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The Manyoshu or 'Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves' is an anthology of ancient Japanese poems compiled c. 759 CE during the Nara Period but including many earlier works. The most likely person to have assembled the collection is Otomo no Yakamochi, himself a prolific poet who included nearly 500 of his own works in the Manyoshu. The Manyoshu is regarded as a literary classic and high point of Japanese poetry.

Otomo no Yakamochi

Many scholars consider the Manyoshu to have been compiled by the poet Otomo no Yakamochi (c. 718-785 CE). He certainly included plenty of his own works, some 479 or 10% of the collection. Yakamochi was born into an aristocratic family and his father was also a poet. When he was 30 years old, Yakamochi was made governor of the then minor and remote province of Etchu (modern Toyama Prefecture). This posting perhaps explains the poet's penchant for themes of separation and loneliness, unrequited love and descriptions of nature.

On an evening when the spring mists

Trail over the wide sea,

And sad is the voice of the crane,

I think of my far-off home.

Otomo no Yakamochi (Henshall, 316)

Fortunately for Yakamochi, his posting was not permanent, and when he returned to the capital at Nara, he was given a role in the Ministry of Military Affairs. This did not stop his love of poetry as he was known to collect poems from the guards around the city. After 750 CE the poems stop, and Yakamochi died in 785 CE.

The Manyoshu anthology consists of 4,496 poems organised into 20 books.

The Manyoshu

The Manyoshu collection contains poems which were all written in the Japanese of that time, i.e. using Chinese characters phonetically. The work consists of 4,496 poems organised into 20 books, the vast majority being in the tanka (aka waku) style, that is each poem has precisely 31 syllables in five lines (5+7+5+7+7). 262 poems, in contrast, are written in the longer nagauta style, which can have up to 200 lines. There are also 62 sedoka poems (six-line poems of 38 syllables) and four poems written in Chinese. The poems come in three broad thematic categories; zoka (miscellaneous), somon (mutual inquiries or love poems), and banka (elegies). The poems cover a period of four centuries and it is likely they were intended to be sung.

Like Yakamochi's contributions, many of the poems deal with sadness and melancholy. Other famous names in the collection include Kakinomoto Hitomaro (active 685-705 CE) and Yamanoue Okura (660 - c. 733 CE). The former was only a low-ranked official at court, but he was regarded as the finest poet of the period. He has more than 80 of his poems in the anthology. Yamanoue Okura, another government official, but this time with experience of China (he may have come to Japan as a refugee from the Korean state of Baekje), is represented by 70 poems. He was tutor to the crown prince (future Emperor Shomu), and his work is noted for its social element, notably on poverty. Other poets who contributed to the Manyoshu include less well-known poets, diplomats, princesses, emperors, soldiers, peasants, and many works are anonymous.

Example Poems

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 sea

the gulls are on the wing;

a beautiful land it is,


the Land of Yamato.

Emperor Jomei (Keene, 96)

When, loosened from the winter's bonds,

The spring appears,

The birds that were silent

Come out and sing,

The flowers that were prisoned

Come out and bloom;

But the hills are so rank with trees

We cannot seek the flowers,

And the flowers are so tangled with weeds

We cannot take them in our hands.

But when on the autumn hill-side

We see the foliage,

We prize the yellow leaves,

Taking them in our hands,

We sigh over the green ones,

Leaving them on the branches;

And that is my only regret -

For me, the autumn hills!

Princess Nukata (Keene, 101)

Our great Sovereign, a goddess,

Of her sacred will

Has reared a towering palace

On Yoshino's shore,

Encircled by its rapids;

And, climbing, she surveys the land.

The overlapping mountains,

Rising like green walls,

Offer the blossoms with spring,

As godly tributes to the Throne.

The god of the Yu River, to provide the royal table.

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Holds the cormorant-fishing

In its upper shallows,

And sinks the fishing-nets

In the lower stream.

Thus, the mountains and the river

Serve our Sovereign, one in will;

It is truly the reign of a divinity.

Kakinomoto Hitomaro (Keene, 103-4)

There I found you, poor man! -

Outstretched on the beach,

On this rough bed of stones,

Amid the busy voices of the waves.

If I but knew where was your home,

I would go and tell;

If your wife but knew,

She would come to tend you.

She, not knowing the way hither,

Must wait, must ever wait,

Restlessly hoping for your return -

Your dear wife - alas!

Kakinomoto Hitomaro (Keene, 111)

Will ever there be

Someone else who will rest

Her head on my arms

As once my beloved wife

Made her pillow there?

