The poetic anthology Man’yōshū, compiled in ca. 759, is well known as an outstanding masterpiece of the Nara period, following the two chronicles: Kojiki (712) and Nihon Shoki, or Nihongi, (720). As its title describes, Man’yōshū (collection of ten thousand leaves) is an anthology of as many as almost 4,500 poems by writers from various backgrounds and different periods, in which I see this anthology significant. The composers include such prominent poets as Kakinomoto Hiromaro, Ōtomo Yakamochi, and Yamanoue Okura, as well as the noble, soldiers, and peasants, suggesting that the volumes teach us different aspects of those eras, or perspectives not only of the educated or rich but those of commoners. Perhaps, that no specific writing styles, both choka and tanka, were yet to be regulated enabled the huge collection in a variety of composers.
Another point regarding the contents of Man’yōshū that somehow struck me is that men didn’t hesitate to express their emotional parts and weakness, as seen in the pieces by Kakimonoto Hitomaro and Ōtomo Yakamochi:
“…I thought myself a strong man. But the sleeves of my garment are wetted through with tears” (Kakinomoto Hitomaro)
“…then I think of my far-off home – sorely do I grieve that with my sobs” (Ōtomo Yakamochi)
Consequently I assume that there might have been some connections between the era as being pre-Confucian and gender roles in the society; that is, perhaps, the concept that “Boys don’t cry” was yet to come in later time of the Japanese history. Speaking of Kakinomoto Hitomaro, he is known for his good use of such poetic devices as makurakotoba, joshi, and on’in; especially his use of makurakotoba was extensive, using over 140 makurakotoba, half of which is alleged to be his creation (Wikipedia). Following are examples of his makurakotoba in the piece from Anthology of Japanese Literature starting with “In the sea of Iwami” (p. 34):
Tsunosaha’u Iwami / Isa’eku Kara no saki / Ha’u tsuta wakare / Kimomuka’u kokoro / Oohune no Watari no yama / Tsuma kakuru Ogami no yama / Shikita’e koromo
Along with the non-prescribed forms and classless collections of poems, the writing system employed in the anthology is a distinctive feature of Man’yōshū: Man’yō-gana which is composed of combinations with Chinese characters representing Japanese phonemes, such as 知々 (ちち, father) and 波々 (はは, mother). In Nara period, Japan actively conducted diplomacy with China again, after the 40-year halt. Still the culture of the period remained uniquely Japanese:
The Chinese writing system was adopted, but the Japanese language remained intact. Furthermore, by using Chinese characters in a free and imaginative manner, the Japanese added greatly to the richness and subtlety of their language. (Hatano, 2004)
This fact reminds me of how Japanese people, especially within younger generations, creatively play around the writing systems on text messages in a similar way to Man’yō-gana:...