Man'yōshū Critical Essays


(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 all but indecipherable to common readers. Addressing this issue in 951, Emperor Murakami reportedly instructed the poet Minamoto Shitago to begin a process of phonetic and semantic reconstruction of the text that has continued into the twenty-first century. Critics recognize such figures as Priest Keichu, the seventeenth-century, and Kamo Mabuchi, an eighteenth-century scholar, for their authoritative commentaries and influential interpretations of the work. In the contemporary period, Japanese editions by Omodaka Hisataka and by Nakanishi Susumu are considered authoritative, whereas considerable barriers with transliteration typically render comprehensive, non-Japanese translations as elusive.

Major Themes

Critics separate the verse of the Man'yōshū into three major thematic categories: miscellaneous (zōka), personal exchanges or love poetry (sōmonka), and elegies (banka). Among these, the broad subject of love, complicated and enriched by loss and separation, comprise the major thematic component of the complete collection. Numerous other themes run through the anthology as well, with individual poems focusing on nature, legends, and folk tales. Additional zōka include descriptive and travel verse, Confucian-themed pieces that treat such subjects as poverty or impermanence, hiyuka, or allegorical poems, seasonal lyrics, such as popular plum-viewing tanka, humorous and celebratory verse, banquet poems, and the poetry of the frontier guardsmen. Finally, the Man'yōshū includes a wide spectrum of public poetry, particularly the banka—laments for the dead used for the social mourning of important, political individuals. The principal setting of the Man'yōshū is the Yamato region of central Japan, wherein lies both the Asuka Valley, home of the seventh-century imperial court, and the district of Nara, site of the nation's earliest capital, established in 710. And, although the centralized aristocracy represents a major focus of the poetry in the anthology, extensive regional verse appears as well. As the collection itself is not thematically organized, scholars generally divide the Man'yōshū among four periods for purposes of historical classification. The first period ranges from 645 to 672 and includes a number of poems from previous eras, beginning with its oldest poem, thought to have been composed by Emperor Yūryaku in the mid-fifth century. Likewise, this division contains lyrics passed down from oral or folk traditions that generally predate the collection. Among the principal seventh-century representatives of this earliest period of the Man'yōshū are a number of female writers, such as Nukada Ōkimi, noted for her impassioned lyrics and courtly waka. A second period from 673 to 710 contains principally aristocratic verse. The preeminent writer of the period, courtly poet Hitomaro, is also considered the finest of the contributors. Hitomaro excelled in the long poem form (chōka) and is particularly esteemed for his banka, such as his lament for the death of Prince Takechi and a series of moving elegies including one for his deceased wife. The collection also includes a 367-poem “Hitomaro Collection,” although many of these works are not, in fact, attributed to the Man'yōshū's most illustrious poet. Other noteworthy contributors of this phase are Emperor Temmu, Empress Jitō, and Takechi Kurohito. The meditative, individualistic style of the latter is said to have anticipated the work of Yamabe Akahito, a distinguished poet of the third period, which runs from 710 to about 730. While the courtier Akahito produced delicate, lyric evocations of nature, his work represents only one aspect of the diverse content of the Man'yōshū composed during this time. Alongside his writings appear the intellectual and humanist verse of Okura, governor of Chikuzen province. Okura's writings reflect his sympathetic awareness of social issues, evident in the “Dialogue on Poverty” and in his disconsolate evocations of the suffering caused by prolonged illness, old age, and death. The final phase of Man'yōshū poetry covers the years 731 to 759, and is dominated by the poet and editor Yakamochi, whose father Ōtomo Tabito's work represents an important subcategory within the anthology—the poetry of longing. The son, a prominent court official, is regarded for his youthful love poems as well as his stylized, contemplative evocations of nature and the melancholic elegies that conclude the collection.

Critical Reception

Overshadowed in the decades after its completion by Chinese poetry, the Man'yōshū was largely forgotten for centuries until being recovered in the late medieval period and reconstructed throughout the modern era. By the twentieth century it had been elevated to its current status as “the supreme monument of Japanese lyricism,” in the words of Donald Keene. Widely recognized as one of the finest achievements of Japanese literature, the Man'yōshū enjoys a critical reputation rivaled only by that of the seventeenth-century haiku poetry of Matsuo Bashō, or of the seminal novel Genji monogatari (Tale of Genji). Specific areas of modern critical attention to the work have been as diverse as its contents. Linguistically-oriented critics study the metaphorical complexity of the verse with an expressed interest in the extensive use of so-called “pillow-words” (makurakotoba), a collection of formulaic descriptive phrases. While continuing to admire its overall content, modern scholars have frequently reassessed the merits of the collection's constituent poetic works, generally attaching greater importance to the lengthy chōka at the expense of shorter tanka. Such reappraisals have consequently led to new distinctions in the relative importance of individual poets, notably in an increased regard for Okura and a declining favor for Akahito. The considerable influence of Chinese literature on the Man'yōshū has also been extensively studied, providing a vital area of contemporary comparative interest in the collection. Summarizing the lofty standing of this vast collection, Harold Wright has praised the Man'yōshū for its “embodying strength of feeling, sincerity, and simplicity,” and has considered its poetry “the purest expression of the early Japanese spirit,” even lauding the work as one of the greatest anthologies of lyric verse in world literature.