The collection is divided into twenty parts or books, mirroring a similar practice in collections of Chinese poems of the time; this number was followed in most later collections. Unlike later collections, however, the parts of the Man'yōshū are not organized into topics or ordered chronologically. The collection contains 265 chōka (long poems), 4,207 tanka (short poems), one tanrenga (short connecting poem), one bussokusekika (poems on the Buddha's footprints at Yakushi-ji in Nara), four kanshi (Chinese poems), and 22 Chinese prose passages. There is no preface: the format of prefacing official collections, such as the Kokin Wakashū, developed later.
It is standard to regard the Man'yōshū as a particularly Japanese work. This does not mean that the poems and passages of the collection differed starkly from the scholarly standard (in Yakamochi's time) of Chinese literature and poetics. Certainly many entries of the Man'yōshū have a continental tone, earlier poems having Confucian or Taoist themes and later poems reflecting on Buddhist teachings. Yet, the Man'yōshū is singular, even in comparison with later works, in choosing primarily Yamato themes, extolling Shintō virtues of and . In addition, the language of many entries of the Man'yōshū exerts a powerful sentimental appeal to readers:
[T]his early collection has something of the freshness of dawn. [...] There are irregularities not tolerated later, such as hypometric lines; there are evocative place names and ; and there are evocative exclamations such as kamo, whose appeal is genuine even if incommunicable. In other words, the collection contains the appeal of an art at its pristine source with a romantic sense of venerable age and therefore of an ideal order since lost.
The collection is customarily divided into four periods. The earliest dates to prehistoric or legendary pasts, from the time of Yūryaku (r.?456–?479) to those of the little documented Yōmei (r.585–587), Saimei (r.594–661), and finally Tenji (r.668–671) during the Taika Reforms and the time of Fujiwara no Kamatari (614–669). The second period covers the end of the seventh century, coinciding with the popularity of Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, one of Japan's greatest poets. The third period spans 700–c.730 and covers the works of such poets as Yamabe no Akahito, Ōtomo no Tabito and Yamanoue no Okura. Akahito chiefly among them is resolutely Japanese; the rest freely incorporate and adapt Continental elements. The fourth period spans 730–760 and includes the work of the last great poet of this collection, the compiler Ōtomo no Yakamochi himself, who not only wrote many original poems but also edited, updated and refashioned an unknown number of ancient poems.
In addition to its artistic merits, the Man'yōshū is important for using one of the earliest Japanese writing systems, the cumbersome man'yōgana. Though it was not the first use of this writing system, which was also used in the earlier Kojiki (712), it was influential enough to give the writing system its name: "the kana of the Man'yōshū". This system uses Chinese characters in a variety of functions: their usual ideographic or logographic senses; to represent Japanese syllables phonetically; and sometimes in a combination of these functions. The use of Chinese characters to represent Japanese syllables was in fact the genesis of the modern syllabic kana writing systems, being simplified forms (hiragana) or fragments (katakana) of the man'yōgana.
The Man'yōshū has been accepted in the Japanese Translation Series of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
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