The Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves


A review of A Reception History of the Man’yōshū, by Fusae Ekida.

Most readers of this review will be familiar with the Man’yōshū 万葉集 (c. 785), the oldest and largest extant collection of Japanese-language poetry, from excerpts in anthologies of classical Japanese literature, where the title is typically glossed as “Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves,” and so will find Ekida’s preferred translation (“Collection for Ten Thousand Generations”) to be new. Fusae Ekida’s embrace of this alternate titular gloss indicates two important things about her dissertation. First, it is a summative canvassing of the best Japanese language scholarship on the subject, such as that by Itami Matsuo and Ōtani Masao, both of whom point out that the intended meaning of man’ was, most likely, not “ten thousand leaves” (万葉) but rather the homophonic “ten thousand generations” (万世 or 万代, p. 3, n. 1). In a second, related direction, Ekida’s use of the alternate title indicates her overarching concern with the temporal dimensions of poetry, from composition to collection, transmission, and reception.

In line with the work of Haruo Shirane and Tomi Suzuki, Ekida’s dissertation is very much an account of the dance between poetry and polity known in contemporary scholarly parlance as “inventing the classics.” She argues that the canonization of the Man’yōshū began with the configuration of notions of waka (“Japanese poetry”) in relation to Chinese poetry by the court nobility of the eighth century, and, following Saigō Nobutsuna, she suggests that “the validity of classics emerges exclusively from the juxtaposition or encounter of the past and the present; classics become classics precisely in relation to the inspirations and aspirations specific to each epoch” (p. 4). By focusing on the very earliest centuries of reception history, Ekida provides an important supplement to scholarly accounts of Man’yōshū reception in the early modern and modern eras (such as in the work of Shinada Yoshiaki), thus contextualizing and laying groundwork for our understanding of how the anthology came to claim its place as a literary cornerstone of the (proto-)nationalist imagination. In addition, Ekida argues that, despite the rhetoric of simplicity and spontaneity that has characterized receptions of the Man’yōshū from as early as the tenth century, the collection actually exhibits extremely challenging structures of language, orthography, poetic form, and organization, much of which has been glossed over in the process of the text’s canonization.

Chapter 1 provides a thoroughgoing introduction to the language, writing system, authorship, and compilation of the Man’yōshū, as well as a summary of the current state of Japanese research on the collection which draws heavily on Hashimoto Tatsuo’s work on the compilation process. Ekida also discusses references, variant versions of poems, commentaries, and annotations appearing in a variety of manuscript types. To quote the author:

Old Man’yōshū texts are divided into four categories: muten-bon (texts without transliterations), koten-bon (texts with old transliterations), jiten-bon (texts with subsequent transliterations), and shinten-bon (texts with new transliterations). Old transliterations, called koten, refer to the transliterations carried out by five officials in the Poetry Bureau established by Emperor Murakami (r. 946-967) in 951. Later transliterations, jiten, are works by anonymous individuals prior to the thirteenth century. Finally, the monk Senkaku (1203-1272?) was responsible for new transliterations, shinten, commissioned by Shogun Fujiwara no Yoritsune (1216-1256) in the Kamakura period (1183-1333) (p. 5).

And she takes particular care to examine portions of the oldest extant Man’yōshū text, the Katsura text 桂本 fragment, which is a jiten-bon, for evidence about early stages in the formation of poetry contests (utaawase) and poetic topics (dai).

Chapter 2 explores the oldest extant Japanese poetry treatise, the Kakyō hyōshiki 歌経標式 (A Formulary for Verse Based on the Canons of Poetry, 772), composed by Fujiwara no Hamanari (724-790) and given imperial approval from the court of Emperor Kōnin (709-781, r. 770-781). Ekida’s discussion of Hamanari’s composition, which benefits greatly from reference to Judith Rabinovitz’s work on the treatise, reveals her endeavor to establish a systematic way to evaluate Japanese poems. Among other topics, the chapter includes a useful discussion of rhyme as a poetic tool, documenting early attempts to construct a rhymed Japanese poetry in reference to Chinese practice, and concluding with a frank discussion of why rhyme is not ultimately a successful device in classical Japanese poetry.

Chapter 3 focuses on two texts, the Shinsen Man’yōshū 新撰萬葉集 (New Selection of Man’yōshū, 893) and the Kokinshū (Collection of Ancient and Modern Poems, 905). Ekida reads Ki no Tsurayuki’s famous “kana preface” of the Kokinshū in conversation with prefaces to archaic poetry collections, using comparisons to illustrate the ways in which Tsurayuki rewrites the history of Japanese poetry for his contemporary poetic and political audiences, perhaps going so far as to concoct the very idea that the Man’yōshū was imperially commissioned, thus exaggerating the proximity between Yamato sovereignty and the lineage of Japanese poetry. Ekida provides a translation of the Shinsen Man’yōshū preface in Appendix D.

Chapter 4 deals with the role of the Man’yōshū at the dawn of the medieval Japanese poetry establishment through the debate between Fujiwara no Shunzei and the priest Kenshō (1130?-1210?) launched at the Roppyakuban utaawase 六百番歌合 (Poetry Contest in Six Hundred Rounds, 1193). Ekida places the Man’yōshū at the core of heated poetic debates of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, exploring the ways in which tradition was resuscitated and molded to fit both emerging aesthetic needs and political ends. She engages deeply with Hagitani Boku’s scholarship on poetic contests, and her chapter includes some scintillating blow-by-blow accounts of the flurry of feints, strikes, and parries that constitute the rather pugilistic poetry match of 1193.

For classicists interested in the archaic poetics of Japan, Ekida’s dissertation is most useful for the wealth of material it provides, extending Shinada Yoshikazu’s theses about the early modern invention of the Man’yōshū as the foundation of the national poetic imagination. Her dissertation shows clearly that these kinds of appropriation were already happening as early as the ninth century. For those with broader concerns, Ekida’s dissertation provides an overview of Japanese poetry and poetics before the hegemony of the waka form became absolute. This transition, from archaic poetics to waka-dominated poetics, provides useful points of comparison with the blossoming of poetic forms in later historical periods, such as the innovations of renga and haiku, as well as the sharper breaks with tradition that heralded the birth of free verse-inspired poetics in the modern era.

Charlotte Eubanks
Department of Comparative Literature, Program in Asian Studies
The Pennsylvania State University

Primary Sources

Kakyō hyōshiki 歌経標式 (A Formulary for Verse Based on the Canons of Poetry, 772), Fujiwara no Hamanari
Kokinshū 古今集 (Collection of Ancient and Modern Poems, 905)
Man’yōshū 万葉集 (Collection for Ten Thousand Generations), a wide variety of manuscripts and editions
Roppyakuban utaawase 六百番歌合 (Poetry Contest in Six Hundred Rounds, 1193)
Shinsen Man’yōshū 新撰萬葉集 (New Selection of Man’yōshū, 893)

Dissertation Information

University of Washington. 2009. 210 pp. Primary Advisor: Paul S. Atkins.

Image: 元暦校本万葉集 (Wikipedia Commons link)

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