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By Richard Modiano






Japanese Prosody and the Man’yoshu

The first major anthology of Japanese poetry, called the Man'yoshu, was compiled during between 686 to 784 CE. Consisting of twenty books or sections, the anthology contains about 4,500 poems. Virtually all genres and modes of Japanese prosody can be found in the Man’yoshu, and only haiku is omitted. Haiku was a later development and post-dates the compilation of the Man’yoshu. The only truly known compiler is Otomo Yakamochi, but historians are sure that others must have compiled the earlier books before he completed the anthology.

The Man'yoshu, which can be translated as either “Collection of a Myriad Leaves” or “Collection of a Myriad Ages,” contains poetry from all walks of life. The twenty sections are rich in poems of the people as well a of the court. 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, were included as well. Even though we know that men and women of all social status contributed to the Man'yoshu, out of 4,516 individual poems, only 450 names of poets are mentioned or ascertainable. 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, but also signifies court poetry in forms including tanka, choka, and sedoka in contrast to popular songs or religious hymns. Waka is also used in a very general sense to mean all poetry written in Japanese." Miner defines tanka as a "short poem" of 31 onji (sound units analogous to syllables) in 5 lines, in a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern. This is a major form of Japanese court poetry. Choka is defined as a "long poem" of alternating 5 and 7 onji lines, ending with an extra 7 onji line. This style flourished in the first half of the 8th century. As for the style called sedoka, it is a style that repeats a tercet of 5-7-7 onji lines twice. The Man'yoshu only contains 60 examples of this style.

There are a few other poetic styles found in the Man’yoshu that Miner's book fails to mention. These are hanka, renga, and “Buddha's Foot Stone Poems.” Hanka is "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 a poem stanza by stanza. This became very popular in the 14th century, especially during court poetry competitions, and lead to the creation of the haiku form. 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 onji pattern.

Japanese poetry takes no account of stress, pitch, or length of onji (and this is where an onji differs from a syllable), nor does it consider rhyme. Therefore, the main device Japanese poetry uses is the pattern of 5 and 7 onji lines. A reason for this is that in the Japanese language, all onji end in vowels, and there is no clear distinction between accented or unaccented, or long or short onji, thus rendering impossible a metrical system based upon rhyme or accent. So the number of onji has become the sole principle of Japanese prosody. Japanese poetry relies on its onji for structure, compared to traditional English language 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 onji or more in length, which modifies the content of the succeeding verse, usually through a metaphor. An example of this would be a poet writing a joshi about a bow and arrow before writing her 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 Man'yoshu gives a few good examples of this complex concept, such as the use of the phrase "grass for pillow" to signify a 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." 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.

Not only does the Man’yoshu epitomize the styles of traditional Japanese poesy, it also summarizes almost all the topics with which poets could use these poetic devices. Many topics pertained to love, but poets also wrote about devotion to their sovereign and especially the world of nature. Sadness was written about through the use of metaphor and emphasis, but a sense of the pathos of life (mono no awari) 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. 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.

Brother and sisterly love was also a popular topic, as well as love between man and woman. In the Man’yoshu is a tanka written by Princess Oku about her unfortunate brother Prince Otsu. There is also 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. 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 serve their country. These young men, taken out of their small villages in the Kanto region, traveled to the far island of Kyushu, leaving behind their parents, their wives, and their younger siblings.

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 humanity into their poetry, usually as subjects, but also as symbols. Mountains and bodies of water were viewed as mighty powers of nature. Specifically, Mts. 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 awesome.

As for animals and plants in the Man'yoshu, there are many. Scholars have documented 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. The plants are also frequent and familiar to the average Japanese. 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, wisteria, and yellow roses. In summer, iris, sweet-flag, unohana, orange-flower, auchi, and lily were mentioned. In autumn, typical flowers were bush-clover, 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.

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 honored; 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 and change, which could allude to anything from a journey to regret. Poets saw clouds and fog as messengers, usually of grief. 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 are also very important to conveying emotions through Japanese poetry. 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 and came to constitute one of the more important characteristics of Japanese literature.

The poems of the first Japanese anthology of poetry, the Man'yoshu, contain many different techniques, devices, and topics, and these persisted for the next 1,200 hundred years. Haiku made its appearance in the 16th century and was brought to perfection by Basho in the 17th century. With the advent of the Meji Era two hundred years later, Western forms and themes entered Japanese prosody; and today the traditional and the modern exist side by side, giving Japanese poetry a richness not to be found elsewhere.