The history of Japanese poetry begins indisputably with the eighth century anthology Manysh (mid-eighth century; The Collections of Ten Thousand Leaves; also as The Ten Thousand Leaves, pb. 1981, and as The Manyoshu, 1940) although the earlier historical chronicles Kojiki (c. 712 c.e.; Records of Ancient Matters, 1883) and Nihon shoki (c. 720; Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D. 697, 1896), as well as a few stone inscriptions, also preserve scattered early poems and sacred songs. The significance of The Manyoshu is manifold. As the most literal translation of its title, “collection of myriad leaves,” suggests, it is a work of imposing bulk; containing more than 4,500 poems, it is by virtue of its age and size simply not to be ignored. Another interpretation of its title, “collection of (or for) myriad generations,” hints at the importance accorded poetry in eighth century Japan.
The Manyoshu was assembled at a stage of Japanese cultural development roughly comparable to that of northern and western Europe at the close of the Dark Ages. In both cases, literacy was confined to very small groups, elite islands of advanced culture in a sea of what was by comparison barbarism. In the European case, literacy was a legacy of the Roman conquests, held in trust by the Roman Catholic Church until an ebbing in the tide of barbarian invasion allowed it to infiltrate secular courts. Literacy was in a sense indigenous, a skill that, from the viewpoint of the early Middle Ages, had been known (although not widely practiced) from time immemorial. The written word came to Japan, however, as the central monument of a flourishing, contemporary foreign civilization, embodied in the energetic culture of the Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) Dynasties. Chinese culture and the idea of literacy did not come with a conquering army but rather, it appears, by choice. The future imperial court, having consolidated its sway over competing tribal or regional groups, began in perhaps the fifth century to maintain what seems to have been fairly regular intercourse with China by way of the land route up the Korean peninsula. It was at this time, most agree, that written records began to be kept in Japan, but they were in Chinese, the work of Chinese and Korean scribes imported by the court.
The rich sophistication of Chinese culture in comparison with that of Japan, Korea, and Vietnam must have been almost absurdly evident to the first generations of Japanese who set themselves the task of learning Chinese and its complex writing system, through which medium the entirety of more than a thousand years of literary culture was suddenly visible in an undigested mass. In addition to the native Chinese classics, there was a huge body of Buddhist texts in Chinese to contemplate. By the end of the seventh century, however, the emerging Japanese state, headed by an aristocratic court, had accomplished much by way of assimilating the new culture. Governmental forms and court rites were modeled on Tang examples, and alongside the native animist religion, Shint, Chinese Buddhism was officially established and encouraged, for the power of Tang in China—where Buddhism was enjoying a short-lived ascendancy—was thought to rest in part on the magical efficacy of Buddhist ritual. Under such circumstances, where political power was legitimized by Chinese precedent and the spiritual realm was increasingly dominated by a complex Indian faith that the Japanese could approach only in Chinese, the dominance of Chinese in the field of letters is no surprise. The true cause for wonder is that The Manyoshu testifies to a vigorous parallel tradition of sophisticated literary activity in Japanese—a tradition that was a century and more old by the time the collection was compiled.
The poetry of The Manyoshu dates largely from the first half of the eighth century, but a significant portion of it was composed in the preceding century, and a small number of verses seem to be authentic survivals, if perhaps retouched by later hands, from even earlier. The poetry of The Manyoshu and the history of the Records of Ancient Matters are written with Chinese characters, but because the Chinese ideographs are used for their phonetic values, these texts may be read as pure Japanese. However absorbed they may have been, therefore, in making Chinese culture their own, the Japanese were occupied as well with the difficult task of adapting the new tool of writing to record in their own language what they most valued in the native tradition, at a very early time in comparison with other East Asian societies.
The Manyoshu and the Records of Ancient Matters thus may be viewed as evidence of a persistent Japanese determination to maintain a significant degree of independence from foreign cultural influence, but their existence also ironically underlines the power of Chinese example, for poetry and historiography occupied the vital center of the Chinese literary canon as it reached the Japanese. These works can thus also be thought of as part of a broader enterprise on the part of the Japanese aristocracy to...
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