Manyoshu (Ten Thousand Leaves, Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Manyoshu (Ten Thousand Leaves, Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves)

Manyoshu (Ten Thousand Leaves, Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves) (ca. 759)

An artistic landmark of the Nara empire, the 20- book Manyoshu (Ten Thousand Leaves), a compilation of 4,500 poems, is Japan's most extensive and oldest extant imperial verse collection. Comparable to epigrams, PRAYERS, elegies, laments, and ballads, most of the entries are banka (threnodies), choka (rhymed lyrics), sedoka (conceits), tanka (odes), or waka (lyric poems) arranged chronologically by reign. The compilation begins with Emperor Tenji and lists Prince Otsu, Empress Jito, and the emperors Yuryaku, Mommu, and Jomei Temmu, thus forming a history of medieval Japan. Composed in ritual language in a hybrid form of Sino-Japanese character writing, the texts illustrate the influence of Chinese classicism on the Japanese literature written by Emperor Shomu's favorite poets, Yamabe no Akahito, Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, Sakanoe Iratsume, Princess Nukada, Yamanoue no Okura, and Otomo no Tabito. The star poet of the collection, Otomo Yakamochi (ca. 717-785), was a statesman, scholar, and the anthology's putative compiler in chief.

As a survey of Japan's first golden age, Manyoshu poetry reveals the essential order of court life through precise patterns of syllables that symbolize divine power over humankind and over the timeless natural landscape. Giving glimpses of life in the empire, the verses incorporate views of travelers, courtiers, monks, sentinels, commoners, housewives, courtesans, domestics, and lovers. A daring two-stage critique of imperial mismanagement, Yamanoue no Okura's elegy “A Question by a Poor Villager” (ca. 732) describes a sick peasant wrapped in a hemp quilt and lamenting his family's reduction to beggary. The answer, “A Reply by a Man in Destitute Poverty,” voices the despair of a ragged farmer whose family gathers by a cold hearth with an empty rice pot, and eludes the village headman, the imperial tax collector.

Because the Manyoshu comprises a compilation of the best poets of the era, a wide range of verses encompasses personal views of courtship protocols, ritual coitus, naming taboos, journeys, and life passages and ghosts. They include the intimate thoughts of men and women in loving embrace and the disquiet of mates sleeping alone. The most poignant lines depict the sorrow and selfimposed seclusion of royal widows after the deaths of emperors. The funereal verses console individual sorrow and soothe sufferers with the promise of recurrent cycles of NATURE, symbolized by sunrise and ocean tides. In similar fashion, travel songs refresh the traveler's memories of home and ward off fears of dying far from loved ones.



Bialock, David T. Eccentric Spaces, Hidden Histories:

Narrative, Ritual, and Royal Authority from The Chronicles of Japan to The Tale of the Heike. Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2007. Ebersole, Gary L. Ritual Poetry and the Politics of Death in

Early Japan. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989.

The Ten Thousand Leaves. Translated by Ian Hideo Levy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981.