While reading early Japanese literature, it is apparent that poetry embedded within the prose is a significant part of the overall experience of the storylines. There are times at which, in the case of Ise Monogatari, it is apparent that the story, written in prose, is not the main focus of the entry. The poetry is a delicate form of self-expression that was the only form of expression in the time before fiction and journal entries. “The seeds of Japanese poetry lie in the human heart and grow into leaves of ten thousand words. Many things happen to the people of this world, and all they think and feel is given expression in description of things they see and hear. […] It is poetry which, without effort, moves heaven and earth, stirs the feelings of the invisible gods and spirits, smooths the relations of men and women, and calms the hearts of fierce warriors” (Rodd 35) The “leaves of ten thousand words” is in reference to the literal meaning of “Man'yōshū”, a very famous, large compilation of Japanese poems that has influenced many things following it.
The Man'yōshū is the earliest collection of Japanese waka known to the world containing more than 2,500 waka. Man'yōshū introduced its own form of writing, Man'yōgana, which was the stepping stone for the Japanese writing system to progress into the use of kana. Until that time, Chinese kanji were only used for their meaning, but Man'yōgana allowed for kanji to be used phonetically as well as semantically. This drastic change in the writing system helped move Japan forward in its creative texts away from Chinese influence.
Unlike English, the Japanese language uses a phonetic system, so in tanka and waka, where there are syllabic constraints, space must be used as wisely as possible. “The multi-meaning and dual functioning of many words in the waka create a density of allusions and puns which rarely exist in English poetry.” (35, Wang) Through the use of hiragana rather than kanji, the writer of the poem is able to generalize certain words, rather than give it one concrete meaning. The term for this in Japanese is kakekotoba, known as a “pivot word”. For example, “神” can be read as “kami” when written by itself and is interpreted as “god”, in a polytheistic sense. Similarly, “紙” and “髪” can also be read as “kami” but are interpreted as “paper” and “hair”, respectively. Rather than write it in kanji, if hiragana is used, “かみ” becomes a generic word that can be interpreted by the reader as they please. “Kami” is a very simple example of this—in many tanka, these types of puns can span between parts of speech, giving the poem yet another dimension. Through this complicated process that is exclusive to Japanese, the writer is able to play with words and further exemplify his skill at language to impress his intended audience. Kakekotoba greatly benefitted from the change in writing systems in Japan from the Chinese kanji to the use of kana.
In the case of Ise Monogatari, the poetry was first...