Man’yoshu and Kokinshuu are some of the earliest anthologies of Japanese poetry to be considered literary canons. The Man’yoshu dates back to the 8th century and contains 4,516 poems. Man’yoshu, which is translated as “Collection of Ten Thousands Leafs”, was compiled from a wide range of Japan society, where many of the authors remained anonymous. The Kokinshuu appears later in Japan’s history and is an anthology from 905 AD that contains a total of 1,111 poems. The compilers for the Kokinshuu are Ki no Tsurayuki, Ki no Tomonori, Oshikochi no Mitsune, and Mibu no Tadamine. Ki no Tsurayuki was the compiler who wrote the preface of the Kokinshuu, which predicted the canonization of the Kokinshuu for Japanese poetry. Man’yoshu and Kokinshuu were compiled in the Heian Era, which was relatively calm period in Japanese history, however it was period where the society had not gained a full literary tradition to call its own. The significance of Man’yoshu and Kokinshuu in Japanese literature is that their poetic devices were to become the canon for hundreds of years from that point in history and would become more enduring than the emperors, who demanded their compiling.
Before the development of hiragana and katakana, the Japanese poets used Chinese kanji during the Heian Period from which the Man’yoshu was recorded in. Furthermore, they were also written with a writing language known as man’yogana, which is assumed to be an intermediate language between Chinese and the creation of hiragana Japanese. Previous literary examples from this era are the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki. However, Man’yoshu did not want to remain true to the Chinese directionless prose of poetry style. One of the main roles of Man’yoshu was to develop literary poetic styles such as the Hanka, Choka and Tanka pattern, which were known as the concept of waka (Keene 33). One of the most important of these designs was the 7-7 couplet within the Choka pattern. These structures were combined with “pillow words” and elegant kotoba to elevate Japanese poetry on par with Chinese poetry at the name. This does not imply that each anonymous entry was a poet from the ruling class. Rather the elegance comes from the compiler’s writing style, who was a noble named Ōtomo no Yakamochi (Keene 33).
An example of one of the poems that express the societal role of the Man’yoshu is the poem from Emperor Jomei which says,
“Countless are the mountains in Yamato, But perfect is the heavenly hill of Kagu; When I climb it and survey my realm, Over the wide plain the smoke-wreaths rise and rise, Over the wide lake the gulls are on the wing A beautiful land it is, the Land of Yamato!” (Keene 34).
Emperor Jomei’s poem is one that reflects the ambitious of the ruling class and high society. Furthermore and more importantly, this poem episode articulates the formation of Japanese identity by drawing upon the geographical and political boundaries of the “Land of Yamato.” Without this...