Otomo no Tobito (Keene, 133)

Keeping glum silence

In the role of a wise man

Is still not as good

As drinking one's own sake

And weeping drunken tears.

Otomo no Tobito (Keene, 137)

…And in the cauldron

A spider spins its web.

With not a grain to cook,

We moan like the “night-thrush.”

Then, “to cut”, as the saying is,

“The ends of what is already too short,”

The village headman comes,

With rod in hand, to our sleeping-place,

Growling for his dues.

Must it be so hopeless -

The way of this world?

Yamanoue Okura (Keene, 145)

If it were death to love,

I should have died -

And died again

One thousand times over.

Otomo no Yakamochi (Keene, 151)


The poems of the Manyoshu inspired many later poets who copied the styles, imagery, and even phrases of the great masters. Some later poets wrote extensions of earlier works or their own 'replies' too. Even in structure the book has been influential, for, although it is not clear why the Manyoshu was divided into 20 books, it was a model followed by nearly all subsequent Japanese anthologies. The Manyoshu has been endlessly studied ever since its publication, not only regarding the meaning of the poems but also to create specialised studies on the biographical details, religious practices, and even the plants mentioned throughout this most important of Japanese anthologies.

This content was made possible with generous support from the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation.

Man’yōshū 万葉集

The Man’yōshū or the ‘Collection of a Myriad Leaves’ is the first, and longest, of Japan’s poetry anthologies. Modern editions contain a total of 4,536 waka, 4 Chinese poems and 22 passages of Chinese prose, organised into 20 ‘books’. The exact circumstances of its compilation remain shrouded in early Japanese history, but it seems clear that it was arranged into something approaching its modern form by Ōtomo no Yakamochi.

The collection displays a wider range of types of waka than is the case for later collections. There are 265 nagauta, 4,207 tanka and a handful of poems in other formats. After the Man’yōshū, the tanka was to dominate Japanese poetry until the development of the renga ‘linked verse’ form in the twelfth century.

Furthermore, unlike later collections, poems on a single topic do not dominate a single ‘book’, providing for greater variety, but less of a sense of organisation. Nevertheless, the Man’yōshū is probably the collection held in the highest esteem and regarded with the greatest affection in Japan today. Its poetry is felt to be fresh, direct and free of the complex word-play, allusions and restrictive rules which came to dominate later waka. Many of the poems cover topics and use imagery and language which were considered to be unacceptable by the court poets of later periods. Moreover, the social range of poets is much wider, ranging from members of the imperial family and higher nobility to conscript soldiers, although their poems may well have been re-worked by more sophisticated poets prior to inclusion.

Another unique feature of the Man’yōshū is the ‘public’ nature of many of its poems, many of which were clearly composed with an eye to performance at official court functions in commemoration of recent memorable events. Thus, we get mention of warfare, elegies to departed royalty and other topics recorded in verse. In later periods, while poetry was composed for public performance, such ‘official’ topics came to be regarded as unworthy of recording in waka.

While there are numerous named poets in the anthology, only one, Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, is today reckoned as being among Japan’s greatest. Other significant Man’yō poets are: Yamabe no Akahito, Yamanoe no Okura and Ōtomo no Yakamochi.

Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves

The Manyoshu (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves or Collection of Multiple Leaves) is a collection of 4,516 poems in 20 volumes covering a wide range of topics, from life in the imperial capital of Nara to travel to the beauty of nature to the pleasures of sake, just to mention a few.

The poems were written by emperors, court ladies and other members of the nobility, by poets famous at their time as well as by a good number of common people.

Otomo no Yakamochi (718-785), a Nara Period government official, wrote some of the latest entries and it was he who completed the collection in about the year 759.

The Manyoshu was originally written entirely in Chinese characters. Some of them were used for their meaning, some for their sounds. The latter ones became over time more and more simplified until they turned into the hiragana and katakana letters used today.

Many Chinese characters were however used in both capacities, they were used for plays on words and meanings, as puns and to provide additional layers of interpretation.

Scholars have been arguing from the time of publication about the meaning of many of those expressions.

The Manyoshu is still very popular in Japan today. A multitude of pocket books offering "best of" selections of the Manyoshu poems is available in Japanese bookstores. People take those pocket books on hiking trips, people recite from them. They are part of daily life.

The Manyoshu does offer quite a few fun poems after all. "The Thirteen Poems in Praise of Wine" (or rather sake) written by Lord Otomo no Tabito (665 - 731), the father of Otomo no Yakamochi, are eternal favorites. This is one of them:

How ugly!
Those men who,
with airs of wisdom
refuse to drink wine.
Take a good look,
and they resemble apes.

