of the Premier Anthology of Poetry in Japan
The Man’yo-Shu : An Overview
by : Miharu
The Man’yo-Shu, A Collection
of Ten Thousand Leaves is the premier treasury of poetry in Japan.
It had assumed its final form by the late eighth century (759 A.D.). For one hundred
years, from the Asuka period to Nara period, it grew to 20 volumes with more
than 4500 poems composed by various people: from emperors and empresses to
commoners. The range of poets included had gradually widened in the course of a
century, from courtiers to soldiers stationed at strategic posts in Kyushu and
their families; and the provinces represented had also expanded from the seats
of government, Asuka and Nara,
to the seaboard region of Kyushu, the southern part of Japan. Who edited these massive
volumes of poetry? The name of the compiler is still debated. It remains
uncertain, but is often supposed that Ohtomo-no-Yakamochi
(717?-785), one of the greatest poets in the collection, and his associates,
participated in editing it on imperial order.
The anthology contains works with various
themes and styles. They are classified into the categories of love poem, elegy,
and miscellaneous. As to the forms, they are mainly tanka, short poems with thirty-one syllable, alternation of 5, 7,
5, 7, 7 syllables, which is still one of the prevalent styles of poetry in
contemporary Japan. Others are choka, long poems
which also alternate lines of 5 and 7 syllables. Lines of 5 or 7 characters are
common in Chinese poetry, in forms such as the shichigon zekku (7-character poem) or gogon-zekku
(5-character poem) composed of odd numbered lines. The rhythm of 5 and 7
syllables is regarded as characteristic of Eastern verse (Suga
The poems are written in Man’yo-gana, a
hybrid form of writing in which Chinese characters were
used to represent the Japanese phonetic system. Man’yo-gana reveals the culture
and the society of the period. In the early period of the compilation of the Man’yo-Shu, the
court absorbed Chinese culture: its ideas, religion, political system, law,
literature and technology. These were adopted and developed to suit Japanese
circumstances. The impact of Chinese culture on early Japan may be compared to Greek and
Roman influences upon the West. It was
in this period that the Taika Reform (645 A. D.) took place. It
marked the beginning of a new political system, with a centralized bureaucracy,
under the rule of the emperor, based on the legal codes. The Japanese
vigorously assimilated Chinese civilization and established and developed their own political system and culture. Buddhism and Chinese
characters were among these imports.
The term ‘Man’yo’ had originally been
introduced into Japan from China.
It may be of some use to explain the meaning of ‘Man’yo.’ Scholars have
interpreted the word, Man’yo,
as meaning ten thousand leaves, as ten thousand years, or as a large quantity
of paper. Yamaguchi Hiroshi, a specialist on the
Man’yo-Shu, remarks that the word is commonly found in
ancient inscriptions on bronze wares from the 16th-century B.C. through the 11th-century
B.C. and down to 256 B.C. For the Chinese dynasties of those ancient days the
expression had signified permanence, an everlasting flourishing, or especially
a thriving dynasty; and not a great number of leaves. This suggests, by
analogy, that the title, Man’yo
connotes that the anthology should go forth and prosper forever. (Yamaguchi
A glimpse of the Man’yo-Shu
through the first and the last poems
The Man’yo-Shu dawns with the
following poem. Here is a literal translation by Teruo
SUGA in The Man’yo-Shu: A
Complete English Translation in 5-7 Rhythm:
Poem Gracefully Composed by the Emperor:
With a basket,
with a pretty basket,
with a wooden spade,
with a pretty spade,
upon this hillock, maid,
thou gatherst herbs.
We ask where thou livest.
Tell Us thy name,
Under the heaven,
all this Yamato,
All the land as one,
all the land We reign.
Now We will tell
We will tell
Our name and family.
(Translated by Teruo
The artist of last page picture, “Haruno” (Spring field), is Toshio Muroi
The postcard is from Nara
Complex of Man’yo Culture
The poem was composed by the Emperor Yuryaku, who reigned in the late-fifth century. To put it
more precisely, these lines of verse have come to be seen as having been
composed by Emperor Yuryaku. In ancient custom,
asking a maiden’s name implied an offer of marriage and telling her name meant
her acceptance. Interestingly, it is said that the theme of longing for a girl
picking young greens is also found in Chinese poetry (Yamaguchi 242). The verse
portrays courtship amidst the scenery of early spring. Here, the courtship and
nuptials have a double meaning, prosperity of offspring and rich harvests. The
first part of the poem shows the yearning for a girl gathering shoots in the
field, while the latter half tells of the emperor’s pride as he reveals himself
as a sovereign and boasts of his land.
It is not just a love lyric. When the
Emperor asks for the girl’s hand, this
anticipates the vigorous spirit of his reign, which is in its early stage of
becoming the centre of authority. It is the Emperor Yuryaku
who appears in the Kojiki (712) and Nihon Shoki (720), as the illustrious
emperor who overcame powerful families to establish central authority.
