The Man'yōshū (万葉集, Japanese pronunciation: [maɰ̃joꜜːɕɯː], literally "Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves", but see § Name below) is the oldest extant collection of Japanese waka (poetry in Classical Japanese),[a] compiled sometime after AD 759 during the Nara period. The anthology is one of the most revered of Japan's poetic compilations. The compiler, or the last in a series of compilers, is today widely believed to be Ōtomo no Yakamochi, although numerous other theories have been proposed. The chronologically last datable poem in the collection is from AD 759 (No. 4516[1]). It contains many poems from much earlier, many of them anonymous or misattributed (usually to well-known poets), but the bulk of the collection represents the period between AD 600 and 759. The precise significance of the title is not known with certainty.

A replica of Man'yōshū poem No. 8, by Nukata no Ōkimi

The collection is divided into twenty parts or books; this number was followed in most later collections. The collection contains 265 chōka (long poems), 4,207 tanka (short poems), one tan-renga (short connecting poem), one bussokusekika (a poem in the form 5-7-5-7-7-7; named for the poems inscribed on the Buddha's footprints at Yakushi-ji in Nara), four kanshi (Chinese poems), and 22 Chinese prose passages. Unlike later collections, such as the Kokin Wakashū, there is no preface.

The Man'yōshū is widely regarded as being a particularly unique 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 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.[2]


A page from the Man'yōshū

The literal translation of the kanji that make up the title Man'yōshū (万 — 葉 — 集) is "ten thousand — leaves — collection".

The principal interpretations, according to the twentieth-century scholar Sen'ichi Hisamatsu [ja], are (i) a book that collects a great many poems,[3] (ii) a book for all generations,[3] and (iii) a poetry collection that uses a large volume of paper.[3]

Of these, supporters of (i) can be further divided into (a) those who interpret the middle character as "words" (koto no ha, lit. "leaves of speech"), thus giving "ten thousand words", i.e. "many waka",[3] including Sengaku,[4] Shimokōbe Chōryū [ja],[5] Kada no Azumamaro[5] and Kamo no Mabuchi,[5] and (b) those who interpret the middle character as literally referring to leaves of a tree, but as a metaphor for poems,[5] including Ueda Akinari,[5] Kimura Masakoto [ja],[5] Masayuki Okada (岡田正之),[5] Torao Suzuki [ja],[5] Kiyotaka Hoshikawa [ja] and Susumu Nakanishi.[5]

Furthermore, (ii) can be divided into: (a) it was meant to express the intention that the work should last for all time[5] (proposed by Keichū,[5][b] and supported by Kamochi Masazumi [ja],[5] Inoue Michiyasu [ja],[5] Yoshio Yamada,[5] Noriyuki Kojima [ja][5] and Tadashi Ōkubo [ja][5]); (b) it was meant to wish for long life for the emperor and empress[5] (Shinobu Origuchi[5]); and (c) it was meant to indicate that the collection included poems from all ages[5] (proposed by Yamada[5]).

(iii) was proposed by Yūkichi Takeda in his Man'yōshū Shinkai jō (萬葉集新解上),[5] but Takeda also accepted (ii); his theory that the title refers to the large volume of paper used in the collection has also not gained much traction among other scholars.[5]


The collection is customarily divided into four periods. The earliest dates to prehistoric or legendary pasts, from the time of Emperor Yūryaku (r. c. 456 – c. 479) to those of the little documented Emperor Yōmei (r. 585–587), Saimei (r. 594–661), and finally Tenji (r. 668–671) during the Taika Reforms and the time of Fujiwara no Kamatari (614–669). The second period covers the end of the seventh century, coinciding with the popularity of Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, one of Japan's greatest poets. The third period spans 700 – c. 730 and covers the works of such poets as Yamabe no Akahito, Ōtomo no Tabito and Yamanoue no Okura. The fourth period spans 730–760 and includes the work of the last great poet of this collection, the compiler Ōtomo no Yakamochi himself, who not only wrote many original poems but also edited, updated and refashioned an unknown number of ancient poems.


