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Geisha Culture and Arts for Use at

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The Manyoshu - Japanese Poetry

(You may see a number of different spellings as this is translated to English - for instance Man'yosho, Man'yoshu, Manyoshiu...)

The anthology, Manyoshu, "The Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves", attributed to Otomo no Yakamochi is a compilation of 4,516 poems written around 759 A.D.

The significance of the Manyoshu is that it is the first collection of poems of Japan and also the first attempt to use Chinese characters to phonetically represent Japanese language.

The writing of the Manyoshu, manyogana would evolve into katakana and hiragana scripts that would be used in the modern Japanese language.

The impact of the Manyoshu is still in effect as many Japanese still quote bits and pieces of it everyday.

The majority of the poems in the Manyoshu follow one of two styles...the choka or long poem usually had alternate lines of 5 and 7 sounds followed by a line of 7 sounds - example:

shirogane mo

kuganemo tama mo

nani sen ni

masareru takara

koni shikame yamo

neither silver

nor gold, precious stones

any value at all


treasure of children


and the tanka a short poem of 35 sounds in 5 lines of 5, 7, 5, 7, and 7 sounds, example:

thoughts of her

unendurable, I go there . . .

the winter night's

river-wind is chill

and plovers are crying

--Ki no Tsurayuki (approx 900 A.D.).

The major contributor to the anthology was Kakinomoto no Hitomaro. The Manyoshu holds 474 of his works and although he is one of the most famous of Japanese poets, practically nothing is known of his life.

Japanese poetry was different from European poetry of the same time frame in a few ways.

  • First of all in length. There were no epic poems like, The Iliad, for instance.
  • Also political and philosophical poems were absent.
  • Dramatic poems were not in existence in Japanese literature until the 14th Century.
  • Japanese poems were lyrical, emotional and what we would call epigrams.
  • An epigram is a short poem that often ends with an unexpected twist or witty statement.
  • The Japanese poems spoke of love, homesickness, the beauties of nature, the dead and lamentations over life's uncertainties.
  • Japanese verse had no rhyme and vowels were all the same length.
  • What distinguished it from prose is that it followed a pattern in terms of the principle sounds of the language.

This link takes you to Man'yoshiu - Best 100 - if you click on the verses you will find translations of deep, heart-felt poetry of the ages.

Please take some time to explore this wonderful site for at the end of this lesson there is an assignment that refers to it.

–œ —t W •S ‘I

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