The earliest extant collection of Japanese poetry. Divided into 20 books, it contains 4,516 numbered
During this century Japan was in a ferment of growth and change, importing Chinese culture and institutions in a deliberate attempt to catch up with the most advanced country in the world. Although 8th-century Japan was rapidly acquiring a modernism of which the Man'yōshū was one product, it was still close to its primeval preliterate roots. Partially because the poetry that interested the compilers was not as totally aristocratic in outlook as tended to be true of the later commissioned
The name Man'yōshū is written with Chinese characters meaning “Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves.” This title has an obvious poetic appeal, whether “leaves” is taken as a metaphor for “poems” (not for “pages,” since the original manuscripts were in scroll form) or a sinicization of the Japanese word kotonoha, meaning “word,” but literally “leaf of word.” It has been plausibly argued, however, that the character for “leaf” is used here in its well-attested sense of “age” or “generation” and that the title therefore should be understood as “Collection for Ten Thousand Generations.”
Unlike some of the imperial anthologies, the Man'yōshū has no preface, nor is it mentioned in contemporary documents. Internal evidence indicates that the anthology is the culmination of a process dating back at least several decades and that the person most extensively involved in its compilation was the poet
Ōtomo no Yakamochi, with over 400 extant poems, is the best preserved of Man'yō poets. The last 4 of the 20 books of the Man'yōshū are definitely his compilation, chronologically arranged by him, and with personal notes on the circumstances of composition of each poem. The large number of poets of the Ōtomo family included in the anthology supports the hypothesis that at least one member was instrumental in assembling the collection. Yakamochi is the most obvious candidate for the culminating role in what must have been a long process.
The earliest examples of Japanese verse are found not in the Man'yōshū, but in the
This penchant for preposited imagery continued to be developed in Man'yō poetry. There is also an observable tendency to alternate shorter and longer lines, and the range of verse in the chronicles includes examples of perfectly regular tanka in the syllabic pattern of 5−7−5−7−7. There are also several old-style chōka in more or less loose alternation of long and short lines, but lacking the final 7−7 couplet of the form as it eventually came to be defined. At this point the content of the Man'yōshū begins to overlap that of the chronicles. There is no completely irregular verse, but a number of old chōka are included. Most of the chōka follow the classical form and are followed by one or more tanka as envoys (hanka). Another form found in the Man'yōshū is the sedōka. The 62 examples in the Man'yōshū are the largest surviving corpus of this form. Its syllabic pattern of 5−7−7−5−7−7 seems to be based on a repetition of the ancient “half-poem” (katauta) in 5−7−7. The over 4,000 tanka, however, are clearly the numerically dominant form of Man'yō poetry. When the chōka and sedōka fell into desuetude after the 8th century, it was the tanka that continued as the classic poetic form for centuries to come.
Chinese books began to come into Japan in the 5th century, and Buddhist scriptures followed in the 6th. Knowledge of their contents was at first limited to a tiny elite, instructed by Korean and then by Chinese masters. The Japanese quickly became aware of the high value placed in China on the composition of poetry, some skill at which was a virtual requirement for a position in the bureaucracy. As part of their own training in reading and writing Chinese, the Japanese began in the late 7th century to experiment with writing shih (J: shi), the most common form of Chinese poetry. By the mid-8th century the Nara court had developed enough literati for a collection to be made of their poems in Chinese, the
Efforts to write in Chinese, however, did not satisfy the literary urges of the Japanese. They wished to record a literature of their own, and the Man'yōshū was their first product. The ancient songs of the oral tradition already existed and could now be put down on paper. Moreover, at the same time that the Japanese gained literacy, their reading of Chinese poetry made them aware of poetry as an art, of literary form, mode, and point of view. It is probably from this time that the basic alternation of short and long lines in the native prosody began to regularize itself into five- and seven-syllable units, and that the set forms of the tanka, chōka, and so forth started to evolve. The basic preference for preposited forms of modification and figurative expansion remained and was further developed. Long imagistic jokotoba and one-line “pillow words” (
Japanese poetry thus became conscious of itself as an art, developed its native techniques, and adapted foreign ones, under what can only be called a beneficent Chinese influence. Other aspects of this influence have sometimes been looked at askance as corrupting the purity of the native Japanese spirit. The kotodama, or “word-soul,” of the Japanese language speaks most truly, it is held, in the accents of true love, loyalty, and honesty. Anything more devious or roundabout would be a regrettable foreign intrusion. However, the great size and variety of the Man'yōshū represent a world of diversity and growth. Simple emotions straightforwardly expressed are certainly part of that world, but only part. The effect of a poem in which a country girl speaks of her hands being chapped by hulling rice, or a fisher boy likens his girl to a sea lentil (nanoriso), is all the greater in a total context that includes the experiments of courtiers in writing Chinese-style plum-blossom poems. The sea lentil is humble and native, the plum blossoms elegant and foreign, but in both cases the poems exploit the technique of analogy. The sea lentil poem, which also employs irony, is actually very artistic−that is, as much based on fully poetic stratagems as the plum-blossom poems, if not as self-consciously “literary.”