The vast majority of the poems of the Man'yōshū were composed over a period of roughly a century,[c] with scholars assigning the major poets of the collection to one or another of the four "periods" discussed above. Princess Nukata's poetry is included in that of the first period (645–672),[6] while the second period (673–701) is represented by the poetry of Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, generally regarded as the greatest of Man'yōshū poets and one of the most important poets in Japanese history.[7] The third period (702–729)[8] includes the poems of Takechi no Kurohito, whom Donald Keene called "[t]he only new poet of importance" of the early part of this period,[9] when Fujiwara no Fuhito promoted the composition of kanshi (poetry in classical Chinese).[10] Other "third period" poets include: Yamabe no Akahito, a poet who was once paired with Hitomaro but whose reputation has suffered in modern times;[11] Takahashi no Mushimaro, one of the last great chōka poets, who recorded a number of Japanese legends such as that of Ura no Shimako;[12] and Kasa no Kanamura, a high-ranking courtier who also composed chōka but not as well as Hitomaro or Mushimaro.[13] But the most prominent and important poets of the third period were Ōtomo no Tabito, Yakamochi's father and the head of a poetic circle in the Dazaifu,[14] and Tabito's friend Yamanoue no Okura, possibly an immigrant from the Korean kingdom of Paekche, whose poetry is highly idiosyncratic in both its language and subject matter and has been highly praised in modern times.[15] Yakamochi himself was a poet of the fourth period (730–759),[16] and according to Keene he "dominated" this period.[17] He composed the last dated poem of the anthology in 759.[18]

Linguistic significanceEdit

In addition to its artistic merits the Man'yōshū is important for using one of the earliest Japanese writing systems, the cumbersome man'yōgana.[19] Though it was not the first use of this writing system, which was also used in the earlier Kojiki (712),[20] it was influential enough to give the writing system its name: "the kana of the Man'yōshū".[21] This system uses Chinese characters in a variety of functions: their usual logographic sense; to represent Japanese syllables phonetically; and sometimes in a combination of these functions. The use of Chinese characters to represent Japanese syllables was in fact the genesis of the modern syllabic kana writing systems, being simplified forms (hiragana) or fragments (katakana) of the man'yōgana.[22]

The collection, particularly volumes 14 and 20, is also highly valued by historical linguists for the information it provides on early Old Japanese dialects.[23]


Julius Klaproth produced some early, severely flawed translations of Man'yōshū poetry. Donald Keene explained in a preface to the Nihon Gakujutsu Shinkō Kai edition of the Man'yōshū:

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, encountered some Japanese castaways, fishermen, hardly ideal mentors for the study of 8th century poetry. Not surprisingly, his translation was anything but accurate.[24]

In 1940, Columbia University Press published a translation created by a committee of Japanese scholars and revised by the English poet, Ralph Hodgson. This translation was accepted in the Japanese Translation Series of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).[25]


In premodern Japan, officials used wooden slips or tablets of various sizes, known as mokkan, for recording memoranda, simple correspondence, and official dispatches.[26] Three mokkan that have been excavated contain text from the Man'yōshū.[27][28][29][30] A mokkan excavated from an archaeological site in Kizugawa, Kyoto, contains the first 11 characters of poem 2205 in volume 10, written in Man'yōgana. It is dated between 750 and 780, and its size is 23.4 by 2.4 by 1.2 cm (9.21 by 0.94 by 0.47 in). Inspection with an infrared camera revealed other characters, suggesting that the mokkan was used for writing practice. Another mokkan, excavated in 1997 from the Miyamachi archaeological site in Kōka, Shiga, contains poem 3807 in volume 16. It is dated to the middle of the 8th century, and is 2 cm wide by 1 mm thick. Lastly, a mokkan excavated at the Ishigami archaeological site in Asuka, Nara, contains the first 14 characters of poem 1391, in volume 7, written in Man'yōgana. Its size is 9.1 by 5.5 by 0.6 cm (3.58 by 2.17 by 0.24 in), and it is dated to the late 7th century, making it the oldest of the three.

