Manyoshu Criticism - Essay

The Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkokai (essay date 1940)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Manyoshu: One Thousand Poems, The Iwanami Shoten, 1940, pp. xiii-lxxx.

[In the following excerpt, the Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkokai (the Japanese Classics Translation Committee) present an overview of the Manyoshu, including discussions of the political, social, and philosophical background to the collection.]



The Manyōshū is the oldest of the early Japanese anthologies, and by far the greatest both in quantity and quality. It consists of 20 books and contains more than 4,000 poems, written for the most part by the poets who flourished in the Fujiwara and Nara Periods, which coincide with the Golden Age of Chinese poetry—the eras of Kaiyuan and Tienpao under the T'ang dynasty, when Li Po and Tu Fu lived and sang. In England it was the Anglo-Saxon period of Beowulf, Cædmon and Cynewulf. The Anthology reflects Japanese life and civilization of the 7th and 8th centuries, and not only does it record the indigenous thoughts and beliefs, but also touches, even if only casually, upon Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism imported from the continent.

The Manyōshū, unlike the Kokin Wakashū (generally known as Kokinshū), and other ‘imperial’ anthologies later compiled by the sovereign's command, is rich in the poems of the people as well as in those of the court. It embraces and harmonizes both patrician and plebeian elements, and reveals the brilliance of city life side by side with the charm of the country-side. It forms a happy contrast that many sovereigns and members of the imperial family are represented in the Anthology, together with a great number of excellent works by humble and nameless poets. That no less than 300 poems in the rude dialect of eastern Japan should be grouped together at two different places, is an unparalleled phenomenon in the ancient anthologies of the Orient. These provincial poems consist not only of occasional and extempore pieces, but of what appear to be the then current folk-songs, altered or recast in the course of transmission from place to place; and there may also well be a few by city poets who composed them in imitation of the rustic style. It is to be noted that the strain of folk-song is also frequently encountered in the works, especially in the amatory verse, of some urban singers. In addition there are some ballad-like poems dealing with legendary stories, and a small number of humorous pieces, which will not escape the reader's notice. It should be added that the Manyōshū boasts a number of women poets representing various strata of society from the highest to the humblest.

Genuineness of thought and feeling pervades all the Manyō poems, with scarcely any trace of vanity or frivolity. The prevailing atmosphere is happy, bright and peaceful. Frontier-guards departing for distant shores pledge their loyalty to the Throne and frankly record their personal loves and the sorrows of separation, but never a murmur of grudge or resentment. A sanguinary and martial spirit is conspicuous by its absence: not a single war-song is to be found in the whole collection, there being only one poem which contains a passage describing a battle. Those who compare the Manyōshū with the Shi King (‘Book of Songs’), supposed to have been compiled by Confucius, generally begin with the first poems of the respective anthologies—the one by the Emperor Yūryaku and the other regarding the consort of a Chinese king of the Chou dynasty. No matter what may be the alleged allegorical virtue of the Chinese poem, no one will fail to discover in the Japanese piece an artistic masterpiece, combining sincerity with dignity, and elegance with pastoral simplicity—a charming revelation of the close intimacy and friendliness that characterized the relationship between sovereign and subject in ancient Japan. It is scarcely necessary to say that the pervading spirit of the Manyōshū is the Japanese spirit of genuine simplicity and sincerity.

The Manyōshū with its infinite variety and the intrinsic value of its superb poetry occupies a foremost place in the history of Oriental literature. In quality it stands inferior to none of the numerous Chinese collections of verse. In quantity it can compare with the Greek Anthology, surpassing the latter in pure lyricism, and in its ardour and vigour of spirit, probably due to the fact that the Greek epigrams are the products of a decadent civilization, while the Manyō poems are the flower of a culture at its zenith. Thus the importance of the Manyōshū in world literature cannot be gainsaid.

The name ‘Man-yō-shū,’ though often translated as ‘Collection of a Myriad Leaves,’ is authoritatively interpreted to mean ‘Collection for a Myriad Ages.’ No name more fitting could have been chosen to indicate the faith and the blessing with which the Anthology was bequeathed to posterity and to the world.

The fact that the Manyōshū consists of 20 books has set a precedent for the majority of later imperial anthologies. In its manner of classification and arrangement also it has provided, to a certain extent, a model for later collections which followed the method used in some books of the Manyōshū. In the number of its poems, however, the Manyōshū exceeds all the imperial anthologies of later periods. According to the Kokka Taikan (1st edition, 1901-2), the popular reprint of all the old anthologies, in which the poems are numbered in the order they appear in each oridinal collection, the Manyōshū contains 4,516 poems. This figure can be reduced slightly if the duplications and variants are subtracted, so that 4,500 is commonly given as the actual number of the poems in the Manyōshū, while the poets whose names are either mentioned or ascertainable, are about 450 in all.


It is impossible to ascertain how and when the compilation of the Manyōshū was completed in the form in which it has been handed down to this day. It may, however, be safely said that the collection came into being some time during the late Nara Period—the latter half of the 8th century. Of course the entire 20 books were not compiled systematically, nor at the same time. Most likely a few of them were compiled early in the century, which served as a nucleus to which were added later—at least on two different occasions—the remaining books, while the entire collection was subjected to revision at frequent intervals before the Anthology assumed its present form. That is to say, it required a rather complicated process extending over half a century to compile the Manyōshū in 20 books as we now have it.

There existed no definite principle of compilation. The standard of selection varied according to individual compilers; nor was the manner of classification and arrangement uniform. The great poet Yakamochi, of the illustrious clan of Ōtomo, is generally regarded as the last man who had a hand in the compilation of the entire collection. Yakamochi, who was involved in various political incidents after reaching middle age, died in 785 in adverse circumstances, and his clan itself declined steadily down to the end of the 9th century. In the meantime, the vogue for Chinese prose and poetry took possession of court circles for over 100 years from the late Nara Period to the early Heian Period, during which Japanese poetry was more or less neglected. It is probably owing to these circumstances that the Manyōshū, still lacking the intended final touch, was handed down in an unfinished form.

