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From my understanding, the 万葉集 is written in 万葉仮名 which uses a limited set of characters solely for their 音読み reading rather than for their semantic meaning.

In light of this, I am curious how difficult it is for a Native Japanese speaker to be able to read the 万葉集.

From the recent announcement of the Reiwa era being taken from the following passage:

初春令月、氣淑風和、梅披鏡前之粉、蘭薫珮後之香

I saw that it was also presented in modern Japanese as

初春の令月にして、気淑く風和ぎ、梅は鏡前の粉を披き、蘭は珮後の香を薫らす。

Is the latter a large jump to the former for someone with a typical University level education that doesn't focus on literature such as this?

I was told by an acquaintance that a typical mainland Chinese person would be able to trivially read this passage of the 万葉集. Is this true? I have my doubts for the aforementioned reasons: I believe it uses the characters for their 音読み and should in principle not make sense when read without a Japanese vocabulary and I would expect that any language would have evolved from AD 759 so significantly that it should be difficult to read by anyone. That leads me to doubt that this cannot possibly be "trivial" for a Chinese person to be able to read.

Nevertheless, I am having a great deal of difficulty finding reasonable sources that support or deny the claim.

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    That particular sentence has no 万葉仮名. It is a kanbun, and that's why Chinese people can read it. – naruto Apr 3 at 8:18
  • @naruto I guess that leaves me a little more confused then. Isn't the 万葉集 written in 万葉仮名? I am having a lot of trouble finding much on it because original scans don't exactly allow for using CTRL-F. – JessicaK Apr 3 at 8:22
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    You can search through a digital edition here – droooze Apr 3 at 8:28
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    @JessicaK The poems are written in 万葉仮名 but where they took Reiwa is a headnote to a poem. – broccoli forest Apr 3 at 8:29
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As others have noted, there are multiple parts to the Man'yōshū.

  • The commentary, prefaces, and various other bits of text were written in a version of Classical Chinese, known as [漢文]{kanbun}, and either read as-is using the on'yomi values in a style known as [音読]{ondoku} (literally "sound reading", using the sound values borrowed from Chinese), or interpreted into almost-Japanese in a style called [訓読]{kundoku} (literally "meaning reading", using the native-Japanese words that correlated to the meanings of the kanji and supplying the unwritten particles).
    • The kanbun portions of the text are basically Classical Chinese, so any well-educated Chinese reader would presumably be able to read and understand kanbun.
    • The era name [令和]{Reiwa} comes from the kanbun preface for Man'yōshū poems 815 through 846, as visible here in the smaller text just below the poem number.
    • Your first line of sample text is kanbun:

      初春令月、氣淑風和、梅披鏡前之粉、蘭薫珮後之香

    • Your second line of sample text is the kanbun reinterpreted into Japanese in a fashion similar to kundoku. Notice the particles have appeared, and the kanji are repositioned in a few places to better match Japanese grammar.

      初春の令月にして、気淑く風和ぎ、梅は鏡前の粉を披き、蘭は珮後の香を薫らす。

  • The poems are written in the Japanese of the time using a combination of kanji used for their sound values (the man'yōgana, where [仮名]{kana} literally means "borrowed character", as they were borrowed for their sounds) and kanji used for their meanings.
    • Different poems were written at different times by different writers. Some poems are entirely in phonetic man'yōgana, and others are in a mixture of phonetic man'yōgana and semantic kanji used for their meaning. Here's the start of poem 2, for instance, showing a mix (I've modernized the romanization somewhat):

      [原文] 山常庭 村山有等 取與呂布 天乃香具山 騰立
      [訓読] 大和には 群山あれど とりよろふ 天の香具山 登り立ち
      [Rom] Yamato ni wa mura-yama aredo tori-yorou Ama-no-kagu Yama nobori-tachi

There are two big challenges in reading the poetry of the Man'yōshū.

  1. Simply having all the kanji in one's head. The number of ways you could spell し, for instance:
    子之芝水四司詞斯志思信偲寺侍時歌詩師紫新旨指次此死事准磯為
    And that list may not even be exhaustive. (See also the Wikipedia article on man'yōgana for more detail.)
  2. Figuring out when a given kanji is being used phonetically (for its reading), and when it's being used semantically (for its meaning). For instance, 波 is used in many poems (such as poem 793) for its on'yomi of ha (in Old Japanese, probably pa), for which it is used as a stand-in for the topic particle は. But in other places (such as poem 1068), it's used for its meaning "wave", when it's read as nami instead.

So take from all that what you will. My own take on "How difficult is the 万葉集 to read?" is "very difficult, and not something for beginners."

Additional note:

The above describes how to simply work out the sound values. Add in the significant wrinkle that the Man'yōshū poems were written no later than around 759, some of them possibly centuries earlier, and you also have to factor in changes in grammar and vocabulary since the Old Japanese (OJP) of that era. For instance, が and つ are more commonly used as possessive particles in OJP than the modern の, while modern object particle を was used more as an emphatic, or as a sentence-ending particle to show admiration. Meanwhile, the passive ending was ゆ rather than られる, and modern causative suffix す was instead an honorific. This linguistic drift is a large part of the reason why [古文]{kobun} or "old language" dictionaries exist, explaining the ancient language to modern readers of Japanese. One such example is available online via Weblio.

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