(translation by Ian Hideo Levy)

Many of the selections also contain the "Thirty-Two Poems on Plum Blossoms". They are considered especially beautiful.

The imperial era name Reiwa was thus not taken from some obscure part of the Manyoshu but from one of its still most popular poems.

Japanese edition of the complete Manyoshu printed in 1981 Manyoshu poems on the pleasures of sake written in Chinese characters with Japanese hiragana letters next to them

A brief history of Haiku Poems

Haiku, well known Japanese poetry form and is popular in the western part. It is a great literature study. Haiku poetry study gives the students a glimpse into the Japanese culture. Over the years Haiku Poems/Best Haiku Poetry has earned respect among literature experts. The poetry was called Hokku before and was later changed to Haiku by Masaoka Shiki towards the end of 19th century. The name is the abbreviation of Haikai no ku which means verse of haikai. This form of poetry is written in a single vertical line but a handwritten format can be in many lines. The haiku comes in three lines which is equal to three parts in Japanese. The first and the last will have five syllables, while the second will have seven.

History of Haiku Poem
There are respected few haiku poets like Basho, Issa, Busson and Shiki. The famous ones are Basho. The credit goes to him for making the poem popular. Basho is from the city Ueno born in the year 1644. Before Basho brought a new dimension to haiku poem the 17 syllables were in use, it did not have the depth and simplicity of the format introduced by him. The family born to a lower rank samurai are called the Todo, Basho befriended Yoshitada the Todo family descendant. They together mastered linked verses under the aegis of Teitoku. Unfortunately Yoshitada passed away a young (25 years) forcing Basho to escape to from Kyoto. He learned Japanese and Chinese classics.

After his return to his hometown in 1671, he presented his work, a compilation of many authors that which was evaluated and edited by him. This anthology became popular and his respect rose among the community. He left to Tokyo (Edo) and between jobs he became a renowned poet. He was later invited by Soen to study who was a modern poet. Soen helped Basho to value the images in daily life and turn it into poetry.

In the year 1676, he composed for the first publication. The poem appeared in anthologies for four years. The poet was not happy with the writing, so he later resigned to spiritual writings. During this period he studied Zen meditation, but with part of him in this world and part in the other, lead him nowhere. After the 1682 fire accident that destroyed his home, the poet started to regain his style.

It was in the year 1684 he started to tour Japan and his travel became classical literature. The experience was written in part prose and part poetry also known as haibun. During this time his work anthologies was also famous and popular. He continued to travel till 1692 and then settled down in isolation. His poems reflected his detachment to life. He poems from his death bed suggested his poor health. He composed the poems as a dictation to his disciples. In the year 1694, Basho breathed his last. His works were timeless and even today are revered for its mastery.

The poem represents the mature style of the writer. It may be a description of a frog’s action but when read between lines it shows the author’s thoughts. According to Basho, poetry becomes one with you when you go deeper to discover the hidden glimmer. He says that despite the well chosen words, if it is not naturally inclined from within, the poetry remains mere words without any feeling.

Haiku Writing Tips
It is a combination of three parts based on lines and syllables. The first and the last come have 5 syllables and the second is in seven. But do not be restricted by syllables number as you may stand to lose the poetry’s essence. The 17 syllable is not the final rule. These syllables being small are known as PO TA TO. The English syllables which are usually long, also takes much space in comparison with Japanese. The English Haiku therefore uses fewer syllables and it may take 10 at times. Haiku is free of similes, full of simple imagery, eloquence, adverbs and adjectives. Use of words in groups are the best ones to represent the appeal of your senses.


Manyōshū (secara harafiah dapat diartikan sebagai kumpulan 10.000 daun) adalah kumpulan puisi Jepang yang paling tua dan merupakan salah satu karya kesusastraan klasik Jepang berbentuk kumpulan pantun-pantun lama. Manyōshū dikumpulkan pada jaman Nara dan awal periode Heian. Hampir semua dikumpulkan oleh Otomo no Yakamochi, dan puisi yang paling akhir dikumpulkan adalah puisi dari tahun 759. Sebagian besar Manyōshū menceritakan tentang keadaan periode tahun 600 sampai 759, dan di dalamnya terdapat Kayō maupun Waka yang tidak bersifat Kayō, dan juga Kanbunshi (syair Cina).

Manyōshū memiliki 3 bagian utama, yaitu:

  1. Banka : Puisi berupa elegi terhadap kaisar atau kekasih yang sudah meninggal.
  2. Sōmon : Puisi tentang cinta dan kerinduan.
  3. Zōka : Puisi biasa (tentang alam, berburu, dan lain-lain).

