The first major Anthology of early Japanese poetry, called the Man'yoshu, was compiled during what is called the 'early literary period,' from 686 to 784 AD Consisting of twenty books, the anthology contains about 4,500 poems. According to the Columbia University Press in their Introduction to The Manyoshu, these poems were "written for the most part by the poet who flourished in the Fujiwara and Nara Periods..."(xiii). The only truly known compiler is Otomo Yakamochi, but historians are sure that others must have compiled the earlier books before his time. (Miner, 36-7)
The Man'yoshu, which can translate to either 'Collection of a Myriad Leaves' or 'Collection of a Myriad Ages,' contains poetry from many walks of life. According to The Manyoshu, the twenty books are "...rich in poems of people as well as in those of the court."(xviii) This means that not only the people of the court and the Imperial Family, but peasants, merchants, frontiersmen, and even beggars contributed their work to the anthology. Women poets "representing various strata of society from the highest to the humblest"(xiv), were included as well. Even though we know that men and women of all social status contributed to the Man'yoshu, out of the 4,516 or so poems, only 450 names of poets are mentioned or ascertainable. (xv) So, although we know much about the styles, devices, topics, and interests of early Japanese poetry, as well as the social, economic, and political aspects of the period, we know very little about the actual poets themselves.
Japanese poetry is generally called waka, but has many specific forms. Earl Miner, in the glossary of his book An Introduction to Japanese Court Poetry, defines waka as "Sometimes used as a synonym for tanka. Also signifies court poetry in forms including tanka, choka, and sedoka in contrast to popular songs or religious hymns. Also used in a very general sense to mean all poetry written in Japanese."(165) He defines tanka as a "short poem" of 31 syllables in 5 lines, in a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern. This is a major form of Japanese court poetry. (164) Choka is defined as a "long poem" of alternating 5 and 7 syllable lines, ending with an extra 7 syllable line. This style flourished in the first half of the 8th century. (161) As for the style called sedoka, The Manyoshu defines it as a style that repeats a tercet of 5-7-7 syllable lines twice. It also adds that the Man'yoshu only contains 60 examples of this style. (xx)
On page xx in the Introduction, The Manyoshu also defines a few other poetic styles that Miner's book fails to mention. These are hanka, renga, and 'Buddha's Foot Stone Poems.' Hanka is defined as "a verse that repeats," which is used to summarize or elaborate on the contents of the main poem. This short poem can come before or after the main poem. Renga is a form of poetry which flourished in later Japanese waka, but which is seen in Book VII of the Man'yoshu. It is called "poems in series,' in which one or many poets would compose it stanza by stanza. This became very popular in the 14th century, especially during court poetry competitions. The Man'yoshu contains twenty-one examples of the "Buddha's Foot Stone Poem," which commemorates a stone monument bearing Buddha's foot-mark, erected at Yakushi-ji Temple near Nara in 752. This type of poem consists of six lines of a 5-7-5-7-7-7 syllable pattern.
Waka takes no account of stress, pitch, or length of syllable, nor does it consider rhyme. Therefore, the main device Japanese poetry uses is the pattern of 5 and 7 syllable lines. On page xxi in The Manyoshu, a reason for this reliance on syllables is clearly explained. This is because, in the Japanese language, "... all syllables end in vowels, and there is no clear distinction between accented or unaccented, or long or short syllables, thus rendering impossible a metrical system based upon rhyme or accent. Thus, the number of syllables, which serves usually as only one of the bases of metrical structure in other languages, has become the sole principle of Japanese prosody." So, waka relies on its syllables for structure, compared to British poetry, which relies on accented syllables, and sometimes rhyme, for structure. However, Japanese poets also use devices like alliteration and parallelism, as well as a number of different categories of word usage.
Kake kotoba, makura kotoba, and joshi are the main examples of specific word usage in waka. Meaning 'pivot words,' 'pillow-words,' and 'introductory verse' respectively, these categories of word usage give waka its deep meaning and symbolism. Joshi is an introductory verse of 5 syllables or more in length, which modifies the content of the succeeding verse, usually through a metaphor.(xxiii) An example of this would be a poet writing a joshi about a bow and arrow, before writing his main poem about a battle or journey. Kake kotoba, or pivot words, is a form of wordplay which is important to Japanese poetry. These words be used as double meanings in the context of the poem or relate one idea and symbolize another, among many other things. Makura kotoba, or pillow words, are used to modify the word the follows it in various ways, usually a sound or sense association. The Manyoshu gives a few good examples of this complex concept, such as the use of the phrase "grass for pillow" to mean journey. A more complicated example is the use of "madder-root colored" to mean the morning sun. This word "may be applied by gradual transference of association to 'sunlight,' 'day,' 'purple,' and finally even to 'rosy-cheeked youth.'"(xxi-xxii) Some pillow words were already conventionalized, much like the English metaphors 'white as snow,' or 'black as pitch.' However, in the 8th century, there was still much room for the invention of new makura kotoba, many of which can be found in the Man'yoshu.