Of the sources of the Manyōshū, historical works such as the Kojiki and the Nihonshoki are mentioned in the book itself. In addition, collections of the works of individual poets, miscellaneous papers, memoirs and diaries were drawn upon, as well as poems preserved only through oral transmission. Evidence is scattered throughout the Anthology of the efforts of the compilers to gather material from books and fragmentary documents, and other available sources, both public and private, old and new. In some cases the compiler gives, together with a poem, its original source, reference matter, or even his personal opinion of the poem itself. Because the task of compilation was not completed, the Anthology contains here and there indications of the process of selection and the traces of the conscientious labours of the compilers, which constitute a unique and interesting feature not found in the later anthologies. Repetition of the same poems and inclusion of slightly varied versions in different parts of the book are also another characteristic quality of the Manyōshū.

One of the most important source books is the Ruiju-Karin (Forest of Classified Verses), mentioned elsewhere, which was compiled by Yamanoé Okura—a pioneer of Manyō poetry as well as a profound student of Chinese literature. This book having long since been lost, nothing is known as to its form or the number of books into which it was divided, but from its title we may suppose the poems to have had some sort of classification. There are reasons to conjecture that this anthology may have served as a model for at least the first two books of the Manyōshū. The name ‘Karin’ (Forest of Verses) appears in an Imperial Household document dated 751, a quarter of a century after the death of Okura, though it remains a question whether or not the book is to be identified with the Ruiju-Karin. Another anthology on which the Manyōshū draws heavily is Kokashū (Collection of Ancient Poems), which was in all likelihood an anthology of a general character. Besides these, the Manyōshū mentions four individual anthologies, known respectively as the Hitomaro, Kanamura, Mushimaro and Sakimaro Collection, but it is impossible to ascertain whether each was the collected work of the poet whose name it bears, or included poems by others; or whether it was simply a collection of poems compiled by the poet.

As a general rule, an individual poem or a group of poems in the Manyōshū is preceded by the name of the author and a preface, and is frequently followed by a note. In these prefaces and notes are given the occasion, the date and place of composition, the source book or the manner of transmission, or anecdotes or legends concerning the authors or the poems. Occasionally in the notes the compilers' comments and criticisms are given. All the prefaces and notes and dates are written in Chinese. In some of the books the letters and introductions in Chinese prose, sometimes quite lengthy, which were sent together with the poems, are included. Even Chinese poems, though this is rare, find their way into these pages.

The texts of the poems are transcribed in Chinese characters. The syllabaries called kana which came into being a century or so later, were still at an incipient stage in their development. Accordingly, in writing Japanese poems, Chinese characters were borrowed for their phonetic values, or they were used ideographically in their original sense. Sometimes the first method was employed exclusively in copying a poem, but more often the two methods were used simultaneously. The so-called ‘Manyō-gana’ are the Chinese characters which were commonly used as phonograms in the Manyōshū, from which the present system of kana was evolved. Besides the above two methods, Chinese characters were frequently used in playful and fantastic combinations like puzzles, to denote syllables or words. The problems arising from the difficulty of deciphering them in the last-mentioned instances, and more often from uncertainty as to the exact reading of the characters used ideographically, have been gradually solved in subsequent ages, but there remain certain words and passages of which the reading is still disputed among specialists.

In this connection it may be pointed out that while the Manyōshū had necessarily to be clothed in a Chinese garb, so to speak, in the absence of any other system of writing, the very idea of making such a collection of poems was in all probability inspired by the examples imported from China, where the work of compiling anthologies had early developed, and where in later ages it grew to be almost a national industry of unparalleled magnitude. The Shi King of Confucian canon, already mentioned, and the famous Chu Tsu, a collection of metrical compositions, compiled toward the end of the first century b. c., had long been known in Japan by the time the first two books of the Manyōshū are conjectured to have been completed. Later works, especially anthologies made in the 6th century, were widely read by Japanese. Of these the most important was the Wên Hsuan in 30 books, containing both prose and poetry, which was popular in and around the court of Nara, and which came to be the standard text-book of Chinese literature in Japan after the 8th century. The Yütai Sinyung, another collection of elegant and somewhat voluptuous lyrics, which appears to have been privately cherished, may also be mentioned. It is significant that of the Manyō poets, more than twenty are known as accomplished versifiers in Chinese, and that a small collection of Chinese poems composed by Japanese was published in 751 under the title of Kaifūsō, preceding by several years the supposed date of the completion of the Manyōshū. The wonder is that at a time when Japan had yet to possess a writing system of her own, and when the literature of the continent, as well as its arts and crafts, were being bodily transplanted and assiduously cultivated, there should have emerged the Manyōshū—a monumental collection of native verse in the purest Yamato speech. For an explanation of this point, the reader is referred to Part II, in which the political and social background of the Manyō age and the life and the spirit of the nation are dealt with at length.


Manyō versification consists in combining in varied ways several or more lines, which as a rule are made up of five or seven syllables. The most prevalent form in the Manyōshū, which accounts for more than ninety per cent of the total number of its poems and which still flourishes to-day as the form par excellence of the national poetry of Japan, is the tanka—a verse of five lines of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables. On the other hand, the so-called ‘long poem’ or chōka consists of alternate lines of 5 and 7 syllables, finishing with an extra 7-syllable line. Though called ‘long,’ the longest chōka in the Manyōshū does not exceed 150 lines. The Anthology contains some 260 chōka, including many masterpieces by Kakinomoto Hitomaro, the ‘Saint of Poetry.’ The presence of these poems, unsurpassed in number as well as in quality by later anthologies, constitutes an outstanding feature of the Manyōshū. Generally speaking, the chōka is accompanied by one or two, or even several, short poems called hanka, somewhat in the manner of an ‘envoy,’ summarizing, or supplementing, or elaborating on, the contents of the main poem. The word hanka meaning ‘verse that repeats,’ was derived from Chinese classical poetry, in which the term is applied to a similar auxiliary verse. Though such repetition was not unknown in ancient Japanese poetry, its development and standardization in the Manyō age may have been due to Chinese influence. A third verse-form is called sedōka—a name presumably of Japanese invention—which repeats twice a tercet of 5-7-7. This form fell into desuetude in later ages, the Manyōshū itself containing only about 60 examples. There is yet another curious form called ‘Buddha's Foot Stone Poem’ by virtue of the fact that there are extant 21 poems of this type commemorating a stone monument bearing Buddha's foot-mark, which was erected in 752 in the precincts of the Yakushi-ji temple near Nara. The poem consists of 6 lines of 5-7-5-7-7-7 syllables, and only a few specimens are found in the Manyōshū. Finally it may be mentioned that there is in Book VIII (Orig. No. 1635) a brief form of renga (‘poems-in-series’) which became extremely popular in the 14th century and after, and in the composition of which a number of persons participated.