Pretended or “elegant” confusion (in such phrases as “Are they plum blossoms, or is it snow?”) makes its first appearance in Japanese poetry of the Man'yōshū, in the poems of
The first 2 of the 20 books of the Man'yōshū form a pair. Each is arranged chronologically, as are many of the books, starting with poems attributed to figures of remote antiquity and coming down with poems attributed to the early 8th century. Together these two books present three of the anthology's main typological categories−zōka, sōmon, and banka. Zōka (“miscellaneous poems”), a term adopted from the Wenxuan, refers to verses that cannot be categorized as either love poems or elegies. The term sōmon, also borrowed from the Wenxuan, refers to love poems. The word implies an exchange of endearments; in practice, however, the poetry is predominantly one of longing. Banka are poems occasioned by death. The term originally referred to dirges accompanying the pulling of a funeral hearse and also derives from a category found in the Wenxuan. It is thought that, at least until Kakinomoto no Hitomaro's time at the end of the 7th century, dirges were actually sung at court funerals in Japan, and some of the Man'yō funeral songs are public elegies on the deaths of court nobles. Other banka in these books are private laments over the loss of a loved one, usually the poet's wife. As Buddhist ceremonies and music came to replace old native rites, banka declined.
Hiyuka are poems containing analogies, varying from metaphor to allegory, and dealing chiefly with the subject of love. Kibutsu (“referring to things”), a subcategory of hiyuka, is a love analogy in which the “thing” referred to functions as metaphor or extended allegory (the sea standing for love, the boat for the lover, and the oars for his driving passion). Eibutsuka (“poems on things”), a subcategory of zōka, deal descriptively or allegorically with natural phenomena.
The various volumes of the Man'yōshū are hardly of a piece. Book 5, for example, is half prose, all of it in Chinese, and is basically a collection of the writings of the circle of Ōtomo no Tabito and his friend
The Man'yōshū is famed for its social range. There are poems by members of the imperial family and by members of the peasantry. Most of the named poets, however, are middle- or lower-ranking courtiers, and it is to them one must turn for a list of major poets.
Kakinomoto no Hitomaro is the poet whose creativity dominates the late 7th century and, in large measure, the entire tradition of Man'yō poetry. He was a courtier-official, probably of low to middling rank, whose time was likely divided between service in provincial and central bureaucracies. He is known as an author of banka, or elegies, and he perfected the techniques of the earlier poetry, the formulaic style developed from the oral tradition, the use of metaphorical, preposited, imagistic structures, the parallelism, and the long prosodic units. He created and maintained a lofty and majestic style, flexible and varied, laced through with compassionate irony, that brought to the chōka its best moments. His themes were the sadness of parting, whether in life or death, the awesomeness of the imperial institution, and the mystery of man's fate. His surviving poems total 18 chōka and 67 tanka.
Yamanoue no Okura can usefully be viewed in comparison with his friend Tabito. He too left mostly the poetry of his old age. It shows him to be a crotchety, moralistic, but also humorous and loving character, with a strong sense of social outrage. Okura is the only major Man'yō poet known to have visited China. He was a member of the official embassy of 702 and returned in 707. His poetic manner is angular, personal, sometimes angry, as in his “Dialogue on Poverty.” At the same time he experimented with the hugely popular imported theme of the lover stars Altair and Vega, who can meet only once a year (see
Ōtomo no Yakamochi was the eldest son of Tabito. One in every 10 Man'yō poems is by him and he is the leading candidate for compiler of the anthology. Yakamochi is a poet of great variety and amplitude. As a young man he acquitted himself well in the mode of amorous tanka and he also wrote chōka in the grand manner. A note of delicate sadness is apparent in his late nature poetry and he was, like his father, an early practitioner of “elegant confusion.” He also struck some of the first self-conscious notes in Japanese poetry of specifically Buddhist awareness of life's illusory character.
It is surprising to find a large number of poems in the Man'yōshū by people outside the circle of the court, in some cases people one would hardly suspect were literate. There are, for instance, the rustic poems from Azuma (northeast Japan) in book 14 and the poems (
Japan did not invent a writing system, but adapted the script of China, the first one it encountered. The Chinese writing system was not a phonetic script, such as an alphabet or syllabary, but was composed of complex graphic units representing entire words. Each graph, however, by virtue of representing a monosyllabic Chinese word, was associated with the pronunciation of that word. If meaning was discarded the character could be used to represent its sound alone. This phonetic application is known as man'yōgana. Furthermore, as Chinese graphs represented common objects and qualities, they could also be used semantically. Thus the graph for “hand” could be read as if it were the Japanese word for the same thing. A further complication was that once the semantic application of a graph was established, for example the Japanese reading te of the graph for “hand,” it could be used to write the syllable te in any other word. The consequence of this experience with graphomania was that by the 10th century when the syllabaries, or
Although the first work on decipherment of the Man'yōshū was undertaken at imperial command in 951, the earliest complete extant manuscript of the anthology is the Nishi Honganji text in book form, which dates from the latter part of the Kamakura period (1185−1333). It was not until the Edo period (1600−1868), however, that Man'yōshū studies came into their own as one of the chief scholarly endeavors of the National Learning (
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