Manyōshū ditulis menggunakan manyōgana. Selain itu, Manyōshū memiliki keunikan tersendiri, yaitu kumpulan puisi yang terdapat di dalamnya ditulis oleh orang-orang dari berbagai status sosial yang berbeda, sehingga penggunaan dan pemilihan bahasanya menjadi beragam. Namun hal itu justru menarik perhatian para pembaca dan menimbulkan perasaan sentimentil yang kuat bagi pembaca. Bentuk pengekspresian puisi-puisi Manyōshū adalah Makoto (kebenaran dan ketulusan penyair).

Manyōshū menggunakan sistem ejaan yang hampir sepenuhnya bertentangan dengan aturan dasar karakter Cina (arti dan suara). Mungkin hal itu yang menyebabkan Manyōshū tidak diproduksi di Jepang selama periode Nara. Selain itu, perkembangan puisi Cina sebagai simbol pencapaian kesusastraan di kalangan bangsawan, mungkin juga termasuk salah satu faktor yang menghambat perkembangan kesusastraan Jepang setelah Manyōshū.

A bath-loving culture

Visiting Japan's impressive list of temples, shrines, museums and scenic vistas might leave you (and your feet) wearied and looking for respite. A visit to an onsen is a perfect way to relax and rejuvenate your body while experiencing a Japanese pastime once reserved for the nobility. Whether it's the health benefits, the gorgeous views that accompany the onsen, or just the simple concept of relaxing one's weary body in hot water, Japanese people have come to truly adore the bountiful hot springs that are found throughout the island nation.

Manyoshu - History

Primary Ryukyu-Okinawa History Resources

Chuuzan Seikan (中山世鑑)

(1650) The first official history of Ryukyu was edited and compiled by Haneji Choushuu (or Shou Shouken [向象賢]) upon instruction from then King Shou Shitsu. It must presumably have been a Chinese concept in origin that learning from one's past mistakes can prevent one from making the same ones again, and this is precisely what the Chuuzan Seikan document was conceived of as. The immediate pre-Satsuma era under King Shou Nei is clearly being referred to as a time when big mistakes were made (and specifically the king taking too much advice from his discourteous and misguided Sanshikan Jana Teido) that led to the need for Satsuma to step in. Such mistakes should not be repeated.

Katrien Hendrickx suggests that the appearance of genealogical records commissioned by the Shimazu clan and the Tokugawa bakufu (Hayashi Gahou and Hayashi Razan, ‘Kan'ei shoka keizu-den’ [寛永諸家系図伝] was a genealogy of feudal lords and warrior families written between 1641-43) provided the catalyst for such a work in Ryukyu.

Based on a range of inputs including the Okinawa-Amami songs and poems that were gathered and recorded as the ‘Omoro Saushi’ during the early part of the 17th century, Chinese-style classics and myths, and the travel diaries of the Chinese Imperial envoy Chen Kan and the Japanese Buddhist priest Taichuu. The style is also said to resemble the war chronicles of 12th century Japan known as ‘The Tale of Hougen’ (Hougen Monogatari 保元物語).

Chuuzan Seikan was purposely written in Japanese to reflect the post-Satsuma conquest political situation. It accentuates Ryukyu-Japan historical ties (with the first king of Ryukyu, Shunten, claimed as being of royal Japanese ancestry), it supported the vassalage of Ryukyu to Satsuma and worked to weaken Chinese influences which were seen as having led to moral decline and, eventually, the conquest.

Reference: Katrien Hendrickx, The Origins of Banana-fibre Cloth in the Ryukyus, Japan (Studia Anthropologica). Leuven University Press (November 1, 2007).

Rekidai Houan (歴代宝案)

First compiled between 1697-8, the Rekidai Hoan, Precious Documents from all Historical Eras, is a large collection of Chinese documents detailing Ryukyuan overseas voyages to China, Korea, and eight Southeast Asian countries from 1424-1867. It was kept by successive kings covering almost 450 years of both investiture and trade missions.

Chuuzan Seifu (中山世譜)

This was a Chinese language (kanbun 漢文) translation of Haneji Choushuu’s 1650 ‘Chuuzan Seikan’ with some revisions, carried out by Sai Taku (察鐸 1644-1724), the father of Sai On, between 1697-1701. Sai On himself worked on the Chuuzan Seifu in 1725, introducing amendments and revisions. The text continued to be written up until 1876.