Japanese verse is generally based on the combination of syllables in fives and sevens. It takes no account of the question of stress, pitch, or length of syllable; nor is rhyme employed for poetic effect. This is an inevitable consequence of the phonetic system of the Japanese language, in which, as far as concerns its standard form, known since the beginning of history as the Yamato language, all syllables end in vowels, and there is no clear distinction between accented and unaccented, or long and short syllables, thus rendering impossible a metrical system based upon rhyme or accent. Thus, the number of syllables, which serves usually as only one of the bases of metrical structure in other languages, has become the sole principle of Japanese prosody.

Of the different rhetorical devices, alliteration, which is so conspicuous in old Germanic poetry, is employed consciously or unconsciously, and frequently with considerable effect in the Manyōshū, as it is also in all forms of Japanese poetry, both ancient and modern. On the other hand, parallelism, as it is found in Shinto litanies and more commonly in Chinese verse, is used invariably in chōka, often with consummate skill.

Among the other devices in Japanese poetry, what are known as kake kotoba (pivot-words), makura kotoba (pillow-words) and joshi (introductory verses) are the most peculiar, the effect of which depends upon a subtle association produced by similarity or identity of words in sound or sense. Of the three, the kake kotoba is the simplest, being a form of word-play which, however, occupies in Japanese poetry a legitimate and important place.

The ‘pillow-word’ modifies the word that follows it in various ways, either through sound or sense association. As a poetic technique the use of pillow-words had been practised from the earliest times so that by the Manyō age many of them had become conventionalized, while others were obscure and unintelligible. There are pillow-words which may be construed in more than one way, and there are some which invoke images extraneous and incongruous, confusing to the uninitiated reader. But where they are used properly, and in a proper place, the effect is extremely felicitous. The nearest counterpart in Occidental poetry is the ‘permanent epithet’ in Homer. But the pillow-word is far more free, daring and imaginative. It is not necessarily an adjective, but may be an attributive form of a verb, a noun in the possessive or objective case, and so on, and considerable freedom and ingenuity is shown in its application. Thus, ‘grass for pillow’ is natural and appropriate as a pillow-word for ‘journey,’ reminding one of the hardships of a traveller in primitive ages, but where the word azusa yumi (birchwood bow) is applied to the noun haru (spring time), the connection cannot be established except through another word haru, a verb meaning ‘to string.’ The phrase akane sasu (madder-root coloured) for the ‘morning sun’ may be applied by gradual transference of association to ‘sunlight,’ ‘day,’ ‘purple’ and finally even to ‘rosy-cheeked youth.’ Taku tsunu (fibre rope) is made to serve as a pillow-word for Shiragi, because the taku fibre is white, and the Japanese word ‘white,’ shiro or shira, is partly homophonous with the name of the Korean state. These are just a few examples. While many of these pillow-words had been, as has already been stated, partly conventionalized by the 8th century and handed down to poets as stock phrases, their vitality had by no means been exhausted. In fact, it appears that there was still room for the invention of new pillow-words, for the Manyōshū contains a number of epithets not found in poems of earlier date.

The joshi or ‘introductory verse’ is based on somewhat similar principles, but it is longer and admits of greater freedom in application than the pillow-word. More than 5 syllables in length, the introductory verse modifies the contents of the succeeding verse, usually by way of metaphor. For instance, in Poem No. 205, the lines describing a warrior standing with his bow, etc., constitute an introductory verse to the Bay of Matokata, the target (mato) he is aiming at being partly homophonous with the name of the bay. Here between the introductory verse and the main part of the poem there is no connection whatever, either actual or logical, and their juxtaposition may appear unnatural and perplexing; but such abrupt transition from one image to another, without destroying the latent association, is one of the characteristics of Japanese poetry, in which lies also the secret of the technique of modern haiku. Without investigation of such points it is perhaps not possible to elucidate the psychological foundation and historical development of Japanese poetry.

The characteristic rôle of the introductory verse is to invoke images lying outside the mental vista of the reader. After having carried him aloft into an unsuspected realm, it suddenly but gently sets him down in another world (Nos. 205, 316, etc.). The very absence of actual connection or co-relation between the modifier and the word modified is what makes this form of oblique comparison so effective. Since it is the way of the Japanese language to introduce a comparison with no connective term corresponding to ‘as’ or ‘like,’ the blending of different ideas and images is achieved in a most direct manner and examples of the felicitous employment of the introductory verse abound throughout the Manyōshū.


In order to indicate the general appearance and composition of the Manyōshū as a whole, it may be useful to give here a brief account of the individual books, their characteristics, and the periods with which they are concerned.

