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(Poetry Criticism)


(Also known as The Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves or The Ten Thousand Leaves) Eighth century Japanese poetry.

The following entry provides criticism of Man'yōshū from 1899 to 2001.

The Man'yōshū is the oldest extant anthology of Japanese poetry, a massive work consisting of 4,516 poems in twenty volumes, mostly from the Asuka and Nara periods of the seventh and eighth centuries. Generally considered the finest of the imperial anthologies due to the strength and purity of its poetic evocation of the Japanese spirit, the Man'yōshū was composed by some 450 writers—with more than 400 of their identities known. Among the most significant poets who contributed to the collection are such figures as Kakinomoto Hitomaro, Yamanoue Okura, and Ōtomo Yakamochi, the last of whom is designated as the principal compiler. Much of the richness of the Man'yōshū is attributed to the artistic diversity of these and other authors, as well as to the fact that, unlike later royal anthologies, the collection encompasses all levels of Japanese life by including authors outside of the imperial court. The vast majority of its verse is in the form of tanka, a five-line poem consisting of thirty-one syllables distributed in a pattern of five syllables, seven syllables, then five, seven, and seven, for each line respectively. This type of poem is also sometimes referred to as waka. The other principal poetic forms represented in the Man'yōshū include its 265 chōka and 62 sedōka: the former a long poem that frequently includes narrative or expands upon one principal theme, the latter an older, six-line poetic form featuring a 5/7/7/5/7/7 syllabic scheme. (Both types were to lose their popularity and virtually disappear in the later classical period.) Overall, the Man'yōshū features a deeply Shinto sensibility, emanating from Japan's nature-oriented indigenous religion, coupled with a pervasive Chinese influence, evident in occasional Confucian themes, Taoist elements, and in the origins of the man'yōgana, the unique written language of the collection.

Textual History

Scholars believe that at its core the anthology contains an original or Ur-Man'yōshū, the contents of which roughly comprise the first two books of the existing work. Featuring examples of the three major poetic forms found in the Man'yōshū, by such figures as Hitomaro, Princess Nukada, and Empress Jitō, this first portion of the collection sets the fundamental patterns and themes of the whole work. Considering the work's status as an early text, commentators agree that the assembly of the Man'yōshū likely occurred over a lengthy period of time and involved numerous editors, including as many as five to ten principal figures. Nevertheless, the vast majority of its compilation is generally thought to have been undertaken by Yakamochi (718-785), who also contributed 473 pieces of verse to the anthology, more than any other single poet. His poetry, which appears in books 17 to 20, includes one dated 759, the last added to the collection. Yakamochi is also credited with preserving the elegiac banka, a type of funereal verse connected to primitive Shinto religious traditions that was gradually replaced by Buddhist forms in later generations. Another individual associated with the editorial construction of the Man'yōshū, Tachibana Moroe was once identified as the work's main compiler, but has since been displaced by Yakamochi and more likely served an advisory or supportive role. The editorial process almost certainly continued in the years after Yakamochi's efforts were complete, and in the ensuing decades the textual integrity of the Man'yōshū suffered a severe reversal. Due to the lack of a native Japanese system of writing in the seventh and eighth centuries, the anthology was composed in a form of Old Japanese that borrowed Chinese characters to represent Japanese sounds. Consequently, following the introduction of the standardized Japanese katakana in the ninth century, the Man'yōshū had become...

(The entire section is 1,580 words.)