The Man'yôshû 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 Ôtomo 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'yôshû, 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'yôshû 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'yôshû 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'yô poets are: Yamabe no Akahito, Yamanoe no Okura and Ôtomo no Yakamochi.