The first two books are sometimes regarded as collections compiled by imperial order, so carefully are they edited as to matter and form. Book I contains poems written between the reign of the Emperor Yūryaku (456-79) and the early Nara Period (circa 712), whereas Book II covers a more extended period, with poems believed to have been written in the reign of the Emperor Nintoku (313-99) and those dated as late as 715. 16 chōka are found in the former and 19 in the latter. In both books the poems generally are arranged in chronological order, and Hitomaro is the poet most copiously represented, while imperial progresses constitute the favourite theme of Book I. Though small in size as compared with others, these two books are of great importance for their poetry of the so-called ‘Early Palace Style.’ Book III covers the long interval between the reign of the Empress Suiko (592-628) and the 16th year of Tempyō (744), including the brilliant periods of Fujiwara and Nara. In contrast to its predecessors, which contain large numbers of poems by sovereigns, princes and princesses of the blood, this book includes more works by courtiers. Here we encounter for the first time the poems of Akahito. Tabito and Yakamochi and the illustrious company of poets centreing about the Ōtomo clan also make their appearance. Book IV, with the exception of a few earlier works, consists largely of poems of the Nara Period, especially those of Tabito and his group and those exchanged between young Yakamochi and his lady-loves; while Book V consists of poems exchanged between Tabito and his friends, to which are added the works of Okura, covering the years between 728 and 733, and containing a number of important chōka, besides verse and prose in Chinese. Book VI, covering the years between 723 and 744, is more or less identical with Books IV and VIII as regards period and poets. It contains as many as 27 chōka, and is distinguished by the inclusion of a large number of poems of travel, of imperial progresses and poems composed on the occasion of banquets. Book VII, like Books X, XI and XII, contains anonymous poems which may be ascribed roughly to a period extending from the reign of the Empress Jitō (686-96) to that of the Empress Gemmyō (715-23). Many poems from the ‘Hitomaro Collection’ are included, while the inclusion of 26 sedōka forms a notable feature of this book. Book VIII, as stated above, resembles Book IV, the earliest poem in the collection being a tanka by the Emperor Jomei (629-41), while the latest are dated 743-45. The poems are divided into ‘miscellaneous poems’ and ‘epistolary poems’ (largely amatory), and each kind is subdivided under the heads of the four seasons—a form of classification which served as a model for later imperial anthologies. Book IX, except for a single tanka by the Emperor Yūryaku, contains poems written between the reign of the Emperor Jomei and 744, which are drawn largely from the Hitomaro and Mushimaro Collections; it also includes 22 chōka and many on legendary subjects. Book X, while consisting of anonymous poems, as does Book VII, appears to include more of later work—many pieces being delicately and beautifully finished. Its nature poems reveal a new tendency, as in the case of those dealing with gardens. Poems in Books XI and XII, which are also anonymous, may be ascribed to the Fujiwara and the early Nara Periods, and many of them are in the style of folk-songs. Book XIII is a unique repository of 67 chōka of unknown authorship. Although many of these may be traced to the transitional period between the age of the Kojiki and the Nihonshoki and the Manyō age, there are included poems of unmistakably later origin, so that it is difficult to ascribe the book as a whole to any definite period.

Book XIV is a collection of the so-called ‘Eastland poems,’ of which neither the authors nor the date of compilation can be ascertained, but which stand apart as provincial poetry, unique in language and style. Book XV contains among others a group of sea poems written by the members of the embassy despatched to Korea in 736 and a series of 63 impassioned love poems exchanged about the year 740 between the courtier Nakatomi Yakamori and his sweetheart Sanu Chigami. Book XVI is distinguished by its inclusion of legendary poems and humorous verse, covering a period from the reign of the Emperor Mommu (697-706) to the Tempyō era. It is generally conjectured that these first 16 books were put more or less into their present shape by Yakamochi. Some scholars believe that certain books, especially Book XIV, were completed some time after the year 771. Though no final conclusion has yet been reached in this matter, it is evident that there is a gap between the first 16 books and the 4 following.

Books XVII-XX appear to be personal compilations made by Yakamochi of his own poems and those of others about him. All the poems are of the Tempyō era—the glorious years of the Nara Period: Book XVII covers the years from 730 to 748; Book XVIII, from 748 to the early part of 750; and Book XIX, thence to the beginning of 753. These 3 books contain altogether 47 chōka, some of which are of great literary and historical value. It should be noted that the works of Yakamochi constitute the principal contents of these books—especially Book XIX, of which fully two-thirds of the poems are his; and while there are numerous exchange and banquet poems in the conventional vein, there are also found many born of pure creative impulse. It is this book which contains the majority of Yakamochi's masterpieces, and provides the richest source for the study of his poetic genius. Book XX covers the years from 753 to 759, and contains many banquet poems. There are also poems composed by the frontier-guards—brave Eastlanders who went to defend the coast of Kyūshū—and their parents and wives, expressing their patriotism and genuine personal emotions. The name, native province and district, status and rank of each soldier are carefully set down, together with his verse. In conjunction with the other group of Eastland poems by anonymous singers in Book XIV, these poems are of exceptional interest to the reader. The year 759 is the latest date mentioned in the Manyōshū, and is attached to the last poem in Book XX, written by Yakamochi, at that time Governor of Inaba Province. It is a date that provides a clue to fixing the time when the whole Manyōshū was finally completed.



Behind the Manyōshū there looms the epochal Reform of Taika (646), which brought in its train, in rapid succession, a series of political and social changes, progressive and reactionary. Some acquaintance, therefore, with the significance and far-reaching influence of that reform is indispensable to a proper appreciation of the Manyō poetry.

From the beginning of history Japanese society was built upon a patriarchal foundation. The unit in the system was the uji, or clan, consisting of a group of families headed by the main house and bound into a compact and well-ordered community by the ties of common ancestry. Each clan was under the control and leadership of a chief called uji-no-kami, and the members of the clan were known as uji-bito or clansfolk. Generally a clan embraced within its system alien people working for it as serfs and enjoying its protection. These were called kakibé. As is usual in an agricultural society, the clans possessed lands of their own, which they exploited with the help of the man-power at their disposal, so that even economically each formed a sort of commonwealth independent of the others. When thus stated, it would appear that the social order of old Japan was nothing but a primitive and decentralized one that had grown up naturally on the soil. But such was not the case. Though there were numerous clans, with their three ‘divisions’ according to ancestry—(1) scions of the Imperial House, (2) descendants of the imperial followers or of the aboriginal tribal chiefs who had submitted to the imperial rule, and (3) descendants of alien settlers,—they were officially recognized only by virtue of their respective services to the Throne; and, theoretically as well as actually, they formed a vast and unified society with the Imperial House as its centre.

