Lessons in Classical Japanese Poetry 1: Early Man’yōshū

So this is the first of (hopefully) many posts to come that are about classical Japanese poetry and literature in general. Enjoy, be enlightened, puny mortals.


About the Man’yōshū:

What is it?

The Man’yōshū  (pronounced kinda like mahn-yoh-shoo) is the oldest extant collection of vernacular Japanese verse. What I mean by “vernacular” is that the poetry is by and large in Japanese, without any loan words from Chinese which are common in the language today.  Man’yōshū contains around 4,500 poems, and names 530 poets. There are over 4,000 tanka (短歌 tahn-kah “short poems”), 260 chōka (長歌 choh-kah “long poems”), 60 sedōka (旋頭歌 seh-doh-kah “head-repeating poems”), and a single bussokusekika (仏足石歌 adsfkjdajfkal;d; “Buddha’s footstone poem”). Of these 4 types of poems, the tanka is the most common and comes to be the predominant poetic form in Japanese poetry later. The other types are rarely seen in later centuries.

When is it? 

Man’yōshū is said to have been compiled over a long period of time by many different compilers, and its poems are said to date from about the mid-fourth century to the mid-eighth. The earlier dates aren’t verifiable, but most of the poetry in the collection dates from around 600 to 750 CE, which is still a very impressive century and a half.

Who cares?

No doubt, Man’yōshū is really old, and I don’t think it’s very much alluded to in later centuries (probably due to the fact that the writing system employed in the recording of Man’yōshū was indecipherable to most people). But from the collection we’ve been able to learn a great deal about ancient Japanese rituals, as well as see a Japanese poetic which is less stuffy and conventionalized than the tanka of the Kokinshū and Shinkokinshū collections, which are perhaps the best known of Japanese poetic anthologies. (This is not to imply that those collections aren’t worthy of their fame. They contain some superb poetry.)

Man’yōshū has some historical significance as well. It was part of a greater movement to consolidate political power by creating a history which legitimized the imperial lineage of Emperor Temmu. Temmu took the throne from Emperor Kōbun through victory in the Jinshin War of 672, and so he needed to legitimize his rule. How do you do that? Rewrite history, of course! The two histories Nihon shoki and Kojiki were also part of this political movement.

But perhaps most important to the modern reader, there are some damn fine poems in the collection. (At least, I hope I can convince you that there are.)


Poem 1:  The first poem I’ll show is actually the first poem in Man’yōshū, and is a poem of courtship. It is said to be written by Emperor Yūryaku, who presumably reigned during the second half of the fifth century. That he wrote this poem seems doubtful, but it is interesting in that it may give us some insight into courting rituals of the day. It’s a fairly straight-forward poem anyway.

Original Japanese (for those who know some Japanese):

籠(こ)もよ み籠持ち 堀串(ふくし)もよ み堀串持ち この丘に 菜摘ます兒(こ) 家聞かな 告(の)らさね そらみつ 大和の國は おしなべて われこそ居(を)れ しきなべて われこそ座(ま)せ われにこそは 告らめ 家をも名をも

Literal translation:

Oh basket,
pretty basket in hand,
Oh spade,
a fine spade you hold,
Fair maiden
picking greens upon this hill,
I would hear of your house.
Won’t you tell me?
Over all of Yamato
That fills the skies,
it is I who rules.
Over all the land,
it is I who reigns.
Tell me, maiden
Tell me your house
And tell me your name.

Modern day translation: Hey gurrrrl. Can I getcho numba?


Poem 2:  This next poem is a bit more interesting. It’s a poem recited at a kunimi (“land-viewing”) ritual that the emperor used to do. The purpose isn’t to survey the land in the conventional sense of. Rather, the ritual was at once a statement and display of the emperor’s power. The early Japanese world-view was very animistic, and there wasn’t really a distinction between the world of humans and nature and the world of the gods. Reciting poems such as that below was a way of appeasing the gods of the land and bringing prosperity.

Original Japanese:

大和には 群山(むらやま)あれど とりよろふ 天(あめ)の香具山(かぐやま) 登り立ち 国見をすれば 国原は 煙立ち立つ 海原は かまめ立ち立つ うまし国そ あくづ島 大和の国は


In Yamato
Are many mountains, but
heavenly Kaguyama,
covered in green,
Is the one I climb.
Looking upon the land,
Over the fields
Smoke rises, rises,
Over the field of the sea
The gulls rise, rise.
A magnificent land it is,
The dragonfly island
Of Yamato.*

*Yamato (yah-mah-toh) is an old term for Japan.


Poem 3:  I’ve saved the most interesting for last. This is a very famous poem in which Princess Nukata compares Spring and Autumn. It is the first bit of lyricism we really see in the collection.

Original Japanese:

冬ごもり 春さり来れば 鳴かざりし 鳥も来鳴(きな)きぬ 咲かざりし 花も咲けれど 山をしみ 入(い)りても取らず 草深(くさぶか)み 取りても見ず 秋山の 木(こ)の葉を見ては 黄葉(もみち)をば とりてそしのふ 青きをば 置きてそ嘆く そこし恨めし 秋山そ我(われ)は


When from its wintry bonds
Bursts forth the spring,
The birds that had suppressed their song
Fly forth and sing,
The flowers that kept their colors hidden
Bud and bloom!
Yet the mountain, thick with verdure,
I cannot enter, cannot take the flowers—
In the bulging grasses
I cannot feel nor see them.
Seeing the leaves
Of the autumn mountain—
I take up and revel in the beauty
Of the yellow flowers
Yet the sad green leaves
That must be left on the branches
Are indeed regrettable.
And after all, the fall must be my choice.

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