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Reiwa era name rekindles fervent interest in 'Manyoshu' ancient Japanese poetry

Books related to the "Manyoshu" collection of ancient Japanese poetry, the source material for the next "Reiwa" era name, are seen on sale at a bookstore in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward, on April 2, 2019. (Mainichi/Akinori Miyamoto)

TOKYO -- Bookstores and publishers are suddenly struggling to keep up with demand for anything related to the "Manyoshu," Japan's oldest extant collection of classical Japanese waka poetry and the source material for the country's next era name, Reiwa.

The day after the April 1 Reiwa announcement, staff at Kinokuniya Co.'s giant bookshop in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward piled a wagon near the cash registers high with copies of the "Manyoshu" -- literally "collection of ten thousand leaves." The shop had laid in emergency orders of the books after the announcement and details of the era name's sourcing emerged.

The move paid off, with some of the volumes sold out by early evening on April 2. Even the Kinokuniya staffer in charge of the emergency "Manyoshu" measures was surprised at the pace of sales.

"It's amazing that the era name change has drawn so much interest in these books," they said, adding, "I'd like to come up with a business plan that hits the spot for classic Japanese literature as a whole."

Jimbocho Book Center, one of many bookshops clustered in Tokyo's Jimbocho neighborhood, had already set up a section devoted to publications on the soon-to-end Heisei era and the Imperial Family ahead of the Reiwa announcement. However, the staff quickly stocked the eye-level shelves with a selection of "Manyoshu"-related texts. One of the shop's local competitors told the Mainichi Shimbun, "We'd like to set up a ("Manyoshu") corner, but we're out of stock."

With bookshops and the reading public hankering for more titles connected with the classical poetry collection, publisher Kodansha Ltd. is increasing print runs of five books by Japanese literature scholar Susumu Nakanishi, a professor emeritus at Osaka Women's University thought to have proposed the Reiwa name. Including all four volumes of Nakanishi's complete annotated translation into modern Japanese of the "Manyoshu" and his "Manyoshu Jiten," an encyclopedic work, the company will push out an additional 11,400 copies of the academic's writings.

"The books are at least 40 years old and generally don't sell well, but they are doing very well, including topping the Amazon rankings," a Kodansha PR official said.

Publisher Chikumanshobo Ltd. is set to print 5,000 additional copies of Nakanishi's "Manyo no Shuka" about the poetry collection's verses, while Iwanami Shoten, Publishers, has also decided to issue more copies of a two-volume set of the "Manyoshu" itself.

"Sales of Vol. 2, in which the characters for Reiwa appear, are doing well, but that's also helping to move Vol. 1. So we decided to increase the print run," said an Iwanami Shoten spokesperson.

Meanwhile, the Takaoka Manyo Historical Museum in Takaoka, Toyama Prefecture -- where 8th century statesman and waka poet Otomo no Yakamochi spent five years as provincial governor -- has been flooded with inquiries since the Reiwa announcement. According to Hideo Shintani, the museum's head curator, "it was the biggest panic we've seen since we opened in Heisei 2 (1990)."

He added, "When I was teaching at university, there were a lot of students who had never studied the 'Manyoshu.' The ranks of 'Manyoshu' enthusiasts were getting old, too, and awareness of the collection was getting pretty threadbare." However, "The 'Manyoshu' is one of the sources of Japanese culture, forming the base for works like (the 2016 animated) film 'your name.' I hope the Reiwa era name inspires interest and affection for the world of the 'Manyoshu' with all its many mysteries, like poems we still don't know the phonetic readings for," said Shintani.

Kokugakuin University professor emeritus of literature Masaaki Tatsumi commented, "The emotion-packed 'Manyoshu' was popularized in a time of war and natural disasters. There was a surge in people who returned to the collection's verses and created their own poetry in difficult times, such as the establishment of a samurai-dominated society in the Kamakura period (1185-1333) and the post-World War II recovery."

Tatsumi continued, "The Japanese spirit and culture have been sustained by the country's classical literature. And now, when our society is rife with crime targeting the weakest in our society, and the government seeks only economic growth, the people are feeling overcome by hopelessness. It is time once again to turn to the 'Manyoshu.' It can even be in the form of manga or lively interpretive texts." He went on, "I would like people to look at the context and background to the poem foreword that Reiwa was drawn from. Then they will see that the kanji character 'rei' is not intended to mean 'admonition' or 'order.'"

(Japanese original by Atsuo Yamaguchi, Kazuki Ohara and Takuya Inoue, Cultural News Department; and Tomoyuki Hori and Kohei Chiwaki, City News Department)

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