The reality of the imperial prestige and power lay in the very principle of this clan system. The emperor was the supreme head of all clans. Every man born in Japan owed allegiance to him, served and obeyed him as he would serve and obey the chief of his own clan, and looked up to the Imperial House as the head of his own family. With a sovereign of unbroken lineage reigning above, Japan's clan system formed a great family state, transcending the rivalry and strife of individual clans. Under this system the chiefs of various clans were subjects of the Imperial House for which they performed their respective hereditary functions, some as priests or ministers of state, others as soldiers or artisans.

It should be noted, however, that the system permitted the authority of an individual clan chief to intervene between the people and the Imperial House, for the latter ruled directly only over state lands and the people living thereon, while the rest of the country and its population were subject to the Throne through the clan chiefs. And wherever the chief of a clan controlled a wide domain and large numbers of clans-folk and kakibé, there was likely to emerge an independent local régime which cut off the people from the Imperial House. Moreover, greed for power and wealth on the one hand, and the growth of population and land development enterprises on the other, led to a struggle between clans for territory and serfs and to the evil practice of annexation, which destroyed the peace and stability of the country. In fact, from the 6th to the middle of the 7th century, this tendency became more and more pronounced. The lands of the weaker clans were annexed or absorbed by the more influential families. There were quarrels among powerful houses over spoils, especially in connection with the newly conquered territories in Korea. The period was marked by deep social unrest and frequent political upheavals, culminating in the rise of the Sogas, father and son, who conspired to augment their own power at the expense of the Imperial House. It was this situation that called for the Reform of Taika.

What had to be done at that time was clear. It was necessary in the first place to check the domination of the mighty families at court and in the country, and to eliminate the excesses of intermediate powers so as to enable the people at large to enjoy the direct rule of the Imperial House; and in the second place, to suppress the practice of annexation, to strengthen the national finance and to promote the welfare of the people. The need of these remedial steps was well realized without any prompting from abroad. At the same time, as regards the actual procedure, Japan could, and did, learn much from China.

Some historians call this period the ‘age of imitation of China under the Sui and the T'ang dynasties,’ and in a sense they are justified. The significance of the Reform of Taika could never be grasped without taking into account its continental elements. It should, nevertheless, be remembered that those elements were adopted only in so far as they suited the conditions in Japan, and moreover that it was not a case of blind imitation, for the reforms were carried on with an ardour and ambition which not only equalled but surpassed the examples set by the continent.

Japan's political and cultural contact with the Asiatic continent was first established through Korea. The Japanese-Korean intercourse, which may probably be traced back to remotest times, becomes a matter of recorded history with the expedition of the Empress Jingu to the peninsula in the year 200 (according to the Nihonshoki). For several centuries subsequently Korea proved politically a source of perpetual trouble for Japan, but from the cultural standpoint that country rendered a signal service by acting as an intermediary for the introduction of Confucianism along with Chinese arts and letters, and also by sending her own scholars and craftsmen, and large numbers of immigrants. In the middle of the 6th century the King of Kudara, a state in the south-western part of Korea, presented to the Japanese court an image of Buddha together with some Buddhist scriptures and ritual furnishings. This was an event that marked a decisive stage in the history of Japanese cultural contact with the continent.

With the advent of Buddhism there developed a new situation that had two important aspects. One was that this sudden confrontation of the native cult of Shinto, the backbone of Japanese life, by a strange faith from abroad, had considerable repercussions. So violent was the shock that it caused an open breach between the new and the old schools of thought and even produced a movement among the conservatives against the importation of foreign culture in general. The other was that the continental culture now entering Japan had assumed a cosmopolitan character, considerably widening the field of Japanese vision. Concerning the former of these two aspects more will be said later. Here a few words will be added regarding the latter.

In the year 589 China was unified under the Sui dynasty—China that had been torn for many centuries, during which the so-called ‘Three Kingdoms’ and the ‘Six Dynasties’ rose and fell. It is recorded that during these periods of internecine strife, bands of war-stricken Chinese sought refuge in Japan, but it appears improbable that any attempt was made on the part of Japan to establish friendly intercourse with any of the Chinese states for the sake of cultural benefits. There was, of course, prior to those periods, the mighty empire of the Hans; but of its civilization, only a meagre stream, trickling through Korea, had entered Japan. But when under the Sui a new China emerged, reunited and re-vitalized, and a swelling tide of Asiatic culture began to sweep the continent, Japan, with new vistas opened up to her by Buddhism, was in a ferment, eagerly seeking to import the continental civilization. The movement was headed by the great and progressive national leader—Prince Shōtoku (d. 622). In 607 Ono Imoko was despatched as ambassador to the court of the Sui emperor. Friendly intercourse with China being thus formally inaugurated, Japan herself joined in the broad current of Asiatic civilization.

The civilization of the Sui dynasty and its successor, the T'ang, was characterized by its cosmopolitanism. Militarily and politically the Han empire, whose armies marched far into foreign lands and whose government effectively held the conquered territories, was also cosmopolitan. But the Han culture possessed few international elements. It is this essentially Chinese civilization of the Han race that was preserved and even enhanced by the Three Kingdoms and the Six Dynasties, notably by the state of Wei in the north, and by the states of Tsi and Liang in the south, and that had found its way to Korea, and thence to Japan. The Sui and T'ang, showing a far more liberal and tolerant attitude towards alien races and alien cultures, proceeded to create a new cosmopolitan fusion of all cultural elements.

Military campaigns opened new routes of travel and commerce. Products of Persia and India and their arts and religions were brought into China through Central Asia. Even traces of Graeco-Roman civilization from farther west were discernible. Above all, Buddhism played an important part in stimulating the creation of a new culture as it brought not only its tenets and creeds but also the music, arts and learning of the countries which were situated along its long road to China. Thus, contact with the Sui and T'ang meant that Japan was able to be in touch with the rest of the world as far as was possible at that time.

The Sui dynasty, which fell in less than 30 years, was followed by the T'ang dynasty, under which the new civilization continued to make swift strides toward its consummation and usher in the golden age of China. Such a brilliant cultural progress could not have been achieved without political and economic stability. Naturally, attention was first focussed upon the centralization of power with a view to reuniting the country that had suffered so long from being a house divided. In order to execute this policy, men of talent were required to serve in various Government posts. Accordingly, an elaborate system of civil service examinations was inaugurated. Something like a socialization of land was also adopted, to ensure revenue from taxation and to put national finance upon a solid basis. The so-called ‘Land-allotment Law’ which was promulgated in this connection was designed to render plastic the private title to immovable property and to effect wider and more equitable distribution by prohibiting perpetual ownership and forestalling unrestricted expansion of large estates. It was these and other laws and institutions of the early T'ang that supplied Japan with valuable models and examples.

