Manyoshu (万葉集 Man'yōshū, "Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves") is the earliest existing anthology of Tanka poems, regarded as the starting point of Japanese culture and literature. The poems date from between 600 C.E. and 759 C.E., and were written by every class of person, from emperors to merchants and farmers. At that time, anyone who could compose good poetry was highly respected, regardless of class, social standing or gender. Women, who occupied a low position in the social hierarchy, often used poetry as a means of elevating their status. The aristocracy frequently entertained themselves by holding artistic competitions and poetry readings, often in scenic spots such as gardens or in boats floating on a river. These contests were of three types: Chinese poetry, Tanka poetry, and instrumental music.
Through Tanka poetry, ladies of the court had an opportunity to display their intelligence. The total number of poems in the Manyoshu is 4,516. Most of these convey bright images of springtime and summer. Their simplicity and directness of expression continue to appeal strongly to modern audiences. Through these poems, the voices of Japanese people speak to us from 1,300 years ago. Just like ancient wooden temples and historical landmarks, these poems are treasures of words that introduce us to the lives and concerns of the people who wrote them.
Two views exist about the origin of the name “Manyoshu.” Sengaku and Kamo no Mabuchi, early scholars of Manyoshu, believed that the name meant “Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves.” More recent scholars have interpreted the “leaves” to signify time periods, and the name to mean, “Collection of Tanka Poems Which Should Be Bequeathed to All Future Generations.”
No one knows the details of how the Manyoshu was created. Some think it was created by imperial command, and others that Otomo no Yakamochi was the editor. The most convincing theory is that a single compiler did not edit Manyoshu, but that each volume was edited by a different person, and that Otomo no Yakamochi finally gathered the twenty volumes together as a series.
There is no detailed record of how the twenty volumes of the Manyoshu were formed. The first half of volume 1 is called “The Original Manyoshu.” The second half, plus Volume Two, is called “Addition to the Manyoshu.” Volumes 3 through 15, plus the first part of volume 16, are called “Fifteen Volume Manyoshu.” Keichu, an early Manyoshu scholar, believed that these first sixteen volumes were all compiled at one time, and that volumes 17 through 20 were added afterwards. This idea is widely accepted because there was external ancient manuscript that cited a table of contents of Manyoshu listing fifteen chapters.
In 783 C.E., the Manyoshu was finally completed by Otomo no Yakamochi. However it did not receive official recognition because, just after the death of Otomo no Yakamochi in 785 C.E., Fujiwara Tanetsugu was assassinated by a member of the Otomo clan and Otomo no Yakamochi was somehow implicated. In 806 C.E., he was officially pardoned and the Manyoshu project was finally acknowledged.
The division of the collection into twenty volumes or books mirrors a similar practice in collections of Chinese poems of the time. Unlike later collections, however, the parts of the Manyoshu are not organized into topics or ordered chronologically.
The contents of the Manyoshu are classified in three main categories. One is Zouka, (or “Miscellaneous Poems”), containing poems mainly about court life and traveling. These poems admire nature and the passage of the four seasons. A second category is Soumonka (“Love Poems”). The third category is Banka (“Elegies and Dirges”).
There are four types of expression, or modes. In the first, romantic feelings were expressed figuratively through representations of nature. The second is feeling expressed directly, not in symbols or figures. The third mode gives a poetic touch to aspects of the changing seasons. In the fourth, thoughts or feelings are projected onto a symbolic object. Volume 14 is called Azumauta, (“Songs of the East”). The capital of that time was at Nara, in the center of Japan, but these poems were about the eastern side of Japan, including the area where Tokyo is located now, which was then mostly wilderness.
The collection contains 268 chōka (long poems), 4,207 tanka (short poems), one tanrenga (short connecting poem), one bussokusekika (“On the Buddha's Footprints at Yakushi Temple in Nara”), four kanshi (Chinese poems), and 22 Chinese prose passages. There is no preface; the format of prefacing official collections, such as the Kokinshu, developed later.
It is standard to regard the Manyoshu as a particularly Japanese work. This does not mean that the poems and passages of the collection differed starkly from the scholarly standard (in Yakamochi's time) of Chinese literature and poetics. Certainly many entries of the Manyoshu have a continental tone, earlier poems having Confucian or Taoist themes and later poems reflecting on Buddhist teachings. Yet, the Manyoshu is singular, even in comparison with later works, in choosing primarily Yamato themes, extolling Shintō virtues of forthrightness (真 makoto) and virility (丈夫振り masuraoburi). In addition, the language of many entries of the Manyoshu exerts a powerful sentimental appeal to readers:
[T]his early collection has something of the freshness of dawn. [...] There are irregularities not tolerated later, such as hypometric lines; there are evocative place names and [pillow words (枕詞 makurakotoba)]; and there are evocative exclamations such as kamo, whose appeal is genuine even if incommunicable. In other words, the collection contains the appeal of an art at its pristine source with a romantic sense of venerable age and therefore of an ideal order since lost [2; page 192].
The collection is customarily divided into four periods. The earliest dates to prehistoric or legendary pasts, from the time of Yuryaku (ruled c. 456–479) to those of the little documented Yōmei (r. 585–587), Saimei (r. 594–661), and finally Tenji (r. 668–671) during the Taika Reforms and the time of Fujiwara no Kamatari (614–669). During this first period there were many poems concerning events at court. The representative of this period is a high-ranking woman named Nukata no Okimi, who wrote 12 Tanka poems.
The second period covers the end of the seventh century, from the Jinshin rebellion in 672 C.E. until the capital was moved to Heijo (Nara) in 710 C.E., and coincides with the popularity of Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, one of Japan's greatest poets. About 450 of the poems in Manyoshu are attributed to him. This period marked a transition from an oral literary tradition to a written one.
The third period spans 700–c. 733 C.E. and covers the works of such poets as Yamabe no Akahito, who composed scenic poems; Otomo no Tabito, who composed chōka (long poems) which are full of tasteful and lyrical elements; Yamanoue no Okura, who composed poems which expressed life’s suffering and expressed warm regard for the lower classes; Abe no Nakamaro; and Sakanoue no Iratsume, who composed poems with a woman’s pathos. The poets of the third period composed with a great deal of personality and character.
The fourth period spans from 730 to 760 C.E. and includes the work of the last great poet of this collection, the compiler Otomo no Yakamochi himself, who not only wrote many original poems but also edited, updated and refashioned an unknown number of ancient poems.
In addition to its artistic merits, the Manyoshu is important for using one of the earliest Japanese writing systems, the cumbersome manyogana. Though this was not the first use of this writing system, which was originally invented for the Kojiki, it was named "the characters of the Manyoshu.” This system uses Chinese characters in a variety of functions: their usual ideographic or logographic senses; to represent Japanese syllables phonetically; and sometimes in a combination of these functions. The use of Chinese characters to represent Japanese syllables became the genesis of the modern syllabic kana writing systems, being simplified forms (hiragana) or fragments (katakana) of the "manyogana."
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