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The Manyoshu - Japan's greatest poems
The Manyoshu, loosely translated as "collection of ten-thousand leaves," is Japan's most famous compilation of poems. Although the title might imply that there are ten-thousand poems in the collection (if the "leaves" are to be taken as poems), there are in fact closer to 4,500 poems.
The poems are written using a number of different traditional formats. However, most of them are choka, or "long poems," and tanka, or "short poems." In all, there are 265 choka and 4,207 tanka in the Manyoshu. In order to give you an idea of how choka and tanka are written, see the below:
Yamato ni wa (5) murayama aredo (7) toriyorou (5) Ame-no-Kaguyama (7) noboritachi (5) kunimi o sureba (7) kunihara wa (5) keburi tachitatsu (7) unahara wa (5) kamame tachitatsu (7) umashi kuni (5) zo akizushima (6) Yamato no kuni wa (7)
Of many hills in the land of Yamato,
I climb heavenly Kagu Hill richly adorned with green foliage,
And stand on the summit to view my realm.
I see smoke rising on the open plain of land
And gulls taking off from the surface of the lake.
A splendid land, is this land of Yamato!
This is a choka. It has a syllabic structure of 5-7 (repeated at least twice) and then ends with 5-7-7 (or 5-6-7 in this case) To put it simply, they are long poems. They also tend to differ from the better known tanka in another way--their subject matter. Choka usually sing the praises of nature and of the emperor or nation, instead of addressing personal feelings.
Now here is a tanka:
iwashiro no (5) hamamatsu ga e wo (7) hikimusubi (5) masakiku araba (7) mata kaeri mimu (7)
I tied together branches
On Iwashiro Beach--
If fortune smiles upon me
I'll return and see them again
It only has one section of 5-7, repeated by 5-7-7. You could say that the tanka is just a shortest form of choka, since the structures are so similar. But you can also sense the more poignant tone of the writing, and although it is on a smaller scale than the choka, it hits a personal note. We know what this person is feeling, and we empathize with him.
The Manyoshu was compiled around the year 759. If you look at Japanese history, this was a time when Japan was just beginning to form its identity as a nation. Nara, in western Japan, was the capital of the country, and it had established itself as the center of culture and power. Japanese literature (which was written in Chinese characters at the time) was emerging as a way to express the national identity, and you could say that the Manyoshu is a record of this shift.
At this time in history, Japan still looked to China as the leader in culture, and thus literature. Therefore, the poems were divided into 20 books in the traditional Chinese style, and this may also be where the "10,000" in the title comes from. 10,000, written "man" or "ban," was a very special number in Chinese culture, signifying infinity. You will often see it referred to in East Asian culture. For example, the word "banzai" comes from "10,000 years" (long life to the emperor). Also, the Great Wall of China is know as "banri no chojo" in Japanese, or "wall of 10,000 li." (li was the ancient unit of measure in China).
There is a lot we can learn about Japan's history form the Manyoshu. It was written in a bright and untainted period in Japan's history that signified the dawn of its unique culture, and you can see it in the writing of the poems themselves. If you ever want to see how Japanese culture became what it is today, it is essential that you read the Manyoshu!