Man’yōshū – the first Japanese poetry collection published in Nara-period (710–794), English summary

The Nara-period was above all the period of Chinese influence in Japan. The name refers to the first permanent capital Heijō-kyō, present day Nara. Already around the 6th century Japan had started to adopt from China practically everything: state institutions, local government, religion (Buddhism) and writing system as well as various art forms. But the borrowing was selective; Japan only took what it wanted and used it in its own way. This was the beginning of a fruitful interaction, the result of which is seen even in the present day in Japan.

One of the reasons for the success of Buddhism in Japan was that this new imported religion never seriously challenged the innate Japanese belief system, later called shintō. The two religions lived hand in hand, the way they do today. Earlier in the blog I have written about the chronicles of the Nara-period, Kojiki and Nihonshoki, but the most famous literary production of the period is Man’yōshū, a poetry collection from about 770, which features waka (和歌), the genuine Japanese poetry form. It was still written with Chinese script but so that the characters were sometimes used to signify meaning but in most cases only the pronunciation i.e. they were used phonetically. This way of writing, called man’yōgana, was very complicated to read and only available to educated people. But it was one step towards a more genuine Japanese writing.

Waka is composed of alteration of lines with 5 or 7 syllables. The best known form on waka is tanka (短歌, short poem) which consists of five lines of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables. Man’yōshū is large; it contains 4500 poems, of which most are tanka, but there are also chōka (長歌, long poems) and others.

It is especially in the form of tanka that the Japanese classical poetry has through translations become known to Finnish reading public. There are several collections that only contain tanka and others that contain tanka poems among poetry in general. The earliest translations date back to the end of the 19th century, but they are rather simple. The real flourishing came when the celebrated Finnish poet and translator Tuomas Anhava started to translate tanka poetry from 1960 onwards. Contrary to some earlier translators, like Marta Keravuori or G. J. Ramstedt, Anhava made the translations from languages other than Japanese but still reaching a high artistic level. Also it has to be mentioned that in his collections like in those of others, only minority of poems are from Man’yōshū, which means I shall return to these collections many times in my future blog articles.

The latest collection of Tuomas Anhava´s poems 2007

Read the whole story of tanka in Finland from the blog article. Please notice that if you read it with Google Translate, the translations of the poems are not poetry! Luckily still a human is needed for that!