Man’yōshū and Kokinshū Hallmark of The Japanese Poetic Form

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The Man'yōshū can be interpreted as either “Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves” or “Collection for Ten Thousand Generations” was the first anthology of poetry written by Japanese poets. Its significance is captured by the dramatic title, as it has indeed endured for countless generations and influenced the whole of Japanese verse through history. Though the collection includes poems from the lower classes as well as “primitive” songs from centuries before, the contents of the twenty volumes are mostly courtly verses from the upper echelons of Japanese society (Brower 89).

The Man'yōshū was written in the mid-eighth century, during what is commonly referred to as the ancient period, compiled by Ōtomo no Yakamochi and often believed to be a personal collection. The historical and literary significance of the Man'yōshū cannot be underestimated, as it gives scholars the only window to ancient song and verse from the centuries surrounding when it was written. The text is written in man'yōgana, a script of Chinese characters made to fit the Japanese language, sometimes phonetically and sometimes semantically. Even so, the poems contained show very little influence from imported Chinese culture.

That being said, it is difficult to gauge its importance for the society of the time. As a private collection, it is most likely a mix of various poems collected according to compiler's taste, and may not have been well known at the time. The importance of the Man'yōshū as a foundation for the development of later poetic styles is clear, however. For example, most makurakotoba used through the Ancient Period and later centuries first appear in the Man'yōshū: for example, ashibiki, a pillow word for yama (mountain), first appears in a poem b...

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... of the Kokinshū as an artistic ideal for centuries to come.

While Ki no Tsurayuki states, he writing in the preface to his own anthology, that “Thus we fear the ear of the world and lack confidence in the heart of our poetry” (Wixted 47), it his clear that in spite of humble description, the compiler and his colleagues knew that their creation was a hallmark of the Japanese poetic form.

Works Cited

Brower, Robert, et al., ed. Japanese Court Poetry. Stanford University Press. Los Angeles: 1961.

Keene, Donald, ed. Anthology of Japanese Literature from the Earliest Era to the Mid- nineteenth Century. Grove Press, Inc. New York: 1955.

Rexroth, Kenneth, ed and trans. One Hundred Poems from the Japanese. Penguin. New York: 1955.

Wixted, John, et al., ed. Kokinshu: A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern. Princeton University Press. Boston: 1984.
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