Plant species citedEdit

More than 150 species of grasses and trees are mentioned in approximately 1,500 entries of the Man'yōshū. A Man'yō shokubutsu-en (万葉植物園) is a botanical garden that attempts to contain every species and variety of plant mentioned in the anthology. There are dozens of these gardens around Japan. The first Man'yō shokubutsu-en opened in Kasuga Shrine in 1932.[31][32]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ It is not the oldest anthology of Japanese poetry, since the Kaifūsō, an anthology of Japanese kanshi—poetry in Classical Chinese—predates it by at least several years.
  2. ^ Keichū also recognized (i) as a possibility.[5]
  3. ^ A small number of poems are attributed to figures from the ancient past, such as Emperor Yūryaku.



  1. ^ Satake (2004: 555)
  2. ^ Earl Miner; Hiroko Odagiri; Robert E. Morrell (1985). The Princeton Companion to Classical Japanese Literature. Princeton University Press. pp. 170–171. ISBN 978-0-691-06599-1.
  3. ^ a b c d Hisamatsu 1973, p. 16.
  4. ^ Hisamatsu 1973, pp. 16–17.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w Hisamatsu 1973, p. 17.
  6. ^ Keene, pp. 92–102.
  7. ^ Keene, pp. 102–118.
  8. ^ Keene, pp. 118–146.
  9. ^ Keene, p. 119.
  10. ^ Keene, pp. 118–119.
  11. ^ Keene, pp. 123–127.
  12. ^ Keene, pp. 127–128.
  13. ^ Keene, pp. 128–130.
  14. ^ Keene, pp. 130–138.
  15. ^ Keene, pp. 138–146.
  16. ^ Keene, pp. 146–157.
  17. ^ Keene, p. 146.
  18. ^ Keene, p. 89.
  19. ^ Shuichi Kato; Don Sanderson (15 April 2013). A History of Japanese Literature: From the Manyoshu to Modern Times. Routledge. p. 24. ISBN 978-1-136-61368-5.
  20. ^ Roy Andrew Miller (1967). The Japanese Language. Tuttle. p. 32., cited in Peter Nosco (1990). Remembering Paradise: Nativism and Nostalgia in Eighteenth-century Japan. Harvard Univ Asia Center. p. 182. ISBN 978-0-674-76007-3.
  21. ^ Bjarke Frellesvig (29 July 2010). A History of the Japanese Language. Cambridge University Press. p. 14. ISBN 978-1-139-48880-8.
  22. ^ Peter T. Daniels (1996). The World's Writing Systems. Oxford University Press. p. 212. ISBN 978-0-19-507993-7.
  23. ^ Uemura 1981:25–26.
  24. ^ Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkōkai. (1965). The Man'yōshū, p. iii.
  25. ^ Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkōkai, p. ii.
  26. ^ Piggott, Joan R. (Winter 1990). "Mokkan: Wooden Documents from the Nara Period". Monumenta Nipponica. Sophia University. 45 (4): 449–450. doi:10.2307/2385379. JSTOR 2385379.
  27. ^ "7世紀の木簡に万葉の歌 奈良・石神遺跡、60年更新". Asahi. 2008-10-17. Archived from the original on October 20, 2008. Retrieved 2008-10-31.
  28. ^ "万葉集:3例目、万葉歌木簡 編さん期と一致--京都の遺跡・8世紀後半". Mainichi. 2008-10-23. Retrieved 2008-10-31.[dead link]
  29. ^ "万葉集:万葉歌、最古の木簡 7世紀後半--奈良・石神遺跡". Mainichi. 2008-10-18. Archived from the original on October 20, 2008. Retrieved 2008-10-31.
  30. ^ "万葉集:和歌刻んだ最古の木簡出土 奈良・明日香". Asahi. 2008-10-17. Retrieved 2008-10-31.[dead link]
  31. ^ "Manyo Shokubutsu-en(萬葉集に詠まれた植物を植栽する植物園)" (in Japanese). Nara: Kasuga Shrine. Retrieved 2009-08-05.
  32. ^ "Man'y Botanical garden(萬葉植物園)" (PDF) (in Japanese). Nara: Kasuga Shrine. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-10-05. Retrieved 2009-08-05.

Works citedEdit

Further readingEdit

Texts and translations

External linksEdit