Man'yōshū (万葉集 man'yōshū, "Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves") is the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry, compiled some time after 759 AD 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 believed to be Ōtomo no Yakamochi. The collection contains poems ranging from AD 347 (poems #85-89) through 759 (#4516), the bulk of them representing the period after 600. The precise significance of the title is not known with certainty.
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 tanrenga (short connecting poem), one bussokusekika (poems 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.
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 (真 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.
The collection is customarily divided into four periods. The earliest dates to prehistoric or legendary pasts, from the time of Yūryaku (r.?456–?479) to those of the little documented 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.
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