Ryukyu-koku Yuraiki (琉球国由来記)

Ryukyu-koku Yuraiki (Records of the Origins of the Country of Ryukyu) is a topography of ancient Ryukyu compiled by the Royal Government at Shuri in 1713. It described the official functions and government post system at Shuri as well as the origins and records of ancient customs of all locations throughout the kingdom. It was revised, translated into kanbun (classical Chinese) and published again as ‘Records of Old Ryukyu’.

Reference: 新城俊昭著 (Arashiro Toshiaki), 高等学校琉球・沖縄の歴史と文化 : 書き込み教科書 (糸満 : 編集工房東洋企画, 2010)

Ryukyu Karitsu (琉球科律)

Penal Code of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Passed in 1786, these (103 articles in) 18 volumes constitute the first penal code of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Written in Japanese, it draws upon Japanese and Chinese laws as well as taking account of traditional customs and practices in Ryukyu. Additional laws were added and this was published as ‘Shinshu Karitsu’ in 1831. For the purpose of ensuring that the general population was fully aware of the laws of the land the penal code was published as ‘Houjou’ in 1860.

宮城栄昌 (Miyagi Eishou)、琉球科律糺明法条(東京 : 吉川弘文館、1965)

Reference: 新城俊昭著 (Arashiro Toshiaki), 高等学校琉球・沖縄の歴史と文化 : 書き込み教科書 (糸満 : 編集工房東洋企画, 2010)

The Kyuuyou is (as far as was possible for the editors) a factual chronology of history. It was edited and compiled between 1743-45 by Tei Heitetsu (who was also known by his Ryukyuan name Kohagura Uekata [1695-1760]), a Ryukyu Government official of the Chinese community in Kumemura (he had studied in Qing era China and took part in Ryukyu tribute missions). Thereafter it was written by the Genealogy Department of the Royal Government and continued to be updated until 1876, the 29th year of King Shou Tai. The ‘Irosetsuden’ was the name of an additional chapter of the ‘Kyuuyou’ that presented old stories and legends from around Ryukyu.

Reference: 新城俊昭著 (Arashiro Toshiaki), 高等学校琉球・沖縄の歴史と文化 : 書き込み教科書 (糸満 : 編集工房東洋企画, 2010)

Omoro Saushi (おもろさうし)

Perhaps the most interesting of all of the principle written historical resources is the Omoro Saushi, or Anthology of the Poems of Sentiments. Although the first volume was not compiled until 1531-32 (Volume II in 1613, and Volume III in 1623) the Omoro contains poems and songs describing life in Okinawa and Amami from as far back as the early 12th century. The Omoro is sometimes referred to as the Okinawan equivalent of the Manyoshu (万葉集), ‘Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves,’ the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry, compiled sometime in the Nara or early Heian periods. Prior to the 17th century, history was transferred orally from generation to generation in songs and poems and always in the various dialects of Ryukyuan. These provide clues to the nature of society and culture from the 12th to the 17th century. As such, they constitute the earliest tangible record of Okinawa's history. They were gathered together and committed to paper in the 17th century, but in such a way that scholars still struggle to find objective meaning in some of the texts. Scribes, often barely familiar with Ryukyuan, attempted to render original verses into Japanese. While dedicated scholars have spent decades trying to decipher meaning and have been able to offer interpretations for most of the verses there are still sections which remain largely indecipherable.

In the Miyako region the Omoro equivalent is the Aagu or Ayagu.

外間守善、 おもろさうし (Omoro saushi). 東京:角川書店、1993. Presents the original Omoro script above and Hokama’s modern rendering of its meaning in Japanese below. Hokama Shuzen is the most experienced living scholar of the Omoro. He joins a very short list of distinguished scholars who devoted a significant portion of their academic lives to understanding and disseminating to a wider audience the meaning of the Omoro. Previous luminaries include Iha Fuyu and Nakahara Zenchu.

仲原善忠, 外間守善著、 おもろさうし (Omoro saushi). 東京:角川書店、1967. The best of all Omoro-related books. A two-volume set. The original text is included with Japanese translation and annotations. For background on the Omoro locate the excellent “[おもろさうし]総説” pages 13-53.

Sakihara Mitsugu, A Brief History of Early Okinawa based on the Omoro Soshi. Tokyo: Honpo Shoseki Press, 1987. The best text in English explaining the meaning of selected passages of Omoro text in the context of a narrative history of early Okinawa.

the ryukyu-okinawa history and culture website © 1995-2019 john michael purves

The Original War on Drugs in Japan

Following the Second World War, the US military exerted control over Japan for close to seven years. Among the new legislations penned during this period of occupation was the Cannabis Control Act of 1948, which is still in effect today.