Centralization of power was also one of the crying needs of Japan for which the country with its patriarchal system headed by the Imperial House had long been prepared. The principle of government by a central authority was already there, deep-rooted like a religious faith in the minds of the people. What was necessary was to remove the noxious incrustations of later centuries that had obstructed its operation. Consequently, in Japan the desired reform was accomplished far more smoothly and thoroughly than in China. The first task of the reformers was the elimination of the extraordinary political powers and economic privileges enjoyed by the great clans which had grown semi-independent of the Imperial House, and of which the Soga family was the most powerful, arrogant and unscrupulous. In the 4th year of the Empress Kōgyoku's reign (645) the Soga usurpers were put to death, Emishi, the father, at his home and Iruka, the son, in the Council Hall of the Palace. The heroes of this historic drama which paved the way for the Taika Reform, were the Prince Naka-no-ōé (later, the Emperor Tenji) and Kamako (later, Fujiwara Kamatari) of the priestly clan of Nakatomi. In the same year the system of eras was established, to the first of which the name Taika was given. Hence the name of the series of reforms which were begun with that year.

Thus the first obstacle to the proposed reform was removed, but the real work still lay ahead. After having disposed of the obnoxious clan system, what new order was to be set up in its place? What steps were to be taken to facilitate the transition from the old order to the new? These were large and difficult problems. However, judging from the manner in which the Prince embarked upon a series of innovations immediately after destroying the Soga family, it may be that his programme had been carefully formulated in advance in consultation with Kamatari and other advisers. Be that as it may, the principal features of the reform were as follows. All free citizens, instead of being left under the control of their clan chief, were made subject to, and protected by, the Central Government. All lands were turned over to the Government and re-distributed among individuals according to their family standing, their services to the state, and their needs of a livelihood. The country was newly divided into provinces, provinces into districts, and local administration was put in the hands of officials appointed by the Central Government. Hereditary office-holding was considerably curbed to make room for the appointment of the most talented to government posts. Such drastic innovations were bound to be attended by profound and alarming social changes. Practical statesmanship was obliged to face the question of how to adjust to the new age the old forces that still remained unextinguished. The Government instituted a new system of court ranks and grades and conferred various caps and titles upon persons of distinguished lineage, or appointed sons of great families to offices and provided them with emoluments from the national treasury, in an attempt to compensate the clans for the loss of their former powers and prosperity. Although such measures tended necessarily to obscure the principle underlying the socialization of land or the mobilization of the country's best talents, the prevailing spirit of progress was not so weak as to be checked by mere compromises of this kind. Those nobles without ability, although some out of sheer discontent offered a feeble resistance, had no alternative but to follow the road of steady decline, while new forces with a new spirit gained ascendancy and proceeded to build up a new Japan. All such innovations, of course, are bound to be attended with excesses. As time passed the new order disclosed its maladjustment with reality at various points: the Reform of Taika had to be modified and revised in many ways according to the actual conditions of the country. The earlier part of the Manyō age, i. e. the three decades from 673, when the Emperor Temmu moved the court to Asuka, to 710 when the capital was established at Nara by the Empress Gemmyō, was a period of political experiment and innovation. It was in the next 50 years, the later Manyō age, that the Reform of Taika was brought to a stage of completion, and this period coincides with the reign of the T'ang emperor Hsuantsung under whom China reached the zenith of her civilization.

As for the new Japan born of the Taika Reform, its most conspicuous aspect was a deep and pervading devotion to the Throne and the thorough consolidation of its authority. In a way, of course, this was nothing new either in fact or in idea, since the Imperial House as political centre was a thing as old as Japan itself. What was new was the free and untrammelled operation of the old principle now that it had been embodied in a proper political frame-work. The common people throughout the land, delivered from the control of intermediate powers, rejoiced in the direct rule of the Imperial House. The newly-awakened sense of loyalty in all its freshness and fullness may be perceived on almost every page of the Manyōshū. It was a joyful devotion arising from the close relationship between sovereign as parent and subjects as children—a relationship based upon the idea of a great family-state, which was then so forcibly projected upon the national consciousness. The clan system was not destroyed, but refined and elevated. Each clan, rising above its selfish interests, re-discovered its raison-d'être in the light of its obligations to the Imperial House. The clansman realized his responsibility to uphold the reputation of his ancestors and strove to live and act accordingly, as may be readily seen from the works of the poets of the Ōtomo clan. This moral awakening was not confined to great families alone: that even the humblest people in the provinces were animated by a noble spirit of loyalty is amply demonstrated by the poems of the frontier-guards.

Centralization of power required the maintenance of close contact between the capital and the provinces. For purposes of efficient local administration it was necessary to construct new roads and to develop a courier service, posts, ports and other facilities for travel and communication. The growing intercourse with the capital meant for the provinces a gradual elevation of their culture and living standards. Moreover, with the firm establishment of internal order and security, and the enhancement of the Government's power and prestige, the borders of the empire were extended into remoter regions occupied by untamed tribes such as the Yezo in northern provinces or the Hayato in south-eastern Kyūshū. Thus, the Manyō age was one of unprecedented cultural progress and political expansion. Viewed from the present day, what was then actually accomplished appears quite small in scale, but its significance is to be discovered in the temper of the Manyō man in the course of this expansion and growth. An exuberant enthusiasm, a buoyant spirit and a highly imaginative and susceptible mind gave to his emotional life a refreshing and colourful glow, as of the dawning sky, and produced this rich crop of poetry. That there are so many fine poems of travel is but an indication of the pioneering nature of the age.

