Though gambling is one of the remaining taboos in American culture, it was an every day amusement in Heian Japan. Betting was common, whether over competitive games such as Go, who could come up with the best poem, or every day events in nature over which one had no control.
One anecdote in Sei Shonagon’s “The Pillow Book” involves Heian-era gambling at its best. Sei boastfully declares that a certain mountain of snow will certainly not melt before a particular date that is weeks off. The Empress whom she serves, amused by the proclamation, takes her up on the wager. This leads to a great deal of stress for Sei. Initially confident, she finds herself spending weeks obsessively checking up on the snow mountain.
How many weeks will it take to melt?
Her knowledge of nature and its ways ever sharp, Sei finds that while snow on the ground continues to melt, the snow mountain is still rather large. It melts further and further as times passes, however, and the last few days of watching an waiting are the worst for Sei.
Finally, the night before the final date of the wager, a relieved Sei notices there is still a tiny mound of snow left. While she would not have lost a good deal of money had she lost, the mockery and laughter to which she would have been subject would have been totally merciless.
The next morning, as Sei arises, the mountain is GONE. Totally! Suspecting some sort of sabotage, she goes to the Empress, who bursts out laughing in her face. While Sei had won, the Empress ordered men to destroy and haul off the remaining snow in the night just to see the look on Sei’s shocked, distressed face.
There’s a lesson here. Don’t make weird bets with your boss you can’t absolutely control. While it may be tempting to wager that a leftover slice of cake won’t be eaten two weeks after an office birthday party, your boss might secretly bribe a glutton with low standards to eat it when you’re not looking. Offer a bet like that, and you might just be the laughing stock of the office. Think about it.