The Man'yōshū can be interpreted as either “Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves” or “Collection for Ten Thousand Generations” was the first anthology of poetry written by Japanese poets. Its significance is captured by the dramatic title, as it has indeed endured for countless generations and influenced the whole of Japanese verse through history. Though the collection includes poems from the lower classes as well as “primitive” songs from centuries before, the contents of the twenty volumes are mostly courtly verses from the upper echelons of Japanese society (Brower 89).
The Man'yōshū was written in the mid-eighth century, during what is commonly referred to as the ancient period, compiled by Ōtomo no Yakamochi and often believed to be a personal collection. The historical and literary significance of the Man'yōshū cannot be underestimated, as it gives scholars the only window to ancient song and verse from the centuries surrounding when it was written. The text is written in man'yōgana, a script of Chinese characters made to fit the Japanese language, sometimes phonetically and sometimes semantically. Even so, the poems contained show very little influence from imported Chinese culture.
That being said, it is difficult to gauge its importance for the society of the time. As a private collection, it is most likely a mix of various poems collected according to compiler's taste, and may not have been well known at the time. The importance of the Man'yōshū as a foundation for the development of later poetic styles is clear, however. For example, most makurakotoba used through the Ancient Period and later centuries first appear in the Man'yōshū: for example, ashibiki, a pillow word for yama (mountain), first appears in a poem by Kakinomoto no Hitomaro (Rexroth xv). Also, shorter forms such as the thirty-one-syllable tanka play less of a role in the Man'yōshū, and appear later in Japanese history as poetic forms changed in popularity; longer forms such as the chōka or nagauta comprise more of the collection (Keene 33).
Unlike the Man'yōshū, the Kokinshū has a preface, written by the compiler and poet, Ki no Tsurayuki, who made the collection in the early tenth century imperial order, though the two were the only extant in-Japanese compilations up to that time. The title, which translates as “Collection of Ancient and Modern Poems,” reveals the relationship between this collection of poems and the Man'yōshū, as the compilation was meant to act as a new declaration of Japanese poetic prowess. The Kokinshū lacks the simple, straightforward declarative tone of its predecessor, with more subtle, delicate verse; the collection also shows the beginning of Buddhist influence (Rexroth xvii). It also exhibits an obvious fixation on the changing of the seasons, a theme highly prized by Heian enthusiasts of poetry, which describes most of the aristcracy. Moreover, the Kokinshū is almost completely comprised of tanka. This in itself shows as a...