Places which had an important bearing on the Manyō poems are, with the exception of the metropolitan area surrounding the capital, more or less outlying provinces, such as Izumo, Iwami, Koshi, Hitachi, of which the last three are associated respectively with Hitomaro, Yakamochi, and Mushimaro. The island of Tsukushi, which recalls the names of Tabito and Okura, has a wider significance; it invites our attention to Japan's foreign relations at that time and their influence upon the life of the nation.

The Asiatic continent was not only the motherland of a new culture, with which Japan had to keep on good terms, but also a conceivable enemy against which she had to make military preparations to defend herself. Thus, the Government General of the Dazaifu in northern Kyūshū, which was charged with foreign affairs and the local administration of the island, was also a military centre directing the frontier-guards garrisoned along the coast. Numerous officials plied back and forth along the way between the capital and the Dazaifu. The soldiers were obliged to spend long years at forlorn outposts on islands or capes far from their homes in Eastland: embassies despatched to Shiragi (a Korean state in the south-east of the peninsula) or to China sometimes passed through the Dazaifu before they set out on their perilous journeys across the ocean. The envoys to Po-hai (in Manchuria), it should also be mentioned, departed from the port of Tsuruga on the Japan Sea.

The sea journey was fraught with dangers, and all the more poignant was the sorrow of leave-takings and the longing for home. It was due to these circumstances that the Manyō age produced hosts of sea poets, such as are encountered nowhere else in Japanese literature; and the poems by members of the Embassy to Shiragi found in Book XV (Nos. 738-763) afford a most conspicuous instance of this. On the other hand, there were in the Nara Period not a few foreigners who came to Japan on their own account, like the ‘Brahmin Prelate,’ who came from India, with an Annamese priest Buttetsu, or Abbot Ganjin of China who arrived as a blind man after a series of trying hardships at sea, or the nun Rigan (Nos. 388-9) who immigrated from Shiragi and spent the rest of her life in modest seclusion as a guest of the Ōtomo family.

The fruits of this intercourse were many and varied, rich and dazzling. Not only religion and learning were imported, but also Buddhist sculpture and architecture, together with their auxiliary arts and crafts. These gave Japan temples and palaces of unheard-of splendour and grandeur. Musical instruments, like flutes, drums, gongs and cymbals brought from India, Central Asia, China and Korea sounded, as it were, the sweet music of the Land of Bliss. There arrived cargoes of rare treasures and articles of exquisite beauty and workmanship, such as may be seen to-day in the Shōsō-in (Nara), where have been preserved under imperial seal the personal belongings of the Emperor Shōmu. No wonder then that on this new rich soil poetry blossomed like flowers in spring. It is rather surprising that the Manyōshū contains comparatively few allusions to these articles of alien cultures and civilizations, but we should not overlook the rôle they had played in creating the necessary atmosphere for an efflorescence of poetry. It is not difficult to imagine, for instance, with what wonderment, with what ebullition of enthusiasm and joy the Manyō men hailed the dedication of the Great Buddha of the Tōdai-ji temple, in 752, which was performed with great pomp and magnificence.

The Manyō age naturally fostered the growth of cities. The immemorial custom of removing the court at each change of reign was broken, and Nara remained the capital for seven successive reigns. There may have been many reasons for this, but the growth of the city's population, the permanence of its various establishments, the importance of its trade and industry, were no doubt some of the most important considerations against the transference of the court. At that time Nara was a great metropolis, four miles long and more than three miles wide, with its imperial palaces and official mansions, its beautiful temples and towers, and its broad avenues planted with willows and orange-trees. The city had two markets—one on the east side, the other on the west. Money economy was beginning to prevail, and trade was steadily expanding. Poems with reference to commerce (e. g. No. 885) which are occasionally found in our Anthology are the reflections of yet another aspect of this new age.


The Manyō man lived in a world peopled by multitudes of gods and spirits, genii and fairies. And it is noteworthy that despite the wide acceptance of Confucianism and Buddhism, almost all the gods whom he sang, or who fed the well-spring of his lyric inspiration, were purely Japanese. They were gods of the indigenous cult which was named Shintō, or the Way of the Gods, in contradistinction to Buddhism.

There is here no need of attempting to explore the whole field of Shintō mythology. So far as the Manyōshū is concerned, it suffices that on the one hand there were the spirits, which had survived from the remote past in folklore, and which still affected daily life; and on the other, those whose influence was steadily rising as gods of the clan or nation. When analyzed historically, it will be seen that the Manyō idea in this connection was really an admixture and fusion of concepts which had different origins and which were in various stages of development. There were mysterious powers which moved and had their being in nature but which were too vaguely felt to be personified: lands and provinces, mountains and rivers, trees and herbs, and even human acts such as speech, were believed to be endowed with spirits, and as such were made objects of reverence or fear. There were gods possessing full personalities, namely the ancestors of the Imperial House and of various clans, the patrons of arts and industries, the tutelary deities of communities and the spirits of nature. Thus, individual objects of nature in their various capacities, sometimes as mediums through which gods manifested themselves to man, sometimes as gods in themselves, and sometimes as divine property or demesne, occupied their respective places in the religious life of the nation. The practice of taboo, charm and divination, so frequently alluded to in the Manyōshū, points unmistakably to a belief in the mysterious powers of the first category. Belief in gods of the second category in all its simplicity and naivety is illustrated in the poems of the ‘Three Hills’ (Nos. 9-10), although similar cases of the deification of mountains or districts are to be met with frequently throughout the Anthology. The spirits of nature, such as storm and thunder, fire and water, seem to occupy an intermediate place between the first and second categories. The transition from the second to the third is exemplified in Tatsutahiko—the deity who ruled the wind. Finally there were gods conceived as personalities. This concept, which has all the other feelings for the supernatural as its background and as its intrinsic element, is best embodied in the ancestral gods. It is this concept which developed as the central idea, purifying, assimilating and unifying all other beliefs, and whose growth was parallel with the progress of the political unification of the country. The Goddess Amaterasu—the ancestral deity of the Imperial House—was the chief guardian of agriculture, as well as the supreme god of heaven and earth. Consequently all the gods of heaven and earth and all the ancestral gods of clans were gradually systematized into a cult on the basis of communal and national life. It is, therefore, most natural that the ‘eight hundred myriad gods’ came to form a pantheon with the Goddess Amaterasu as its central figure.