In the early 1940s, Japanese farmers were encouraged to plant cannabis as a matter of civic duty: fibers were used in producing ropes for the imperial navy and parachute cords for the air force.

Following Japan’s surrender, however, the US applied conservative western values to cannabis production, outlawing both possession and growth of the plant. Incidentally, the new law also coincided with the US ramping up cotton and synthetic fiber exports, both of which were profitable alternatives.

I took this photo at the 大麻博物館 in Tochigi. At the end of WWII, GHQ made hemp illegal in Japan – the US didn’t want competition for its textiles makers. The photo shows the Emperor visiting hemp farmers offering condolences. pic.twitter.com/sjDE26lzHq

— SF (@SFFANINTOKYO) July 17, 2020

Despite minor revisions over the subsequent 70-plus years, the core precepts of the 1948 law remain in place. A continued propaganda war has been simultaneously waged on cannabis, further stigmatizing its use. The result is that a crop once erupting from soils all across the archipelago, is now confined to a few scattered patches of land under strict government ordinance.

The Undecipherable Poem, No. 9 of the Manyoshu

The Manyoshu, or "Compilation of Ten Thousand Leaves", is the earliest known work of poetry in Japanese history. Written in the mid-700s, it postdates the chronicles of Shinto myth called the Kojiki and Nihongi, the record of provinces called the Fudoki, and possibly the record of Shinto law called the Yengishiki (the date for this last work is undetermined). However, its order chronologically does not detract from its significance as a powerful creative work by perhaps hundreds of authors. It contains 4,516 poems, most of which were written in the 600s or 700s C.E. And out of all these poems, one of them has never been deciphered.

It is a confusing question why the Japanese would need to translate their own literature. We can compare this to our own ancient writing such as Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which are unreadable to any English speaker except in translation. These, however, have all been translated by deriving an Old English vocabulary. The Japanese have a far more momentous problem. They did not create a writing system of their own until after the Manyoshu was written although the poems are in Japanese, they are written with Chinese characters and surrounded by ancient Chinese notes and inscriptions. At the time that the Manyoshu was written, Japan was adopting Chinese words and characters, and used Chinese characters to represent Japanese syllables but by roughly 820 C.E., only a hundred years later, this system had been entirely forgotten, and the poems were gibberish. So, for over 1000 years, scholars have attempted to reconstruct the original Japanese from a hopelessly complicated writing system.

Most of the time, the Chinese characters summon up certain Japanese syllables, and the original, beautiful language can be recalled. Sometimes, more work is needed to determine how to interpret the characters. But only in one case out of the 4,516 are the original characters entirely incomprehensible, a veil of eighth-century logic behind which lies the poem. And strangely enough, this occurs not in the middle of the collection, but right at the start poem number nine.

Two modern translations of the Manyoshu into English exist: Ten Thousand Leaves (Harold Wright, 1979) and The Manyoshu (Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkokai, 1965). Both explain the difficulties of translation, and that study of the Manyoshu continues, and that recently Japanese classicists have discovered the Manyoshu uses eight vowels rather than five, but neither one touches on No. 9. I would like to warn the reader that both of these translations use an original numbering system which handily omits Kokka Taikan No. 9 entirely and thus avoids the problem of its translation. The comprehensive work Japanese Court Poetry (Brower and Miner, 1961), also discusses the linguistic problems on pages 80-81 but does not mention No. 9. Based on this incomplete survey, I reached the conclusion that this paper is the first formal essay in English to bring up the problem of No. 9.

N.B., February 2006: While browsing at the library, I found an old translation of the Manyoshu that does attempt a translation of No. 9 (although rather clumsily), but I forget the name.

The Partial Translation

The latter half of No. 9 has been deciphered. I quote it here in full, using the version by the Japanese Text Initiative:

I know little of modern Japanese and nothing of ancient Japanese, so my attempt at understanding who or what Seko and Itsukashi are was rather futile. I was faced with a problematic task No. 9 had been omitted by all the English translators for the same reason that I was looking into it, so there was some meaning to the ancient Japanese that I needed to find out without a proper translation. Luckily, some writings existed on the World Wide Web, and with the help of a machine translator I read a short monologue on it by a horror writer, which excerpts a translation from a modern Japanese text.

