The Manyôshû and Kokinshû Poetry Collections

The two great poetry collections of the classical period in Japan are the Manyôshû and Kokinshû. The Manyôshû, compiled in the seventh century, is the earliest existing anthology of poems and includes both long and short forms. The Kokinshû, compiled from the eighth to tenth centuries, was the first collection of poems of the short form, called waka (or tanka), the thirty-one syllable classical poetic form. The Kokinshû provided the standard of poetic knowledge for educated people and waka became the model poetic form for the next 1,000 years.

Poems from the Manyôshû

Since in Karu lived my wife,
I wished to be with her to my heart's content;
But I could not visit her constantly
Because of so many watching eyes —
Men would know of our troth,
Had I sought her too often.
So our love remained secret like a rock-pent pool;
I cherished her in my heart,
Looking to after-time when we should be together,
And lived secure in my trust
As one riding a great ship.
Suddenly there came a messenger
Who told me she was dead —
Was gone like a yellow leaf of autumn
Dead as the day dies with the setting sun,
Lost as the bright moon is lost behind the cloud
Alas, she is no more, whose soul
Was bent to mine like the bending seaweed. (1)

Waka Poems from the Kokinshû

I thought to see whether I could do without you.
I cannot tell of the longing, even in jest. (2)

Autumn leaves which fall in distant mountains
Are damasks worn in the darkness of the night. (3)

These mountain cherries with no one to look upon them:
Might they not bloom when all others have fallen? (4)

(1) Pleasures of Japanese Literature, translated by Donald Keene (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 29-30.
(2) Anonymous, Kokinshû 1025.
(3) Ki no Tsurayuki, Kokinshû 297.
(4) Ise, Kokinshû 68.

Discussion Questions

  1. How do the poems from the Manyôshû and Kokinshû compare in length, tone, and subject matter? Write down your observations.
  2. Which collection's poems uses language that is more indirect?
  3. From your study of waka poetry, what qualities do you think were valued in the aristocratic society of classical Japan?
  4. In the Manyôshû poem, the writer compares his wife's love for him to "bending seaweed." How do the metaphors used in Japanese poetry reflect characteristics of Japanese society and geography? Can you think of metaphors used in English that reflect Western society or geography?