There were many topics with which poets could use these poetic devices. Many topics pertained to love, but many poets also wrote about devotion to their sovereign. They also considered nature, plants, and animals as worth writing about. Sadness was written about through the use of metaphor and wording, but a sense of melancholy was sometimes incorporated into even the most cheerful of topics.
Parental love was a very important subject for the upper class and people of the court. Pride towards ancestors and family name was also prevalent in waka. "Among the upper class, this virtue was so extended from parents to forefathers as to include an obligation to keep one's ancestral name unspotted and to enhance the prestige of one's family..." However, parental and familial love was also strong among the middle and lower classes and was written about quite frequently, particularly by frontiersmen. "How warm and genuine filial devotion was also in the lower strata of society may be seen in the poems of the frontier-guards, who, on taking leave of their families, exhibit as much, if not more, tenderness and solicitude toward their parents as toward their wives and children."(The Manyoshu, lvi)
Brother and sisterly love was also a popular topic, as well as love between man and woman. Mentioned in The Manyoshu is the tanka written by Princess Oku about her unfortunate brother, Prince Otsu. Also mentioned is a husband/wife poem; a choka is written by the wife, and a tanka is written in reply by her husband. Another popular topic was the situation between two lovers who are not allowed to marry. Many waka relate tragic stories of forbidden love between two young people.(lvi-lvii) A man's devotion to his sovereign, particularly the lives of the frontiers-men of Japan, was considered very honorable, especially because they left their families to defend their country. "These young men, taken out of their lowly cottages in Eastland, bravely set forth for the far island of Kyushu, leaving behind them their beloved parents, their wives, and their sweethearts..."(lviii)
Japanese poets in the Man'yoshu viewed nature as a sympathetic force, and explained many concepts through natural settings, objects, and phenomena. They incorporated "things that became objects of affection and admiration by virtue of their beauty or loveliness," and "things which were regarded as resounding with human emotions in that they reflected the joys and sorrows of man" into their poetry, usually as subjects, but also as symbols.(lix) Mountains and bodies of water were viewed as mighty powers of nature. Specifically, Mt. Fuji and Tateyama were revered as deities, while other mountains like Tsukuba were celebrated for their beauty during the spring and autumn. Bodies of water, like lakes and rivers, were considered as powerful and "awful." A passage from The Manyoshu explains this feeling best. "The lake offered a convenient passage to the northern provinces of Japan, but a traveller crossing it in the frail boat of those days must have been seized by a sense of helplessness, as upon the open sea."(lxi)
As for animals and plants in the Man'yoshu, there are many. The Columbia University Press documents 37 kinds of birds; 13 of insects; 11 of beasts; 9 of fish; 6 of shells; 86 of herbs and grasses; 67 of trees; 4 of bamboo; as well as a variety of seasonal flowers. The animals in these poems are usually not rare or exotic, but familiar to Japanese life. "With the rare exception of a foreign animal, the tiger, and a fabulous creature, the dragon, they were all familiar in various ways, so that they are treated with intimate knowledge and understanding in the poems."(lxiii) The plants are also frequent and familiar to the Japanese person. Particular flowers that bloomed in a season were used to symbolize or allude to that season. In spring waka, if flowers were mentioned they were: plum, peach, and cherry blossoms; as well as violets, camellia, staggerbush, azalea, wistaria, and yellow roses. In summer, iris, sweet-flag, unohana, orange-flower, auchi, and lily were mentioned. In autumn, typical flowers were bush-clovers, tail-flowers, and patrinia. Aside from flowers, poets found reeds, rushes, and bamboo beautiful. They also honored pines and elms as masculine, and sometimes even sacred.(lxiv-lxv)
Just as important as plants and animals, poets greatly admired the celestial and atmospheric phenomena they witnessed daily or seasonally. The sun and moon were spoken of and highly honoured; the sun because it was the source of light and life, and the moon because it "was looked upon as a mirror to reflect the face of one's beloved far away," among other things. The moon most importantly represented time change, which could allude to anything from a journey to regret. Poets saw clouds and fog as messengers, usually of grief. Temperature, specifically rain, was mentioned so often that the different kinds of rain could be categorized. Some examples of these categories are spring rain, sudden shower, passing shower, and rainbow.
The four seasons also seem to be very important to conveying emotions through
waka. The different seasons represent different aspects of life, different emotions, and changes. "In
Japan, the four seasons, though not abrupt in transition, are clearly marked off from one another, so that from
early times each season was associated with a distinct set of poetic sentiments... came to constitute one of the
more important characteristics of Japanese literature."(The Manyoshu, lxviii)
The waka of the first Japanese Anthology of poetry, the Man'yoshu, contain many different techniques, devices, and topics. The poets of this anthology seem to be in tune with the nature surrounding them, their ties to each other and their country, and the potentials of their language. "It is this profound feeling of mutual sympathy that made the Manyo man look far and wide and search deeply with lively emotions into all aspects of nature and grasp them with such eminent success."(The Manyoshu, lix-lx)