Japanese literature traces its beginnings to oral traditions that were first recorded
in written form in the early eighth century after a writing system was introduced
from China. The Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) and Nihon shoki (Chronicle of
Japan) were completed in 712 and 720, respectively, as government projects. The former
is an anthology of myths, legends, and other stories, while the latter is a chronological
record of history. The Fudoki (Records of Wind and Earth), compiled by provincial
officials beginning in 713, describe the history, geography, products, and folklore
of the various provinces.
The most brilliant literary product of this period was the Man'yoshu (Collection
of Ten Thousand Leaves), an anthology of 4,500 poems composed by people ranging from
unknown commoners to emperors and compiled around 759. Already emerging was a verse
form comprising 31 syllables (5-7-5-7-7) known as tanka. In 905 the Kokin wakashu
or Kokinshu (Collection of Poems from Ancient and Modern Times) was published as
the first poetry anthology commissioned by an emperor; its preface paid high tribute
to the vast possibilities of literature.