybe it’s just bias on my behalf…as the other person mentioned, you can now use words like “ratshit”, of which I am quite fond.

    • Thanks Dazza – I’m really loving it because I get to put visuals and links on to things I wrote years ago and it brings them to life in a way that wasn’t possible in the mag. I just hope i can find a way of making it pay… So please tell all your friends! xxx Yes, ratshittery, I enjoyed that…. Although I must say the folks at Good Weekend were totally brilliant about letting me use made up words like that, they totally ‘got’ it. The subs there are the best I have ever worked with. I miss them hugely.

  11. Too funny!!! And sad…. do the folk- all-in-whites ever notice anyone blinking at the bright? Do they ever order spag bol?

    Didnt you let us in on a weird case of the whites – a NYC couple whose house was 100% white decor. They didnt wear white all the time, just at home. When arriving back home they preserved the aesthetic by routinely changing into their all-white gear accessible from a hole in the wall near the front door entry hall. Never forgot that one – hope it was you!

  12. Ha! the couple with the house with the completely white decor – it wasn’t Max and Bettina from Ab Fab was it?


  13. You have hit DEAD ON in Shonagon’s writing style. Oh it was such a delight to read your entry. Thank you for making my day.

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