The Making of the Premier Anthology of Poetry in Japan


The Man’yo-Shu : An Overview


by : Miharu Abe


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 and sedoka, 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 a16).


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 258-264).




A glimpse of the Man’yo-Shu

through the first and the last poems


Courtship amidst the early spring scenery:

The first poem

 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, maid.

Under the heaven,

this land of Yamato,

all this Yamato,

administer We.

All the land as one,

all the land We reign.

Now We will tell thee,

We will tell

Our name and family.


(Translated by Teruo SUGA)




The artist of last page picture, “Haruno” (Spring field), is Toshio Muroi

The postcard is from Nara Prefecture

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.



A poem composed when the Emperor viewed the land from atop a hill: The second poem


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,

        but I climb heavenly Kagu Hill

               that is cloaked in foliage,

and stand on the summit

        to view the land.

On the plain of land,

      smoke from the hearths rises, rises.

            On the plain of waters,

gulls rise one after another.

            A splendid land

                is the dragonfly island,

                            the land of Yamato.



(Translated by Ian Hideo Levy, Manyo Luster.)




The 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 of Japan, 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


Man’yo-Shu closes 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 Yamato.


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,

Sukune, Ohtomo-no-Yakamochi.


(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 authors.


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 of life.


Miharu Abe




AOKI, Takako, IDE, Itaru, ITO, Haku, SHIMIZU, Katsuhiko, HASHIMOTO, Shiro (revised and annotated). Man’yo-Shu. Vol. 1, 5. Tokyo: Shinchosha, 1976, 1984.


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.


SATAKE, Akihiro, KINOSHITA, Masatoshi, KOJIMA, Noriyuki. Hoteiban Man’yo-Shu (Revised and Enlarged Edition of Man’yo-Shu). Tokyo: Hanawa Shobo, 1999.


SUGA, Teruo.(a) The Man’yo-Shu: A Complete English Translation in 5-7 Rhythm. - Vol. 1. Tokyo: Kanda Institute of Foreign Language, 1991. - (b) The Man’yo-Shu: A Complete English Translation in 5-7 Rhythm. - Vol. 3.


SUGANO, Masao. Shoki Man’yo-ka no Shiteki Haikei (Early poems in Man’yo-Shu and the Historical Background). 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.