Moreover, in a Chinese history he is mentioned as one of the respected
emperors. This seems to indicate why his poem is chosen as the opening one and
why the poem is classified in the miscellaneous category and not as a love poem
as it appears to be.
The Emperor Yuryaku’s
poem is followed by one composed by the Emperor Jomei.
Poem by Emperor Jomei
when he climbed Kagu
Hill to view the land
Many are the mountains of Yamato,
I climb heavenly Kagu Hill
is cloaked in foliage,
and stand on the summit
view the land.
On the plain of land,
smoke from the
hearths rises, rises.
On the plain of
gulls rise one after another.
A splendid land
the dragonfly island,
the land of Yamato.
(Translated by Ian Hideo Levy, Manyo Luster.)
Emperor Jomei (593-641, reign 629-641) climbed the
hill to have a panoramic view of the land. He saw smoke rising from the hearths
and beyond gulls soaring one after another. He feels happy and contented as he
beholds the smoke from the hearths, which represent a life of peace and
prosperity. The dragonfly, a pillow word for Yamato, prefigures a good harvest
in autumn. Readers can imagine the peaceful atmosphere and beauty of the land of Yamato. Readers, however, may feel it
strange when they read the words, ‘the plain of waters,’ since there is, in
fact, nothing resembling a plain of waters in Yamato. In this context, Yamato
might refer not the province of that name, but the nation, a land surrounded by
the sea. The Emperor Jomei was an illustrious
sovereign who reigned just before the dawn of the Taika
Reform. He enthusiastically dispatched Japanese envoys to Tang Dynasty China.
These circumstances might lead readers to see behind the peaceful scenery of
Yamato, the emergence of the Emperor’s satisfaction and joy as a ruler of
Yamato. The verse
praises the prosperous
land of Yamato
as well as
the beautiful view of Yamato. Under the lyrical surface,
the sovereign’s pride reveals itself as in the case of Emperor Yuryaku’s poem. Through these two opening poems, one aspect
known as Yamato at that time, appears, i.e., how Yamato was evolving under
imperial leadership. They suggest that the Man’yo-Shu is a kind of hymn to
and a prayer for the prosperity and fertility of Yamato under the emperor’s
reign (Yamaguchi 250-253).
A poem in celebration of New Year and for a rich
harvest: The last poem
with the following poem. The last poem of the anthology shows a correspondence
with the first one on the same theme; a hymn and a prayer for thriving of
As the snow that falls
in the spring of this new year
comes down on and on,
so happy things visit us
one by one in succession.
The above one was composed by Governor,
(Translated by Teruo SUGA.)
This was composed at a banquet in
celebration of New Year’s Day in 759. Snow at the beginning of a year
prefigures a plentiful harvest. Therefore this poem implies both a celebration
of New Year and a prayer for a rich harvest in autumn. Some might go even
further, seeing here, in the closing verse, a prayer for the flourishing of the
anthology and the reign of the sovereign of Yamato, too. This is derived from
the fact that the author, Ohtomo-no-Yakamochi, was
from an influential family and was a descendant of a family that had been among
powerful supporters for the Emperor Yuryaku, the
author of the opening poem.
With the above mentioned poetic frames,
the anthology embraces a large number of poems with different themes by people
from various walks of life. Some describe the awakening of love, its pleasure
or pain, distress or grief at parting from loved ones after political turmoil
between factions or when garrisoned in distant places as imperial soldiers.
Others depict the beauties of nature in each season and how they stirred the
For one hundred years, while the Man’yo-Shu was
being compiled, Japan
went through a series of struggles between factions fighting over the formation
and reformation of the political system; which underlay the foundations of the
institutions that absorbed continental culture, from Buddhism to law and
literature. It was in this era that Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, the first written books in Japan, were completed; the former is something
like a narrative of the genesis of Japan,
and the latter a chronicle of Japan’s
history. The Man’yo-Shu,
the premier anthology of poetry in Japan, vividly
portrays the atmosphere of the age through voices of people from various walks
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HASHIMOTO, Shiro (revised and annotated). Man’yo-Shu. Vol. 1, 5. Tokyo: Shinchosha,
LEVY, Ian Hideo, INOUE, Hakudo, TAKAOKA, Kazuya. Man’yo Luster: A Translation
with Photographic Images of the Premier Anthology of Japanese - Poetry. Tokyo: PIE BOOKS, 2002.
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Hanawa Shobo, 1999.
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Translation in 5-7 Rhythm. - Vol. 3.
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Osaka: Izumi Shoin, 1994.
YAMAGUCHI, Hiroshi. Man’yo-Shu no Tanjou
to Tairiku Bunka (The Creation of Man’yo-Shu and the
Continental Culture). Tokyo: Kadokawa Shoten, 1996.