The Mansion of Ghastly Characters by Kiichirou Kurasaka
fetched from Rhino Mountain on 26 March 2005
My translation (likely inaccurate)
活字中毒、読むものがないとやってられない、という意味で弱いことは言うまでもないが、 「文字それ自体」にも非常に弱い。 It goes without saying that poison of the print will not do, if nobody reads it. The "character by itself" is exceedingly weak.
映画『セブン』の感想でも書いたが、万葉集に、上半分が未だに全く解読不能の歌がある。Although I already wrote about this in my comments on the movie se7en, there is a poem in the Manyoshu of which the upper half cannot be deciphered.
わたしはこれがこわい。To me, this is frightening.
莫囂円隣之大相七兄爪謁気 わが背子がい立たせりけむ厳橿がもとWyrg gende acbire madentag wher myne Seko once stode, at the rootes of Itsukashi.
初めてこの歌を見た瞬間、背筋に鳥肌が立った。When I first read this poem, goosebumps stood up on the back of my spine.
後半部分は「わが君がお立ちになったという神聖なかしの木のもとよ(旺文社対訳古典シリーズ桜井満訳注)」という意味。The second half of this poem means, "I am at the base of the sacred oak tree where they say you stood" (Obunsha Publishing's Bilingual Classics series translation notes of Sakurai Mitsuru).
ということは推測するに、恋人が旅立ったことを歌った訳で、前半部分には大して意味がないか、あってもその相手への想いを詠んでいるとしか思えない、なのにわたしはこの歌がこわい。 Guessing at the meaning, if he sings because he quests for his lover, even if the first half means nothing, this poem is frightening to me.
それはもう、手がつけようがないから怖いのだ。あまりにも意味不明なのに、そこには何か、自分にはどうしても読み取れない確固たる意味がある。判らないから想像だけがふくらむ、それが怖い。 Since some hand has already written it, it is dreadful. Although too much is incomprehensible, there is a meaning to it which can never be read. Since one cannot understand it, the imagination swells. It is a thing to be feared.

Contemporary Discussion

Google is the tool of an unscrupulous reporter. However, without a better database to use, and having exhausted my library, I was forced to turn to it for information on No. 9.

I was unable to finy any discussion of No. 9 on the Web in English, but I did find a single posting on USENET's sci.lang.japan from 1995. It was written not by a Westerner but by a Japanese native to correct his own translation of old Japanese. I quote it here, with some corrections to the author's English:

What an anticlimactic solution to this mystery! Rather than a love poem, according to Dr. Yonhi's translation, No. 9 is simply an erotic poem, and the sacred tree Itsukashi has an obscene double meaning.

Luckily, I did not abandon my quest upon reading this. A myriad of Japanese commentaries on the Web do not agree with, or even mention, the translation of Dr. Yonhi. Here's a complete summary of the search results:

「そっちも諸説あるんだけど、『吾が背子がい立たせりけむ厳橿がもと』 で大方定まってるわ。意味は『かつてあなたが立っていた橿の木のも と』という感じね(。・_・。)」

"It reads, 'wher myne Seko once stode, at the rootes of Itsukashi'. There are various theories, but it's almost settled upon: 'at the oak tree where you were once standing'.(。・_・。)"

As you can see from this sampling, there is much foolishness and many crackpot theories about No. 9, which gives one the idea that it has never been properly translated. So, I put this question to sci.lang.japan and asked whether there was any one proper reading, and whether Dr. Yonhi was correct. I received a reply in Japanese, which was not what I was expecting, but I attempted to translate it.

Kouji Ueshiba's response to my questionTranslation (inaccurate)
漢字あるいは漢字を基とした万葉仮名で書かれている万葉集の和歌を朝鮮語で読もうとする試みはかなり前からあります。There have been many attempts to read characters of the Manyoshu's poems in Korean.
『人麻呂の謎』とかいった題名で人麻呂の和歌を朝鮮語で解釈しようとした試みもあったように思います。I believe the book about the attempt to translate Hitomaro's poems in Korean was called "The Hitomaro Code".
物珍しさもあって私もチラッと見たことはありますが、まあまともに取り扱うべきものとも思えませんでした。[Like you,] I was also curious about it, so I kind of skimmed it, but it didn't seem to explain it very well.
なお、9番の歌は、全く読めていない訳ではなく、最初の2句についてだけ意見が大きく分かれており、3句以降はほぼ類似した読みが与えられています。In any case, as for the reading of No. 9, opinions are divided only about the first two lines, and for the next three phrases the readings are mostly similar.
また、読めていないのはこの歌だけでなく、他にも何首かあります。千年以上写し写しで伝わってきた4000首を越える和歌がこれだけキチンと読めればそれはそれで十分なような気もするのですが・・・Moreover, there are other poems [to deal with] that cannot be read. If these 4000 tanka transmitted by copies of copies over 1000 years can be read this well, I kind of think that's good enough.
上 柴 公 二Sincerely, Kouji Ueshiba


The problem of Manyoshu No. 9 has never before appeared in English literature, but it is well-known in Japan. After 1000 years of study, professional classicists have come to no conclusion about it, which leads to offbeat theories such as making the kanji into Korean or Hebrew. It is likely that, like so many other mysteries of our past, there will never be a definitive solution which turns this sad half-a-poem about a lost lover into a complete and fluid song.