Now how did the Manyō man seek to communicate with his deities? Generally in worshipping his god, he set in the earth before the altar a sacred wine-jar filled with saké brewed with special rites of purification; hung up mirrors and beads on the sacred posts; tied his shoulders with a cord of -fibre, presented the sacred nusa, ‘with the sakaki branch fresh from the inmost hill’ (No. 386), and bending on his knees, recited his litany (norito). The greatest impediment to his prayer reaching the god was ‘uncleanliness’ of body and mind. He did not therefore neglect to redeem himself in the eyes of his deity by performing the rites of ablution (misogi) and purification (harai) (No. 803). It was his ideal of life that he should keep himself clean in body and soul, and in constant communion with his gods, to obtain their protection and thereby live and work in a happy world.

Gods were worshipped either in supplication or in thanksgiving. There were national feasts and communal feasts and those observed by individual households. Of...

(The entire section is 23067 words.)

Roy E. Teele (essay date 1965)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Problems in Translating the Manyoshu,” in Literature East and West, Vol. IX, No. 3, September, 1965, pp. 188-98.

[In the following essay, Teele critiques assorted translations of the Manyoshu, using many different verses to illustrate his conclusions.]

The Manyo Anthology or Anthology for a Thousand Ages is not a “new” book to Asian specialists, but it is unknown to many general readers who have some association with a term like “noh play.” Yet it is a magnificent work, and continued study and teaching of it have convinced me that it is one of the supreme collections of lyric poems in all world literature, with a...

(The entire section is 3678 words.)

Donald Keene (essay date 1969)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: A foreword to The Manyoshu: One Thousand Poems, Columbia University Press, 1965, pp. iii-viii.

[In the following excerpt, Keene presents a concise history of translations of the Manyoshu and praises the Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkokai version for its rendering of the poems into English.]

The first translations from the Manyōshū into a European language date back more than a century, well before Japan was opened to the West. One “envoy” (hanka) to a long poem was translated as early as 1834 by the celebrated German orientalist Heinrich Julius Klaproth (1783-1835). Klaproth, having journeyed to Siberia in pursuit of strange languages,...

(The entire section is 1888 words.)

Kenneth Yasuda (essay date 1972)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: A preface to Land of the Reed Plains: Ancient Japanese Lyrics from the “Manyoshu,” Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1972, pp. 7-14.

[In the following excerpt, Yasuda offers an overview of the Manyoshu and explains what sets it apart from other Japanese poetry anthologies.]

The Manyoshu is the oldest, largest, and greatest anthology of Japanese poetry, one which ranks, especially in the pure quality of its lyricism, among the masterpieces of world literature. Its title has been variously translated as Collection of Myriad Leaves or, probably with more accuracy, Collection for Ten Thousand Ages. It contains over four thousand poems of...

(The entire section is 1673 words.)

Edwin A. Cranston (essay date 1978)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Five Poetic Sequences from the Man'yoshu,” in Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese, Vol. XIII, No. 1, April, 1978, pp. 5-34.

[In the following essay, Cranston offers literary analyses of several series of poems found in the Manyoshu.]

Roy Miller has brilliantly demonstrated in his Footprints of the Buddha2 that the arrangement of Japanese poetic sequences into artistically conceived patterns of association and progression antedates the era of the imperial anthologies. This paper is inspired by his work, and consists of a few footnotes to it. The sequences analyzed are drawn from the Man'yôshû, the eighth...

(The entire section is 8931 words.)

Graeme Wilson (essay date 1978)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Brief Note on the Manyoshu,” in Westerly, Vol. 23, No. 3, October, 1978, pp. 57-59.

[In the following essay, Wilson offers a brief overview of the Manyoshu, with remarks on the wide diversity of both the poets who contributed their works and the forms in which they chose to express themselves.]

The Manyoshu (The Myriad Leaves Collection), which Otomo no Yakamochi seems to have ceased compiling in 759, is the earliest surviving Japanese anthology of poems in Japanese. Its twenty books and 4516 poems do in fact include, either in whole or in part, older but lost anthologies of poetry in Japanese; while an earlier anthology of...

(The entire section is 1212 words.)

Graeme Wilson (essay date 1980)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry,” in Southern Review, Vol. XIII, No. 2, July, 1980, pp. 97-98.

[In the following essay, Wilson discusses Chinese influences on Japanese poetry.]

The Kokinwaka-shu (Collection of Ancient and Modern Japanese Poems), the first of 21 such Imperial Anthologies, was compiled at the order of the 60th Japanese Emperor, the Emperor Daigo, in 905. Its 1, 111 poems, arranged in 20 books and a small supplement, are almost all tanka (an unrhymed poem in 31 syllables organized in five units of 5:7:5:7:7 syllables), and only five poems in the whole Anthology are in longer form.


(The entire section is 873 words.)

Ian Hideo Levy (essay date 1981)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Ten Thousand Leaves, Princeton University Press, 1981, pp. 3-33.

[In the following excerpt, Levy describes the nature of Japanese poetry and profiles Hitomaro and other important contributors to the Manyoshu.]

The Ten Thousand Leaves is Japan's first anthology of poetry and, to over a millennium of critical opinion, the greatest. Like the works of Homer for the West, like The Book of Songs for China, it represents both the classical fount of poetry and a model of expressive energy never surpassed.

As its name—Man'yōshū, literally “the collection of ten thousand leaves”—suggests, this is the...

(The entire section is 8146 words.)

Harold Wright (essay date 1986)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to Ten Thousand Leaves: Love Poems from the “Manyoshu,” The Overlook Press, 1986, pp. 7-11.

[In the following excerpt, Wright comments on the prevalence of love poetry in the Manyoshu.]

The Manyōshū “needs no apologies,” Donald Keene writes in the introduction to his Anthology of Japanese Literature. “It is one of the world's great collections of poetry.”1 The title of this outstanding work, Manyōshū, translates literally as “A Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves,” but through implication Manyōshū can also mean “A Collection for Myriad Ages.” Compiled in its final form during the...

(The entire section is 1562 words.)