Man’yoshu And Kokinshu: National Identity Essay

1320 words - 5 pages

In Japan, two poetic anthologies, the Man’yōshū and the Kokinshū, are highly revered as literary embodiments of the Japanese spirit. Though both are similar in their purposes as literature, the intent behind compiling each anthology as well as the legacy each has left behind differ greatly. With its inclusion of poets from all classes and embodiment of makoto or sincerity, the Man’yōshū helped the Japanese form a national identity through its poetry. The Kokinshū was able to build on this foundation and establish such poetry as a high art form using miyabi, or refinement and elegance, helping Japan further establish its own independent place in the literary world.
The Man’yōshū or “Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves”) is the first anthology that consisted entirely of what Japan considered its own literature in its own native language. It is made up of 4,516 waka poems that range across approximately 350 years, from the early 5th century to the year 759 AD (Citko H2.1). This is particularly significant because of Japan’s prior reliance on Chinese styles of structure and imagery to craft their poetry. Chinese culture influenced the majority of Japanese institutions because Japan’s own civilization lagged in technology and modernization. The Japanese “quickly became aware of the high value placed in China on the composition of poetry…They wished to record a literature of their own” (Citko H2.2). The Man’yōshū was created to break away from the practice of idealizing Chinese poetry and shift the focus to making Japanese poetry uniquely Japanese. Oral traditions and songs from the people’s past were placed beside poems created by the Japanese people, which included legends, folk tales, and poems written for the imperial family, such as commemorations of royal deaths (“Man’yōshū Criticism”). To further express the break from Chinese poetry, specific landmarks and cities of Japan (then Yamato) were utilized, as well as a stress on Shinto values, as opposed to the Buddhist-heavy influence imported from China (“Man’yōshū -Definition”).
The most significant aspect of the Man’yōshū that contributed to laying the foundation for a Japanese national identity was its wide array of poets, ranging from the imperial family to the common people living and working outside the palace walls. Unlike the Kokinshū, which was commissioned by the emperor and drew only from the aristocracy, the Man’yōshū allowed for a universal viewpoint regardless of class. This gave the anthology an emotional tone now referred to as makoto or sincerity, adding a level of emotional realism that almost all people can relate to and understand. For example, the first poem of the collection is written by Emperor Yūryaku and is, surprisingly, a love poem. The speaker, presumably the emperor himself, address a girl he sees in the field, “Maiden, picking herbs on this hillside/I would ask you: Where is your home?/Will you not tell me your name?” Admittedly, the poem is political in its...

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