The Manyoshu, consisting of works created from 625-750s

compiled c. 758

4,516 poems, varying lengths and styles, though 4,200 are in the tanka (short verse) or the 31 syllable form (5-7-5-7-7), also known as the waka or "Japanese verse"


MYS poems feature "a simply clarity, a pure lyrical impulse"and can be seen as the first flowering of an artistic and literary sensibility in Japan. (See Ian Hideo Levy, The Ten Thousand Leaves, Princeton, 1981). Says Levy:

The Manyoshu is a chorus of lyrical voices born out of a tradition of ritual verbal art that stretches back into Japan's preliterate centuries, back into myth itself.


Another critic observes,

...I think we can say that the poems of the Manyoshu represent the sparks thrown off by the combustion of the human spirit in early times. The men and women who produced these poems probably had very little consciousness of literary genres and, in most cases, did not give any deep thought to what sort of social function their works might fulfill. They simply found themselves with a kind of rush of feeling that demanded expression. They were possessed by something that welled up from deep within them.Therefore, their works, although they may at times be rather naive and artless in expression, have a sense of realness and urgency about them--they are fashioned out of actual flesh and bone. (Ikeda Daisaku)


Poems, or uta in Japanese, are both public and private, personal utterances. The age of the MYS was the age of the establishment of the Japanese monarchy, so many of the early poems were public in nature, what Levy calls a "patterned, ritual evocation of the sacredness of the Yamato land," something it was incumbent on the monarch, who was also the high priest of Shinto, to ennuciate and proclaim.

SEE the PDF "Manyoshu.pdf" on WISE for a few selected poems

One of the better known "Manyo" poets is Kakinomoto-no-Hitomaro. Although not much is known about him, he wrote the following when Emperor Temmu ascended the throne after defeating his rivals in a brief conflict knows as the Jinshin War:

Our emperor,

a very god,

has turned the fields

where red steeds wandered

into his capital city.



Our Lord,

a very god,

has turned the marshes

where nested flocks of waterfowl

into his capital city.


But he also composed more personal poems of longing like:

In the autumn mountains

The colored leaves are falling

If I could hold them back,

I could still see her.


This morning I will not

Comb my hair.

It has lain

Pillowed in the hands of my lover.


The colored leaves

Have hidden the paths

Of the autumn mountain.

How can I find my girl,

Wandering on ways I do not know?


Or, when ending a long poem (choka) on the death of his wife, he writes,

I struggled up here,

kicking the rocks part,

but it did no good;

my wife, whom I thought

was of this world,

is ash.


It is standard to regard the Man'yōshū as a particularly Japanese work. This does not mean that the poems and passages of the collection differed starkly from the scholarly standard (in Yakamochi's time) of Chinese literature and poetics. Certainly many entries of the Man'yōshū have a continental tone, earlier poems having Confucian or Taoist themes and later poems reflecting on Buddhist teachings. Yet, the Man'yōshū is singular, even in comparison with later works, in choosing primarily Ancient Japanese themes, extolling Shintō virtues of forthrightness ( makoto?) and virility (masuraoburi). In addition, the language of many entries of the Man'yōshū exerts a powerful sentimental appeal to readers:

[T]his early collection has something of the freshness of dawn. [...] There are irregularities not tolerated later, such as hypometric lines; there are evocative place names and [pillow words (枕詞 makurakotoba?)]; and there are evocative exclamations such as kamo, whose appeal is genuine even if incommunicable. In other words, the collection contains the appeal of an art at its pristine source with a romantic sense of venerable age and therefore of an ideal order since lost.[3]



Toward the Kokinshu

So, the scene is set even in the MYS for Japanese poetry to come full-circle, from a fresh, naive, ritual expression, to a specifically aesthetic vision outside the boundaries of ritual. (Levy) A century and a half after the appearence of the MYS, in the early 900s, much had changed both politically and linguistically in Japan; the poetic sensibility had evolved to be more self-conscious, more refined and more complex in its subjectiveness.

In other words, poetic truth as it comes to be expressed in the Kokinshu (905)--the next major poetic anthology--is not so much something "out there" that poets proclaim in public, but more a construct of the poet's thoughts and emotions, what the poet him or herself articulates the truth to be. So, in this sense, it is a fairly "modern" style of poetic sensibility. At the least, it is something with which we moderns can feel fairly comfortable.