This is unfortunate, but as Mr. Ueshiba writes, there are 4,515 poems of the Manyoshu which have been properly translated, and it's much easier to enjoy those! It's impressive that Japanese classicists have been able to reconstruct so much of the ancient texts and poems. So, don't get too bothered about it.

What is a haiku and where did it come from?

A haiku in the English language is often written in three short lines and read out aloud in about six seconds.

Haiku are written in the present tense, in ordinary language, and work particularly well when two different images are used spark off each other.

It’s good to include one or more of the senses such as sound, smell, taste or touch, and not just what we can see.

Haiku don’t tell, or merely describe, they allow the reader to enter the poem in their own way.

Haiku are ideal for non-fiction observations as a kind of short-hand for remembering events or incidents.

They can be therapeutic and they exercise both the right and the left side of the brain.

Traditionally haiku are rooted in natural history and the seasons, and make us co-conspirators with wildlife, as nature half-writes the haiku before we’ve even put pen to paper.

Haiku have a seasonal clue called kigo in Japanese. Obvious season words are snow for winter and heatwave for summer, but less obvious kigo words like beer for summer and Orion or Orion’s Belt for winter can be used.

Where does haiku come from?

Haiku comes from a “first verse” called hokku they often look incomplete as they originate from a linked verse poem where the first verse is finished by the second verse. They have a special place in the multi-poet, multi-linking verse poem known as renga, or renku, that enjoyed a renaissance in 17th-century Japan.

Japanese writers began to adapt foreign literary techniques in poetry as Japan was opened up to the West. Journalist, writer, and poet, Masaoka Shiki, took full advantage when he officially made hokku an independent poem in the 1890s called haiku (singular and plural spelling) and brought haiku into the 20th century.

Haiku is one of the world’s oldest regularly written forms of poetry, and Basho (1644-1694) is recognised as its foremost poet. In the early 1850s the West learnt of Japan’s incredible art, and Japanese artists were fascinated by the West’s own techniques.

In the 1900s haiku influenced James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Amy Lowell, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Carl Sandburg and William Carlos Williams. R.H. Blyth’s four-volume Haiku became popular from the mid to late 1940s and attracted the attention of Beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac.

Jack Kerouac published The Dharma Bums in 1958, and Trip Trap: Haiku along the Road from San Francisco to New York, with Albert Saijo and Lew Welch, on a car trip across the U.S. in 1959. Kerouac stated:

“A ‘Western Haiku’ need not concern itself with 17 syllables, since Western languages cannot adapt themselves to the fluid syllabic Japanese. I propose that the ‘Western Haiku’ simply say a lot in three short lines in any Western language.”

Ginsberg published haiku throughout his long career and in 2004, at the age of 74, Gary Snyder was awarded The Masaoka Shiki International Haiku Grand Prize for his contribution to the art of haiku internationally.

Richard Wright, novelist and poet, one of the early forceful and eloquent spokesmen for African Americans was lying sick and bedridden in Paris in 1959, when he read Blyth’s four-volume Haiku. The result was 4,000 haiku which he sifted down to 800 and called This Other World. Richard Wright’s daughter Julia believed said they were:

“self-developed antidotes against illness, and that breaking down words into syllables matched the shortness of his breath”

and he continued, she said,

“to spin these poems of light out of the gathering darkness.”

By the end of the 1960s, the interest in haiku could no longer be considered a fad.

In 1985 William Higginson brought out his influential The Haiku Handbook, published by Japan’s Kodansha International. In 1989, Japan’s three major haiku associations, the Modern Haiku Association, the Association of Haiku Poets and the Association of Japanese Classical Haiku, established the Haiku International Association to promote friendship and mutual understanding among poets, scholars and others who share a common interest in haiku from all over the world. Also in 1989 Kevin Bailey from England printed the poetry magazine Haiku Quarterly, now called HQ, which publishes haiku alongside other types of poems.

In 1990, the British Haiku Society was created, holding close links with many contemporary Japanese haiku poets and organisations globally.

Watch the video: Manyoshu Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves (June 2022).


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