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A History of the Japanese People by F. Brinkley

The Manyo shu Collection of a Myriad Leaves



Having no books of her own, Japan naturally borrowed freely from the rich mine of Chinese literature. By the tutors of the Imperial family, at the colleges of the capital, and in the provincial schools the classics constituted virtually the whole curriculum. The advantages of education were, however, enjoyed by a comparatively small element of the population. During the Nara epoch, it does not appear that there were more than five thousand students attending the schools and colleges at one time. The aim of instruction was to prepare men for official posts rather than to impart general culture or to encourage scientific research. Students were therefore selected from the aristocrats or the official classes only. There were no printed books; everything had to be laboriously copied by hand, and thus the difficulties of learning were much enhanced. To be able to adapt the Chinese ideographs skilfully to the purposes of written Japanese was a feat achieved by comparatively few. What the task involved has been roughly described in the opening chapter of this volume, and with what measure of success it was achieved may be estimated from the preface to the Records (Kojiki), written by Ono Yasumaro, from the Chronicles (Nihon Shoki) and from the Daiho Ritsu-ryo, which three works may be called the sole surviving prose essays of the epoch.

Much richer, however, is the realm of poetry. It was during the Nara

epoch that the first Japanese anthology, the Manyo-shu (Collection of a Myriad Leaves), was compiled. It remains to this day a revered classic and "a whole mountain of commentary has been devoted to the elucidation of its obscurities." [Chamberlain.] In the Myriad Leaves are to be found poems dating nominally from the reigns of Yuryaku and Nintoku, as well as from the days of Shotoku Taishi, but much more numerous are those of Jomei's era (629-641) and especially those of the Nara epoch. The compiler's name is not known certainly; he is believed to have been either Tachibana no Moroe or Otomo no Yakamochi. Old manuscripts and popular memory were the sources, and the verselets total 4496, in twenty volumes. Some make love their theme; some deal with sorrow; some are allegorical; some draw their inspiration from nature's beauties, and some have miscellaneous motives. Hitomaru, who flourished during the reign of the Empress Jito (690-697), and several of whose verses are to be found in the Myriad Leaves, has been counted by all generations the greatest of Japanese poets. Not far below him in fame is Akahito, who wrote in the days of Shomu (724-749). To the same century--the eighth--as the Manyo-shu, belongs the Kiraifu-so, & volume containing 120 poems in Chinese style, composed by sixty-four poets during the reigns of Temmu, Jito, and Mommu, that is to say, between 673 and 707. Here again the compiler's name is unknown, but the date of compilation is clear, November, 751.

From the fact that, while bequeathing to posterity only two national histories and a few provincial records (the Fudo-ki), the Nara epoch has left two anthologies, it will be inferred readily that the writing of poetry was a favourite pursuit in that age. Such, indeed, was the case. The taste developed almost into a mania. Guests bidden to a banquet were furnished with writing materials and invited to spend hours composing versicles on themes set by their hosts. But skill in writing verse was not merely a social gift; it came near to being a test of fitness for office.

"In their poetry above everything the Japanese have remained impervious to alien influences. It owes this conservation to its prosody. Without rhyme, without variety of metre, without elasticity of dimensions, it is also without known counterpart. To alter it in any way would be to deprive it of all distinguishing characteristics. At some remote date a Japanese maker of songs seems to have discovered that a peculiar and very fascinating rhythm is produced by lines containing 5 syllables and 7 syllables alternately. That is Japanese poetry (uta or tanka). There are generally five lines: the first and third consisting of 5 syllables, the second, fourth and fifth of 7, making a total of 31 in all. The number of lines is not compulsory: sometimes they may reach to thirty, forty or even more, but the alternation of 5 and 7 syllables is compulsory. The most attenuated form of all is the hokku (or haikai) which consists of only three lines, namely, 17 syllables. Necessarily the ideas embodied in such a narrow vehicle must be fragmentary. Thus it results that Japanese poems are, for the most part, impressionist; they suggest a great deal more than they actually express. Here is an example:

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